"Deep Impact" began principal photography on June 16th, 1997.
In the course of its three-month shooting schedule, the production filmed
on locations in Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland, and New York City, before
returning to Los Angeles to complete filming.
The first location shoot was in Manassas, Virginia. A newly completed freeway
segment, not yet opened to traffic, provided the setting for a vast, chaotic
scene as desperate East Coast residents flee the mile-high tidal wave the
comet's impact will produce -- only to get caught in a traffic jam at the
end of the world.
To film this sequence, over 2,100 extras were enlisted, along with more
than 1,870 vehicles -- cars, trucks, boats, and campers -- spread out eight
abreast, on both sides of the freeway, for over a mile and a half. The soaring
July heat on the blacktop added to the discomfort, but by the second day
there was definitely a good-natured, picnic spirit.
Hidden discreetly in the vast traffic jam were large trucks fitted with
porta-potties and refrigerated trucks crammed with breakfast, lunch, cool
drinks and fruit. Helicopter and personal safety information was passed
out and production assistants circulated with water and Gatorade.
The production next moved to Washington, DC, shooting by the reflecting
pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a key scene with Téa Leoni
and Vanessa Redgrave as daughter and mother. Of her scenes with Redgrave,
Leoni likened them to the game of tennis. "If you play with somebody
who's really good, you play better. And it's easier. You're not running
all over the court and you're not panicked. You just get to sort of relax
in one place and she hits the ball right back to you."
Other locations in the Washington area were the Capitol Building, the roof
of the HUD Building, and the office of Human Resources, which was turned
into the city morgue. A dramatic shot of the mother-daughter confrontation
was shot at the outdoor terrace of the Sequoia Restaurant on the Potomac,
with the Kennedy Center in the background and -- posing a challenge to sound
mixer Marc Hopkins McNabb -- directly under the flight path to National
For the first time in the cities' history, Georgetown and Arlington, Virginia,
agreed to let the film company close down the Francis Scott Key Bridge on
a Sunday. The city's press corps came out in force to witness the chaos
that this bridge closing would create, only to leave disappointed when all
went smoothly. With assistance from city officials and film commissions
on both sides of the Potomac, the public was advised of the closure well
in advance. The local media had underestimated the city's experience working
around the frequent re-routing that comes with the area's many government
and diplomatic motorcades.
The production then moved to New York City, where lower Fifth Avenue at
Washington Square was closed for a sweeping panorama of the residents' last
panic-stricken moments before the tidal wave overwhelms the city. A night
shot in Times Square provided the scene for an earlier sequence in the film,
where a thousand extras stand frozen in fear as they see and hear the President's
speech over the giant television screen on 43rd street.
Other East Coast locations included a marina in Beal, Maryland, and Amagansett
in The Hamptons, where a beach front house doubled for Virginia Beach.
Returning to Los Angeles, a final sweeping dramatic sequence was filmed
near Malibu. Twin tunnels on Kanan Dume Road were used as the entrance to
the Ark, the sealed habitat in which a chosen, fortunate few Americans hope
to survive the devastating impact of the comet. Modeled after the caves
carved into the limestone shelves of Kansas City, Missouri, the tunnels
were fitted with giant, sealing doors. The scene represents one of several
shelters built by the government; each shelter is intended to hold a million
people and a menagerie of animals to repopulate the Earth after the cataclysm.
The two-day shoot required a thousand extras and two hundred animals. Animal
coordinator Jules Sylvester worked with every animal company in the business
in order to get the impressive selection of wildlife that appears in the
scene. "We have lions, jaguars, hyenas, alligators, pythons, kangaroos,
ostrich, buffalo, camels, elephants, zebras, cattle, chickens, birds. And,"
he jokes, "we started this morning with two rabbits."
Sylvester recruited the animals with their individual trainers, as some
of the larger cats in particular have grown up to relate to only one person.
"The only problem we've had," Sylvester reports, "is working
the animals closely with the thousand extras. I find myself saying 'excuse
me, ma'am, could you please not pet the jaguar since he tends to want to
In this scene, only those people selected for special qualifications or
by a national lottery are being allowed to enter the Ark -- while all around
them, those not chosen fight to get in. "In this case, we're trying
in some small hopeful way to preserve our society and our sort of life as
we know it," says director Mimi Leder of the Ark. "In this enormously
grand sequence with a thousand extras, the theme of saying goodbye to our
loved ones - and intimate moments amidst the chaos - is what I found unique
and challenging in the making of this movie."
Filming for the space sequences of "Deep Impact" took place both
on location and on studio sets. The NASA offices at Edwards Air Force Base
were used for the ground sequences of the Messiah space mission that attempts
to deflect the comet. Scenes in outer space were filmed at Warner Hollywood
studios, as well as on Stage 15 at Paramount Studios, the largest sound
stage on the Paramount lot.
Technical consultant Gerald Griffin's major role was to create an integrity
for what he refers to as "the space look." With Griffin's help,
costume designer Ruth Myers created spacesuits closely modeled on an advanced
NASA prototype. The suits, constructed by Global Effects, followed the authentic
details of the next-generation NASA spacesuit while adapting them to motion
picture needs. For the actors portraying the astronauts, the challenge was
to reach a comfort level with working in the heavy, claustrophobic suits,
while simulating conditions known as micro-gravity, a lower gravity than
our moon. "Because of this extremely low gravity," Griffin explains,
"it's hard to set down on a comet because there's just not enough gravity
to hold you. So you have to fly alongside like a fighter jet flying in formation.
But someday this kind of an operation could happen, and we will have the
kind of propulsion and the kind of life support that can sustain a very
long duration mission to a very long distance."
Reproducing the experience of micro-gravity -- where every human movement
has to be carefully planned out and executed -- was a new experience for
director Leder. "The biggest challenge has been shooting an action
sequence in very little gravity," she explains. "The usual action
scenes move really fast -- from this cut, to this cut, to this cut. But
the challenge and the beauty of it here is to make things move in weightlessness."
Blair Underwood, as Flight Navigator Mark Simon, summed up the experience
as getting to be "big kids up there," while Mary McCormack, as
Executive Officer Andrea Baker, describes the weightlessness experience
as challenging, hard work due to the bulk and constraints of the spacesuits.
In speaking of the actors' commitment to their roles, director Leder says
she was "shocked by their good behavior. If you put me in one of those
spacesuits, I'd be whining all the way home. It's difficult to be on the
surface when you're flying people. It's not the same as being face to face
with an actor when you want to keep the emotional content of what they're
doing very much alive."
Griffin, who had acted as technical consultant on the features "Apollo
13" and "Contact," notes a similarity between the movie business
and preparing for a space launch. "I call it chaos with some discipline.
We both work with so many people responsible for so many aspects of the
job that mission control and a movie sound stage take on a similar feel."
Also consulting on the space aspects of the movie is David M. Walker, a
veteran NASA astronaut who piloted his first mission in 1984 and was the
mission commander on three additional flights, logging over 724 hours in
space. Walker, who retired from the space agency last year, says he enjoyed
the job of keeping the "Deep Impact" actors playing astronauts
"The actors are all very anxious to find out what guys like me would
be thinking in situations like they're in," says Walker. "They
also have a lot of questions about zero gravity and how you move and how
you hold your hands and feet." Walker's instructions included the need
for the actors to isolate themselves from the forces around them and to
remember that everything has to be slow and deliberate. "We really
move in sort of a dreamlike fashion in order to minimize excess motion,"
Walker explains. "You can always tell, even real astronauts, the first
time you go up. They tend to clunk around and bump into things. But within
a day or two, you get to where you're much more efficient with your motions."
Walker, for whom "Deep Impact" is his first film as a consultant,
admits to being a little too quick with the Fast Forward on his VCR remote
while he watched films at home. "I didn't understand or appreciate
all the things that go into making a 15-second segment of film look absolutely
perfect. Watching the attention to detail and the professionalism of the
director and the actors and the incredible teamwork of the crew, I watch
movies all the way through now."
Like NASA itself, the film industry has had years of experience in outer
space -- but getting up close and personal with a comet was something new.
"No one's ever landed on a comet before," explains executive producer
Joan Bradshaw, "and we've only seen them with our best high-powered
telescopes. We had to create a kind of view of space that people haven't
seen before," says Bradshaw. "Inevitably visual effects are going
to come into play, because you can't tell a story of this scope without
them. Here they'll enhance the human drama and provide a background for
the whole story to come alive."
Working with the limited research available on comets, production designer
Leslie Dilley based his conception on the knowledge that comets were mostly
ice, water and gaseous materials. "I wanted to create something that
wasn't Earth-like," he recalls. "Many years ago while I was working
in Tunisia on 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' I found this piece of crystallized
sand called a 'Desert Rose' and brought it home. It is multi-faceted and
semi-translucent with blades going all over the place. And it became a pretty
good base for this nasty comet that we're trying to destroy."
Dilley and his team constructed the face of the comet on the Paramount lot's
largest sound stage. A labyrinth of tunnels was built under the set to allow
for special lighting and gaseous explosions, and surrounding the comet was
an enormous fiber-optic star-field.
The reality of the comet and the movement of the astronauts, enhanced by
Special Effects coordinator Michael Lantieri and the Visual Effects created
by Industrial Light & Magic's Scott Farrar and Bill George, provides
the background for the human stories.
Lantieri worked with production designer Dilley and the consultants from
NASA to reinforce a sense of reality on the comet. "You want to be
real careful to keep to the spirit of what we've learned about the surface
of a comet. When the sun starts heating up the surface of the comet,"
Lantieri adds, "it causes out-gassing and chunks start exploding."
The special effects crew created an atmosphere of a gaseous fog and steam
around the comet, going through a million cubic feet of liquid nitrogen
"Our basic philosophy on this," says ILM's Farrar, "is to
try to be as scientifically accurate as possible. We had a think tank session
where astronauts and scientists told us everything they knew about comets
-- comets in space, and what they would project would be the results of
comet impact on land and in water. What kind of composition they are made
of and what flies off them as they travel through space." Farrar explains
that "It'll be our job to provide as realistic a background as we can
to frame the extraordinary, dramatic human story that's being told."
As the "Deep Impact" screenplay was being developed, the producers,
executive producers Steven Spielberg and Joan Bradshaw and director Mimi
Leder brought together experts and technical advisors from the fields that
related to the "Deep Impact" story. While the advanced technology
that will eventually allow for space contact with comets is still very much
in the future, the director and writers were able to learn how this kind
of an operation would work. Carolyn S. Shoemaker, along with her recently
deceased husband Eugene, are planetary astronomers who developed stereoscopic
techniques for scanning films taken with Palomar Observatory's 46-cm Schmidt
camera. Together, they discovered 32 comets, including 15 short period comets
of the Jupiter family (whose orbits reach no further than the planet Jupiter),
and 17 long period comets, rare visitors from the distant outer reaches
of the solar system, including two giants that never come closer to Earth
than Jupiter does. The Shoemakers co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in
a decaying orbit around Jupiter; the comet broke apart and slammed into
Jupiter in July, 1994, creating explosion clouds as large as the Earth.
The Shoemakers worked closely with the filmmakers during the pre-production
Joshua E. Colwell, at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at
the University of Colorado in Boulder was essential during the research
phase and Dr. Chris B. Luchini at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory advised
in the creation of models of the space debris and comets.
Gerald D. Griffin, the former director of NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space
Center in Houston, was the Flight Director in Mission Control who led one
of the teams of flight controllers who were responsible for the safe return
of the Apollo 13 astronauts. "We're trying to help them make this mission
look as realistic as we possibly can," Griffin adds. "Comet scientists
have talked to us a lot and we can infer a lot that we don't know. It's
the best we can do since no one's ever seen one up close."