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

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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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