Miss Saigon is billed as an epic musical about two lovers torn apart during the 1975 American evacuation of Saigon during the Vietnam War. I saw the show over a decade ago, but I remember only one thing: The big-ass helicopter that swoops in during the second act to fly the American jarhead away from his lithe Vietnamese girlfriend. To get the lowdown on that beautiful, huge, fake flying machine I spoke with Jesse Seppi, whose design firm Tronic (
www.tronicstudio.com ) created the new and improved computer generated copter you'll see in the updated Miss Saigon show playing in town this weekend.
A COMPUTER GENERATED helicopter!? Back in my day we had the real thing, and I had to walk uphill both ways to see it!
[The producers] probably wanted to increase the dynamism, make it a little more intense. Rather than just dropping a big cardboard helicopter straight down they decided to rear-project a computer generated helicopter that when tied in with the audio and the whole experience feels like it comes in, turns around, and lands. It's definitely impressive.
Hmmph. Well, was it hard to make this "computer generated" helicopter?
We wanted to choose a UH1A helicopter, which was really common during the Vietnam War era. We tried to get as much data as we could about the copter, blueprints and whatnot. After that, it's just like 3-D animation; you do a model, you do texture mapping, you do lighting…; We spent about two and a half months on it, but a lot of it was choreography. The way the helicopter moved had to be coordinated with two dozen actors.
I'm sad that digital effects are replacing material things. Comfort me.
I doubt very much that we're going to see [material] things completely replaced. But I'm an architect by trade. I'm not some sort of computer geek. I just care about design. Whatever's the best application for the job is what I'm into.