Magazine article American Cinematographer

Inside the Real Cheyenne Mountain

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Inside the Real Cheyenne Mountain

Article excerpt

How do you shoot a film in a place where everyone seems to be constantly analyzing scopes and printouts, where every other word is classified, and where nothing can be interrupted because it only happens to be the air defense headquarters for North America 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? One look inside the real Cheyenne Mountain, and you quickly realize why the "Crystal Palace" set for War Games had to be built.

Last December, an Air Force film crew went on location to film the story of the real mission inside Cheyenne Mountain Colorado, home of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). The film is an Air Force documentary produced by personnel assigned to the Aerospace Audiovisual Service Headquarters at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California. The crew consisted of a director, director of photography, cameraman, two assistant cameramen, and the sound recordist.

NORAD is basically a system of separate specialized operations monitoring information from world wide sensors, then forwarding the most important data to a command post at the hub of the system. Its main mission is to assess unidentified or unauthorized aircraft and launch detections, and warn the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Command Authorities with timely, unambiguous information as to whether or not North America is under any type of threat that needs immediate response. Unlike its depiction in War Games, NORAD has no retaliatory strike authority, no "WOPR" computer, and no "Crystal Palace."

First lieutenant Nelson McCormick directed the film. "This film is a documentary designed to take you into the heart of NORAD'S Cheyenne Mountain mission, and see how the separate operating centers for air defense and missile warnings interact with the command post during a threat assessment, something they go through about 500 times each year. Since no single Crystal Palace-like facility exists, I decided to work on reenacting the same basic scenario in each center - that of responding to, and assessing a possible threat of some kind, be it an unidentified aircraft, or the launch detection of a missile. I would then have the coverage necessary for the purpose of cross-cutting this action. We had to film the scenarios with people who actually perform these duties at NORAD without imparing their ability to do their job. Doing our job was further complicated by the extra time it took each day to have our vehicles and equipment thoroughly searched prior to entering the mountain. Once inside, we had to be escorted at all times wherever we went; we went everywhere together."

Master Sergeant Jim Wines, Director of Photography: "It was obviously out of the question to request any of the NORAD centers to be shut down for filming. This meant working around busy people in small areas with our cords and light stands narrowing what little space there was. We found it was easier to shoot "mission activity" during the second shift which is usually less busy and less crowded than the day shift. With a five man crew and the basic amount of equipment necessary, we would often do as many as six setups each day. A typical setup would need six to eight lights. Over each individual at scope stations, we would hang Mole Richardson 650s with ceiling grips. To bring up the green light that was reflected from the scopes in front of the person at each station, we covered the ceiling lights with green gels. In order to keep the low ceilings out of the picture, the 6505 with variable spot/flood could be set up out of the frame and pumped up to give us 80 foot candles on our subjects for fill. …

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