Where exactly do directors and production companies go if they need to film their lead actors in a 747, snag a seat for the President inside Air Force One, or fly some revelers down to Rio in a Lear jet? The answer can be found behind the doors of an anonymous warehouse in North Hollywood, and there’s a big clue when you come through the gates – just to your right is the nose and cockpit from the classic movie spoof Airplane!
For nearly 20 years, airplane interiors for some of the biggest movies and TV shows including the recent Steve Martin Pink Panther,Broken Flowers, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Face/Off, Fight Club, Hannibal, Jarhead, Traffic, The West Wing, Will & Grace, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, ER, Gilmore Girls, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have been assembled, customized and shipped by Aero Mock-ups to filming locations across the country.
Originally from the UK, founder and CEO Richard Chan explained how he first came to America to make up the flying hours so he could qualify for his pilot’s license:
“I was always fascinated by aviation. I was born in Edgeware, and our house was right where the M1 met the A41, right under the flight path of Elstree aerodrome. I got my pilot’s license from there, but after my second visit to America I never really went back again. It’s my lifeblood, and I still always look up in the sky when I hear an airplane.”
All the airplane interiors in the warehouse are from the late 1980’s period – the 727’s and 737’s onwards – and Chan bought his first entire airplane interior in 1987:
“I acquired a 20ft cabin section that was a former display item. My first instinct was to tear it apart and sell the panels, but my then-secretary told me to hold on a moment. She used to be a script supervisor at a studio, and within a couple of months through her contacts we had our first show – and it’s been like that ever since.”
He originally started working in aircraft salvage and accident investigation, but soon found buying and selling aircraft parts becoming more complicated:
“A car alternator can be used in an airplane just as well, but it’s regulated and inspected far differently – it has to be certified. I was set up to buy parts and spilt up inventories, but I was at the lower end – working literally in nuts and bolts kind of items. When they became twice the price, people weren’t buying it.”
He was also lucky enough to acquire two planes from what was known as the “747 stage” at Universal Studios, including the aforementioned Airplane! cockpit:
“There were both pretty knocked up – thick with paint from endless re-decoration for all the movies and TV – and today the longest interior set we have is 150 feet long from galley to cockpit, which is made up of three generations of airplanes.”
Walking into the warehouse is an odd feeling; rows and rows of different airline seats hang from the ceiling, and there are segments of airplane interiors everywhere you look.
There is also a whole wall of airport signs, a row of airplane toilets – including one that has been built larger than airline specifications for “Mile High” scenes – check-in desks, security gates and a whole corner of set dressing props:
“You get a free bag of peanuts or pretzels with every airplane – everything from trays to headsets, all the set dressing, comes as part of the deal.”
Chan employs only two regular contractors and designers because the vast majority of the airplane interiors are based in Hollywood, though they have sets in storage in Vancouver, British Columbia and New York too:
“When an art director or studio calls me, they either have a vague script possibility that they might need a scene on a plane in a few months, or they need a set in New York tomorrow morning. Either way, everything is handled from here. All we have to do is send one of our technicians there on a plane and they can set it up.”
This small crew deals with all requests – with Richard often rolling up his sleeves too – and they work with an ingenious modular system that uses 10-foot segments of portholes (windows) and seats to make up what is required. Alpha sets are fully functional (the oxygen masks come down, the air vents and call buttons all work), Bravo sets are semi-functional, and Charlie sets are non-functional.
Luckily for Chan’s construction crew the uniform look of airplane interiors usually makes any modifications easy, but if there are any required – on the day I visited, a Lear jet interior needed a trapdoor added for a shoot with a monkey the next day – prop guys Danny Kopel and Karl Hollis (another Brit) simply get out the wood, nail gun, drills and spackle and put it together for you:
“Airplane designs we need to keep an eye on, but the smaller stuff – galley items, coffee urns and such – haven’t really changed much in 20 years. Either way, all airplane changes have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Authority, and that always takes time.”
He is especially proud of his newest interior, the Boeing 787:
“It’s so new they don’t even have training mock-ups of it yet, or even a training simulator for the pilots. We were fortunate enough to acquire the actual set that was demonstrated to the Board of Directors at Boeing, and once they signed off on it they didn’t need the set anymore.”
Unsurprisingly, Chan wouldn’t reveal where he gets his planes:
“This is a changing market like many others and inventory can change hands all the time, but I don’t buy individual parts at all. I’ll just see the interior of an aircraft and buy it all – down to every last fixture and fitting. We usually buy the interiors from defunct airlines, such as Canadian Air, whose livery became immediately obsolete when they merged with Air Canada.”
Production companies and studios only have to answer a few questions before Aero Mock-ups can go to work: firstly, which kind of plane you are flying in – a wide body (more than one aisle) or narrow body (just one aisle) – and secondly, what class you are traveling in. The specific airline usually isn’t an issue because slip covers can change the colors of seats, and most interiors seem pretty much the same to the untrained eye.
Once you know that, there is a plan made for how many seats you need. This depends on how far the camera will need to track down the airplane, and access can be made easier thanks to a special 747 “roboset” that can be telescoped in and out to increase or decrease the height of the set. Alternatively, you can simply order an “Aircraft Set In A Box” which has a segment of four airplane portholes (windows) and comes with as many seats as you need – it can be set up in just five minutes.
Whether they are working on a movie, a trade show exhibit, a photography shoot or airline training, sending sets and materials across the country is always a challenge:
“You have to get used to your schedule changing numerous times – from the time you have your cereal in the morning to the time you have your dessert at night. Sets are often weather or actor-dependent, so we often have to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice.”
After passing racks of pilot and stewardess uniforms, two seats from the now-defunct Concorde and some of the cubed blue galley trolleys, I sat down in an airplane seat – of course – in the office and asked Chan about his biggest project, which was for the blockbuster disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow:
“Despite the airplane scenes only being very brief, we shipped four or five trailers all the way to Quebec – that was a huge show for us. Then again a television show might have a quarter page, or there could be the Gwyneth Paltrow movie View From The Top, which was all us.”
As for the future, Chan has some big plans:
“We do over 100 shows a year and I’m very happy to be in the niche that I am in, but if anything, this warehouse will be converted into an airport set. As for the day-to-day, well, any glamour is really just a by-product of the job, but I must admit that am looking to bringing my granddaughter in tomorrow – she wants to feed the monkey a banana!”
You can catch Aero Mock-ups interiors throughout the rest of this year and into 2007 in these movies: Thank You For Smoking, The Sentinel, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, The Holiday, Who Is Mr. Brooks? and The Savages.