How did Superman fly across the sky in the movies?

When Superman speeds across the heavens to save Lois Lane or fearlessly dives and swoops around the skyscrapers of Gotham or over the San Andreas Fault, kids really believe he’s flying and many of the rest of us come close to believing, too.

That’s because the moviemakers put a lot of effort into not only getting Christopher Reeve airborne, but making the action of flying and all it entails really convincing, right down to the rippling of wind through his broad red cape.

Getting actors and actresses off the ground by means of camouflaged wires is nothing new. But whereas in the past the flyer was suspended on only one wire and had little maneuvering ability as a result, a new system involves two wires, one from each hip.

Superman wore a fiberglass hip harness, or plastic underwear lined with fleece, and to this the wires were attached via ball-bearing swivel joints. High overhead the wires met a bar with a supporting system of cables and sheaves, operated by hydraulic rams. There, too, was a track along which the wires were moved, conveying Superman around the studio, with some near misses of the sets, landing our hero in a net. The wires were painted blue when Superman flew against a blue screen, and sometimes a completely new background was substituted so that no wires would be seen. A crane specially built for the effect was 250 feet high, and Reeve courageously veered around the studio, often at heights of 200 feet.

Despite Reeve’s exceptional skill at this, something to consider when it is usually inanimate objects we see hurtling through the heavens in films these days, there was initially something not quite right about his flying.

The cape wouldn’t swirl properly and no wind machine was capable of making it do so. Les Bowie, responsible for matte painting in the film, came up with an unprecedented solution. He made a device, controlled by radio, that operated long rods and these in turn were attached by lines to Superman’s cape. Somehow the various motions of the rods could make the cape billow and furl as naturally as clothes hung out to dry on a windy day.

Not only did Christopher Reeve have to fly well, he had to cover distance against a realistic background. This feat was accomplished by a special-effects team which, besides Bowie, included creative director Colin Chilvers, Roy Field, responsible for opticals, Derek Meddings, Denys Coop, and Geoffrey Unsworth.

Sometimes the action shots of Reeve in flight were combined with pictures of models of various backgrounds or still shots of actual scenes. Miniatures and models are used profusely in films, not only for landscapes and cityscapes, Rome in Ben Hur, for example, but also for ships and submarines, for battles and wrecks where full-scale casting would be impractical, and for spaceships—yes, even those in Star Wars were models, drawing on over 300 model kits and costing a mere $8 million to produce. The trick with models and miniatures is to provide meticulous detail and also adequate size to help surmount the impression of reduced scale. Sharply contrasted light and shadow can also help make a small object appear huge on the screen.

One technique of combining the action of Superman in flight with a still of a city (let’s call it Gotham) is known in the trade as a traveling matte. Superman is photographed in action against a blue background. An exposure is then made which, in effect, is a silhouette.

Called a matte, this opaque mask is “bipacked” with the image of Gotham, that is, it is placed in contact with the background scene using a process camera that can hold two rolls of film simultaneously. At first, the matte appears on the background scene as a blank “hole” in the shape of Superman; it moves across the background scene changing shape and position in each succeeding frame. At last the live action of Superman is printed into the space occupied by the matte with the aid of an optical printer. This machine comprises a movie projector and a process camera that face each other; the former projects positive film, the latter negative.

Although its primary use is for making duplicates, it can do all kinds of tricks with multiple images, reverse action, skip frames, and zooms. In this case, it sets Superman aloft, propelling him at speeds clearly evident in the passing cityscape and his wind-lashed cape.