How to shoot in tight spaces

Alpha Century tells us what they learned from shooting inside a real Boeing 787 with flight staff for recent Virgin Atlantic promo films.

Shooting inside planes is notoriously difficult.  You can’t use much conventional grip, you need a ton of extras to populate the shots, and lighting has to be rigged outside the windows – twenty feet off the ground.

It is for these reasons that promotional films, ads and even those nail-biting airplane scenes in nearly all Bond films are generally shot in an airline’s training rigs; semi-working cross section models of real planes. With this approach, impossible angles can be filmed since cameras can be put where, in reality, a seat would be. Having a cross-section allows for traditional studio lighting set-ups, giving a generic studio finish to the look and feel of the cabin.

Considering all this, our decision to shoot inside the new Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 – using real staff, serving real food inside a real plane might have seemed rash. Luckily it was a challenge that our director, James Nunn, was up for.

Virgin Atlantic wanted to be authentic – they did not want to put smoke and mirrors in its promotional material to entice potential passengers to fly with their airline instead of competitors. The Virgin Atlantic ‘Dreamliner’ - complete with its crew in their Vivienne Westwood uniforms - was already glamorous enough.

The technical work required  to make a real-life Boeing 787 feel like it’s flying required five key things. Read on to discover what they were.

Use external lighting to recreate the sun

One of most pleasurable experiences of flying is the moment the sun shines through the windows of the plane; its rays casting a heavenly hue across the cabin.

Recreating that moment was going to be problematic since we were filming on a grounded Boeing 787. To get around this problem, enormous amounts of external lighting was hung from the roof of a vast hangar at Gatwick – stimulating the effect of uninterrupted sun usually cast on planes in flight.

Apply the benefits of technology

"The only way to make this was to shoot on location on the real plane," says director James Nunn. "We wanted it to be 100 per cent real: to feel the textures, see the seats you're purchasing and sense the dimensions.

"Even if it was problematic from a filmmaking perspective to track down a cosy aisle or glide across economy seating, we’d find a way – and the M10 movi-rig technology made this achievable as well as giving it a floaty, dreamlike feel. For me the magic is because you believe it, and it feels real because you don’t feel tricked by it."

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Tap a huge cast

You can’t film an airline promotional video without people – a lot of people.

In order to populate the shots, a huge cast was required. Although we wanted to ensure that the film was authentic, it would not make much sense to employ real passengers for obvious reasons - but in addition to hiring actors, we also worked with real staff who were not trained actors.

Schedule efficiently

The Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 was very much like a celebrity. It had a schedule of its own for the myriad of commitments a new plane has to fulfill, with the priority being training for crew. In addition to this, we also had to consider times for press appearances and other promotional activities.

Scheduling when we would film on the Boeing 787 was critical, especially since we needed a series of night-shoots for the film so timing was everything.

Give the end result a Hollywood finish

An airline promotional film wouldn’t be complete without tracking shots of the sky and the views of the airport into the planes’ windows.,

Creating these shots is a big CG task (which was completed by MPC). These visual artists painted vistas from the numerous windows and the myriad of setback screens which do not register on camera without strobe lines.

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