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Africa Desert Is Bad Guy in "Flight of the Phoenix"

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
December 17, 2004
 
"Location, location, location" may be the mantra of real estate agents.
But it also holds true for Hollywood filmmakers like John Moore, the
director of the new action-adventure flick The Flight of the
Phoenix.


"I'm a big believer in locations," the Irish director said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I don't want to shoot in studios. Then it becomes a job and not an adventure."


But as the world grows smaller, exotic locales may be harder to come by. For his movie about a group of plane-crash survivors stranded in Mongolia's Gobi, Moore needed a boundless desert landscape untouched by humans.

With the real Gobi bureaucratically off limits, Moore found what he was looking for half a world away—in the vast sand dunes of Namibia on the southwest coast of Africa.

"We had to sell the idea that in the world today, which is filled with GPS and cell phones, you can still get lost somewhere," Moore said. "The physical challenge was to find a place like that."

Vastness

In the movie, which opens today in theaters across North America, the survivors of the crash—facing a dwindling supply of food and water and realizing that their chances of being rescued are slim—decide to build a new plane from the undamaged parts of the wrecked cargo plane.

Moore scouted locations in Morocco and Australia before settling on Namibia, which has the oldest and highest sand dunes in the world. The Namib Desert stretches for hundreds of miles along the coast.

With fewer than two million people in a country larger than Germany and the United Kingdom combined, Namibia is the most sparsely populated country in the world.

"As soon as we got there I knew that's where we needed to be," Moore said.

Ironically, the location that Moore decided to use for the crash site, where most of the film takes place, was only a 20 minute-drive from the coastal town of Swakopmund.

"We wanted the film to feel like [the characters] were lost at sea," Moore said. "We used a lot of aerial shots to constantly remind people that it was like looking at a little raft floating in the vast ocean."

Moore says the desert is like the movie's bad guy.

"The idea is that if you turn your back on the desert or disrespect it for a second, it will kill you remorselessly," he said.

Shifting Dunes

Guy Nockels, the movie's production manager, can attest to the unforgiving nature of the desert. A South African native who now lives in Swakopmund, he manages Namib Films, the only location-services company in Namibia.

"Physically, the desert is daunting," he said. "There are areas, like the dune sea that runs 900 kilometers [560 miles], where there's not a single person. You go in there and you're alone. If you're not prepared for an emergency and something happens to you, that's the last anyone will ever see of you."

The proximity of the set location to the sea meant the filmmakers enjoyed a cool breeze and did not have to endure the hot temperatures experienced farther inland.

But shooting in the desert presented other big challenges.

The sand constantly found its way into cameras and electronic equipment. Ever shifting sand dunes changed the landscape of the crash site and made it almost impossible to maintain visual continuity during the laborious process of filming scenes. A couple of hundred people were employed as "dune groomers."

The crew had to be channeled along special pathways to avoid leaving footprints that might make their way into a shot. This turned tasks like moving equipment into a nightmare.

"It's similar to working on water," Nockels said. "You can't just run somewhere quickly and pick something up."

Morning Mist

Crew members even had to build—and remove—temporary airstrips out of gypsum (a mineral found aplenty in the Namibian desert) and salt water on top of the desert floor.

The wind was another formidable foe. In the movie the characters erect part of an old parachute to make shade for themselves. While filming, the wind would get a hold of the 50-foot-by-50-foot (15-meter-by-15-meter) parachute and tear it apart.

"It became the most expensive prop in the world, because it would cost us hours and hours of filming because we would have to reset it all the time," Moore, the director, said.

Then there was the morning mist coming off the Atlantic Ocean, making it impossible to start filming before 10 a.m.

Still, Moore says he loved the experience.

"When you get a cast and crew together in one spot and it feels and looks and smells and is the thing you are trying to create, that really helps the movie," he said.

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