A I R B O R N E
W I T H S T E V E D R U R Y
Over 40 years later its amazing just how many stories are still to be told from the set of the Superman Movie series. Many of the talented professionals from the era are still with us, some still active in the industry and many with superb insights to share about their experiences.
One such member of the Superman Flying Unit I’ve been lucky enough to make contact with recently is Cameraman Steve Drury. Steve was present throughout the shooting of Superman I & II and granted SUPERMANIA this fascinating interview about his time behind the scenes…
So Steve, tell me what would a typical day in the Flying Unit encompass? How many shots would you average and what was most satisfying about being onset?
Even back in 1978 all technical and creative crew were freelance. I was available for some work on one of the Model units for about a week. It transpired that a Camera Assistant was needed on the Flying unit and I was able to go to that. I can’t remember how long I worked on it – it was right to the completion of filming. I was then called back for Superman II. In those days only the Pinewood staff such as electricians, carpenters, painters etc were full time staff of Rank Pinewood. Of course all studios are now four-wallers with no staff.
Although I was a camera assistant I learned a massive amount about the special effects processes that we used in those days, including the Zoptic system of synching zoom lenses on camera and projector which was used effectively to create the image of Superman flying towards you.
Difficult to remember how many shots per day. Possibly only a couple. It was quite complex setting up foreground action to match the requirements of the script and the background place which of course had already been shot. Basic front projection is just a fixed projector so the background is fixed. Eventually the Zoptic system was developed with a synchronised camera and projector zoom lens. This meant that if Christopher Reeve was facing you and you zoomed in towards him and past him, the projector zoomed too so the background image zoomed also. The effect was that Superman flew past you. As this got perfected everytime Dick Donner the director saw the rushes he would say he loved the shot and that with this development we could now do a previous scene so much better. There was always something to improve on.
Speaking of Richard Donner, is it true he was very scrupulous about flying shots? What were your impressions of him overall?
Richard Donner was a very ‘loud’ American personality. He was a great guy. The flying unit was given a brief and worked under a different director. We would see him at rushes in the morning and he would comment on the shots. As mentioned he would often say as we had perfected a shot that we could re do a previous sequence. Occasionally he would visit A stage when we were doing a sequence with Chris. He was good to work with though. I fully support him not wanting a phoney shot in the film. Some did look bad. On modern say standards CGI is so good but this was the 1970’s.
Sometimes you could think a shot was OK until you saw it on big screen. We used to view rushes each morning in Theatre Seven at Pinewood. It is now called something different. Dick Donner was a good director.
Richard Lester was brilliant. We are used to working with different directors. Very different. A quieter style but really easy to work with. I remember once he even picked up some camera lens boxes for us and carried them to the vehicle. Not many film directors would do that. A real gentleman. I love his work.
What memorable shots/sequences from the Movie were you actually behind the camera for?
From L to R George Beavis (Grip), Dominic Fulford (1st Asst Director), on the rostrum Alan Gatward (Asst cameraman), Denys Coop (Director of Photography), John Harris (Camera Operator) and Steve Drury (Asst cameraman) behind the lens
I was a camera assistant at that time. It was a developing time and we all learned as we went along. I can’t name a specific memorable shot as each sequence in itself was quite special. We part of a team building quite a memorable film.
There was a shot that in its day was tricky to pull off convincingly. After Superman has taken Lois Lane flying he brings her back to land on her roof top balcony. He then flies off and she is quite taken by him. She wanders across her balcony and you can hear knocking on the door. This is Clark Kent calling for her. She opens the door and there is Clark Kent. What many people do not realise is that it is all one shot, that is Superman flying off and Clark Kent walking in. Easy done with cgi these days, hard work back in 1978. The sequence of Superman dropping off Lois is shot normally and with good editing as Lois walks across the balcony Superman flies away. Superman now is on front projection behind Lois. Christopher Reeve in the meantime is behind the front door waiting. As Lois walks across the balcony a small tree/shrub is used wipe to cover the edge of the front projection screen and real set. Have a look. It’s all one shot.
The dam busting sequence might well be my favourite. We had a problem with the 3M front projection screen. The smoke that we used for atmosphere started to stick and effect the screen qualities. It was agreed that it would be washed. They washed it and all the strips moved apart and the screen was useless.
Whilst the screen was being replaced we de-camped to the back lot and shot the bursting sequence of the dam. The initial sequence of actual bursting of the dam was shot exterior with big tip tanks. The later shots where you see the water running down the valley was shot in the studio. In that high shot looking down on the valley, as the water runs towards the rocks that Superman has rolled down the hillside you can see a trapdoor open as the water reaches them. This emptied the mass of water that was required into the tank below the stage.
SFX Technician George Gibbs (centre) gives the stunning Hoover Dam miniature a sense of scale
Was there a sense among the crew that they were working on something extraordinary, or at least groundbreaking at the time?
Yes there really was a sense that this film was going to hit really big. We finished filming then of course the editing and post production continued. As the premiere grew closer there was a sense of excitement as to how big this was going to be. I found it fascinating that right up to the day of the premiere Christopher Reeve was an unknown actor. By the time the premiere had finished he would be a truly worldwide superstar.
And what are your memories of Christopher Reeve?
Chris was a really nice person, and I do mean really nice. Of course when we were working with him on Superman I he was an unknown American actor. He actually needed to be bulked up to Superman size initially, but he worked out and muscled up to Superman size naturally. I wasn’t on the Flying unit from the start. I joined about half way through, so I didn’t see Chris in the costume from the beginning. He was a fairly quiet unassuming sort of chap and was untiring in his efforts to fit the role. He worked really hard.
It was really strange working with him as an unknown actor, knowing that immediately on the film’s release he would be rocketed to super stardom. At the Oscars ceremony for Superman I receiving a special effects Oscar my immediate boss, Director of Photography in his acceptance speech summed it all up when he spoke of Chris, “Christopher Reeve…..what a Super Man”
When we all gathered to start on Superman II Flying Unit, I was intrigued to see how Christopher Reeve would be, now having nearly a year of super stardom. For us, No change. He was so glad to be back with familiar crew working with him to make No. II a success. He was still really great to work with.
Having to spend hours strapped in the harness on a pole coming out of the front projection screen was really hard. There were multiple costumes and of course ones used for front screen projection had velcro tear away sections to fit the pole arm, also to accommodate front projection rigs, wire harness for the occasional flying on a wire and the blue screen process. He never ever complained once.
Director Richard Donner oversees Christopher Reeve in flight at Pinewood
Did Superman II present bigger challenges with more actors in the air? What do you remember of Terence Stamp & Co?
I wouldn’t say that Superman II presented greater challenges as I remember. If I remember correctly we just used the one Zoptic rig for front projection which had synched zoom lenses on camera and projector. On Superman I we had that and also a basic rig with a fixed projector lens. With that system you could not film convincing flying shots with Superman flying towards or away from camera. On Superman II the Zoptic rig was a little more refined. With more actors in the air, if I remember correctly they were done on wires.
The sequence where General Zod and accomplices throw buses around on the streets of Metropolis was shot at night on the back lot of Pinewood studios. The main street of Metropolis was built full scale in the foreground up to two or three storeys and then built with diminishing perspective into the distance down the street. For wide shots seeing off the top of the set, film of real buildings would be added in post production. Lots of wire for the flying and hydraulics to move busses.
Occasionally both model unit and flying unit crews would be utilised to film additional shots/scenes for main unit.
All three of the villains were good to work with. I do particularly remember that Jack was a nice guy, a bit of a gentle giant off camera. Did have the hots for Sarah Douglas but that is another story!
Did you work with any of the Stuart Freeborn/Colin Chilvers/Derek Meddings flying miniatures? How often were they utilised?
Stuart Freeborn worked with Chris Reeve as I remember. Don’t recall much about him. Colin Chilvers was a Special effects co-ordinator. I remember him well but trying to remember for sure the things he did that I was involved with.
I am pretty sure that he would have designed all the tip tank systems for the dam bursting sequence. I do remember some other rigs he designed but cannot remember what they would have been used for.
Derek Meddings was an established Special model effects designer and director. He spent years working with Gerry Anderson’s productions. There was a whole Model Unit which he directed. Sometimes more than one model unit. Paul Wilson was Director of Photography, Johnnie Morgan camera operator and Jonathan Taylor and Denis Borrow camera assistants. Model were widely used. Often filming at 120fps which slows the movement down by 5 times. It helps give the illusion of size and weight to the models.
This is a a still taken on the Superman II Metropolis Set miniature with its Academy Award-Winning crew. What can you tell us about it?
The BAFTA and Academy Award-Winning Special Effects team converge on the Metropolis miniature for Superman II
This was the Model Unit. Fourth person on the left Jonathan Taylor, a follow focus cameraman and son of Gil Taylor who was DoP on Star Wars. First seated, Paul Wilson Model unit DoP, second seated Derek Meddings special effects supervisor. He also did Thunderbirds and all of Gerry Anderson’s projects. Just to the left and behind Derek Meddings is Johnny Morgan. Back row to the left of the guy in glasses is Denis Borrow, assistant cameraman. The guy on far left was a Pinewood staff electrician. I can’t remember his name.
What were your thoughts when you saw the finished film for the first time? Similarly with Superman II
It was a long slog in production and if course after shooting was complete there was a long post production editing process. We were notified of the premiere date and special screening for all those who worked on the film of which there were masses. The special screening was also in Leicester Square if I remember correctly. It was good to meet up with many of the crew. There was great anticipation on the film and it did not disappoint. Considering the technology available at the time it did very well. To adopt the publicity phrase, you did believe a man could fly. The premiere was very well received and suddenly Christopher Reeve was a superstar.
When the Baftas and Oscars came along there was great hope for awards and we were not disappointed. Sadly I was not at either ceremony.
Talk us through a sequence in either film you worked on that you were especially proud of and why
With regard to being particularly proud of any sequence, I was just part of a team. I did enjoy the dam bursting shot on the back lot and also the matching flooding of the valley which was a massive set built in the studio. Quite an engineering feat getting the tip tanks inside to dump the water to cause the rushing flood.
We shot it on the back lot at Pinewood. As I remember we, the Flying unit were main cameras as we were not shooting on A stage as the front projection screen was being replaced. It was a welcome change from the studio. We had extra cameras some of which we operated ourselves (Flying unit) and others operated by additional crew brought in and possibly some from one of the model unit crews.
Amazing that I was on the crew that did that. Was only because we were out of A stage due to projection screen problems. I didn’t do scene with Jimmy Olsen as he fell and was rescued. That was main unit.
“Bob Bridges (Video Assist) at the back of the Avenger car. These photos were taken when we, as the Flying Unit went to the Backlot to film the Dam bursting sequence, due to problems with the front projection screen on A Stage. You will see part of an aircraft wing. This would have been from the sequence when Air Force One was hit by lightning and an engine fell off…”
Did you have any involvement with Superman III or IV? What projects did you work on next?
After completing Superman I I worked on commercials, which was something most feature film crews did. I agreed to work on Superman II as principal crew on Flying Unit, again as a camera assistant. I declined Superman III as I wanted to work on other projects. I found that I enjoyed the more variety of working on commercials. It also allowed me to work in other areas of the industry doing documentaries, pop promos and other TV work. The industry went into severe recession in the early 1990’s with more people looking for less work. Much as I enjoyed the industry it was undergoing change. As I couldn’t see any recovery for a long time, I decided to change career. I took up my other passion which was flying. I had been a private pilot since 1984 so retrained as a professional airline pilot. Since 1993 I have worked as an airline pilot.
Steve Drury – Thank you very much for speaking with me!