Robbie Maddison and DC Shoes Go Cinematic
Story by Chris Kinman
Photos by Chris Kinman, Donn Maeda, & Garth Milan
Four A-10s rip the sky in half as our rental car creeps through the gates of the airplane graveyard in the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. In a split second we are witness to an entire evolution of flight. With the pinnacle of technology and advancement soaring overhead, we stand engulfed in the memory of flights past, a virtual cemetery of fuselages, propellers, and ejector seats. Acres of old war birds, passenger jets, and cargo planes lie in poetic disarray juxtaposed to the perfectly lined fighter jets standing at attention on the adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. And as much as we could have allowed ourselves to be whisked away into a dissertation of social commentary and the parallels of the pursuit of flight and the ultimate search for meaning and existence, we are there to witness something far more creative.
Not unlike Howard Hughes and his pursuit of the perfect flight experience, Robbie Maddison has sought the ultimate project to celebrate his ability and prowess on a motorcycle. What started as a racing career evolved into a freestyle motocross venture, which then led to one-off daredevil stunts for a worldwide audience. As of late, Maddo has parlayed his skills into the moviemaking world, his latest venture being Skyfall where he performed the impressive stunt work for the film’s opening action sequence. Still seeking the grail, however, Maddo wallows in the recesses of his mind for inspiration and ideas. Now, with DC Shoes at his side, Maddo is translating his imagination into reality.
Inside the chain-link fencing that cages the grounded birds, a small army of video production workers scurry about, sighting shots, moving dirt, equipping camera mounts. Under the shade of a Red Bull branded tent, Robbie Maddison lies face down on a massage table. His chiropractor, H. Rey Gubernick, works his shoulder, a shoulder that dislocates frequently. With a long-spanning career of freestyle motocross and stunt work comes nagging injuries. His shoulder is just one in a list of damages, but this one is most recently ailing; just days before, it had popped out during a meeting with DC and its video producers. Still sore, Maddo readies himself for a grueling day of shooting.
He appears calm for a guy with a giant production crew in his peripheral preparing to film him perform unimaginable tricks aboard his motorcycle. He cracks a smile as his son Cruz kicks at the dust a few feet away. Minutes later, production managers and directors begin barking the plan of attack. The flight stairs are first, followed by the turbine whoops. Red cameras are mounted, second angles are planned, and Maddo’s dirt bike is started. It’s time to start practicing. Weak shoulder and all, Maddo gears up and mounts his machine. Time to go to work.
The effort involved in creating a cinematic feature like Air.Craft is astronomical. Well before a bike is kicked over and the cameras’ red lights illuminate, countless hours of planning and setup are required; everything from storyboarding the shots, to acquiring permits, to moving dirt and planes. For weeks, DC and its video production crew dialed in the shoot, although a large element would still be subject to the spontaneity of Maddo himself. In the next few days, Maddo will use the airplane yard as his canvas, his dirt bike his paint brush.
Surprisingly, the airplane graveyard wasn’t the first setting conceptualized. In fact, numerous places were scouted, some more than once, before the aircraft concept came to fruition. “First, we were all thinking of LA because we were all here and it’s close,” Maddo tells us. “LA, though, has become a permit-crazy town, so there was no way it was going to happen. So then we are like, ‘All right, next best place: Mexico. No permits!’ We actually went to Dubai, too, and we scouted for months. We took the whole crew and looked at all different stuff. We did CGI [computer-generated imagery] versions of what it would look like in Dubai and we pieced it all together. We kind of had it all built for Dubai. Then we saw the price to get the permit for just one stunt and it was like a million dollars. And we were like, ‘All right, this ain’t happening in Dubai, either.’”
As they discovered, the more urban the locale, the harder it would be to coordinate, choreograph, and ultimately execute their vision. Thus, the airplane field soon found its way onto the table, along with some other abandoned areas in and around Tucson.
“To find the airplane field has been a long, long road. We’ve traveled the world to look for this spot. We looked at a bunch of different abandoned places and sites on the West Coast and the East Coast, and even Central America. The graveyard for the airplanes just kind of, well… We knew it was out there and we went and scoped it out. While we were scoping the airplane field out, I looked at airplanes and I started masterminding what can we actually do.”
Quite a few tricks have been choreographed, but they serve as rising action to a climactic drop-off finale. A stack of shipping containers and a crane holding yet another container will help set the stage for Maddo’s final stunt. Stunt coordinators, physicists, and Maddo’s own intuition will combine to calculate the proper angles, speed, and distances required for success and safety. The drop-off stunt is nothing new for Maddo. On New Year’s Eve of 2008, Maddo stepped up, and back off of, the Arc de Triomphe in Las Vegas, Nevada, in front of thousands and a global television audience. But while they shared similarities, this drop-off would be a whole new endeavor.
“I am swaying in the wind, and it is just a lot different this time. I mean, I’ve got cranes around me, wires,” Maddo recalls. “I’m hanging way above the ground, and I can see my wife and my two-year-old son down there playing with a toy dirt bike in the dirt. How bad would this be if the old man dies? He’s down there playing with the dirt bikes, and I’m like, ‘Why am I in this position,’ you know? And I think to myself, ‘What the f—k am I doing up here on this crane?’ And I come to the realization that makes it so much easier. I’ve worked my whole life to get into this position, to have these sponsors and to be in this position, and to get this opportunity. Realizing that I’m in the right place at the right time, and this is meant to be. I am able to turn the fear off. This is gonna work out.” It’s this ability to both realize the magnitude and potential consequence of his stunt, as well as maintain the confidence in himself, that sets Robbie Maddison apart. He knows the risk, but he also knows he can execute.
For two days, from dawn until dusk, Maddo jumps over planes, nose-wheelies across moving flatbed trailers, manuals fuselages, and drops from a shipping container suspended high in the air. The rest of us watch in awe as Maddo weaves together an amalgamation of improv and calculation. The cameras roll, the wheels spin, and the fallen airplanes experience one last flight. This is Maddo’s Air.Craft.