‘Sully’ Cinematographer Reveals How Clint Eastwood Landed a Plane in the Hudson River

Tom Stern's cinematography included location work in New York that combined with footage shot at Universal Studios.
Keith Bernstein
Tom Stern, Clint Eastwood

How to film an authentic version of the "Miracle on the Hudson" — the Jan. 15, 2009 event when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided his disabled Airbus into New York’s Hudson River, saving all 155 lives on board?

Clint Eastwood, working with his longtime cinematographer, Tom Stern, considered various ways of recreating the landing and rescue effort for their new film Sully, which opens today.

“Initially there was a thought to put a wing in the Hudson, but then the Hollywood guys had a meeting with a N.Y. tugboat captain, who said 'well you could do that but it will rip right off.’ It turns out there’s a 5-knot tide that blows in the river. Anything you stick in the river is going to take off," Stern reveals.

“So we used ferryboats and created an empty void where the plane would be composited," he says. “We shot mid-Hudson for three or four days. It was lightly overcast, and we were fortunate because that was what it was like [when the event occurred]."

The rescue itself was then filmed back in Hollywood. Images shot on the Hudson were combined with footage of an actual airplane — the production bought two retired Airbus A320s that were used as sets — that was set down in Falls Lake, the artificial lake on the Universal Studios lot that was first created in 1926 for a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The plane “was dragged up on a flatbed trailer,” Stern recounts, adding that it was then placed in the water on a 350-ton gimbal. (The visual effects, combining the two locations, were led by VFX supervisor Michael Owens and lead VFX house MPC).

The only problem was the California light didn't match the look of what had been captured back East. So the airplane was put under a large silk that was hung from a construction crane. "For the lighting itself," says Stern. "We built a harness that hung above the airplane, with light coming in the windows for the interiors, but they had to be soft lights."

With an Imax release in mind, Stern  an Oscar nominee for Eastwood's Changling  chose to use a model of the new large-format Arri Alexa 65 digital cinematography camera that was developed with additional software from Imax, via an Arri/Imax partnership.

And he put the camera through its paces, taking advantage of New York locations that included The George Washington Bridge, Pier 81 near the Intrepid and La Guardia Airport.

Stern gave the Arri/Imax camera system high marks, saying it was a "very positive" production experience.

Adding to the authenticity, Captain Vincent Peter Lombardi, who had commanded the Thomas Jefferson ferryboat during the actual incident, plays himself. And Officer Michael Delaney and Detective Robert Rodriquez, both of the NYPD SCUBA Air/Sea Rescue Unit, contributed stunt work by jumping out of a helicopter as they would in a real emergency.

Despite the more challenging aspects of the production, Stern emphasized that Eastwood’s focus was always on character and performance. “His sets are famously quiet. He obviously has a lot of experience as an actor and he knows what bothers actors. We respond [by making sure] we don’t distract them," he says. "The joke is ‘one-take Clint,’ but he does as many takes as he feels is necessary, though he tends to like the spontaneity of early takes. I understand this. In real time the honest reaction is sorting out [a situation].

“Clint also gets lit up about people second-guessing people — that’s the difference between the spectator and the participant. And he’s always embraced the participants. That's probably what drew him to this material.”

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