While Jurassic Park is often held up as the pinnacle of ageless special effects, 1995’s Apollo 13 deserves similar praise for crafting a realistic depiction of outer space that could easily stand alongside meticulously created modern space fare like Gravity and Interstellar. In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, here’s a look back at how director Ron Howard brought the real-life story of a NASA-mission-gone-wrong to the big screen.
This fairly standard behind-the-scenes featurette talks through the plot for those who need a reminder. In 1970, NASA launches its third manned mission to the moon with little fanfare from the jaded American public. But that all changes when a quadruple failure (“Houston, we have a problem”) puts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) in life-threatening danger. The astronauts themselves and the support team down on Earth (including Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz and Gary Sinise as Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly) have to race against the clock to figure out how to get the crew home safely during NASA’s most famous “successful failure.”
The most impressive thing about the film (other than its ability to make even the most hardened viewer weep at the inspiration of NASA), is the way it depicts the weightlessness of being in space. Rather than use the conventional method of putting the cast on wires and hoping for the best, Howard pioneered a more groundbreaking approach.
Back in 1995, Mark Bowden wrote about the way the film used NASA’s KC-135 plane (a.k.a. the “vomit comet”) to film scenes of the actors floating in “space.” The plane is normally used to introduce astronauts to the feeling of being weightless; it flies up to 36,000 feet before diving towards the ground in such a way as to briefly counter the force of gravity, kind of like a giant roller coaster. Howard and his actors initially planned to ride it just once for research, but after experiencing the free fall, the director began to wonder if Apollo 13 could be partially filmed in Zero-G by building a set inside the KC-135.
After getting permission from NASA, the biggest hurdle was the fact that weightlessness could only be achieved for 25 seconds at a time before those inside the plane were slammed back to the floor and pinned with double the force of gravity. So the filmmakers had to break down each scene into small chunks and then keep everything organized while they themselves were also floating around. By the time shooting wrapped, the cast and crew had taken 612 flight parabolas and racked up nearly four hours of weightlessness—which is more than most astronauts do before reaching space. According to Bowden’s article:
Howard and his staff broke down the scenes they wanted to shoot into short segments—he has likened them to football plays. Hanks, Paxton and Bacon had to put themselves in position, say a few lines or perform a highly scripted maneuver, then scramble to avoid hurting themselves as the plane pulled out of its dive—all in 25 seconds.
Early efforts were frustrating.
“The actors were floating, the cameras were floating, the cameramen were floating, the director was floating,” said [NASA test director Bob] Williams. “Actors and things kept drifting in and out of the shot. We thought, anybody watching this thing is going to get motion sickness.”
[But soon] camera operators learned to brace themselves with one hand and foot. Howard watched a monitor suspended from a bungee cord, shouting instructions like a quarterback at the line of scrimmage. NASA’s Williams recalled the most difficult shot was one where Paxton (as Haise) spins a small tape recorder toward the camera:
“It kept spinning right out of the shot. Or the camera would drift. They had to shoot it over and over and over again,” Williams said. “But you know what? When I saw that scene in the finished film, in the background you can see Paxton bobbing his head in time to the music. Well, there wasn’t any sound up there when they shot it. I don’t know how that boy managed that.”
Spike has some short clips of all that filming in process, including footage of the cast falling to the floor at the end of each parabola. In it Howard explains, “If we tried to create the weightlessness with wires, I sort of shudder to think what the movie would’ve really looked like.” (Also, it turns out Kevin Bacon does a pretty solid Ron Howard impression.)
Most of the close-ups were filmed on Earth with the cast riding on gently-moving seesaws. Those were then intercut with the full body weightless shots, although the editing was so seamless that even the actors struggled to remember which scenes were real and which were faked in the final product.
In addition to those weightless shots and some CGI, the film employed plenty of traditional effects as well. Here Leslie Ekker and Patrick McClung talk about the detailed miniature work that went into the project:
For those with some time to kill, here’s a really great hour-long documentary (which most of these shorter segments are pulled from) about the making of the film:
And, just for good measure, here’s a documentary about the real Apollo 13 mission as well: