May 18, 2020

How to Shoot a Movie in an Airline Cockpit

How to Shoot a Movie in an Airline Cockpit
The tense mid-air disaster movie 7500 was shot almost entirely in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 airliner. DP Sebastian Thaler explains how it was done.

7500 stars Joseph Gorden-Levitt as Tobias, an American co-pilot on a routine flight from Berlin to Paris. Shortly after take-off, the plane is hijacked, leaving Tobias and his pilot Michael to fend off hijackers while trying to make an emergency landing. 

Apart from an introductory series of shots from the perspective of airport terminal surveillance cameras, the directorial feature debut of Patrick Vollrath takes place entirely in the plane’s cockpit. This stylistic exercise recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or even Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth which used claustrophobic locations to squeeze maximum dramatic tension.

Vollrath and Austrian DP Sebastian Thaler had made the short film Everything Will Be Okay (Oscar-nominated in 2016) trialing lengthy single-camera sequences, which though they didn’t know it then, proved invaluable for tackling 7500.

“For Everything Will Be Okay we had tried shooting in such a way as to give our actors the freedom to move 360-degrees and also to give myself as the camera operator the freedom to improvise too,” Thaler explains. “For 7500, Patrick wanted to achieve a documentary-like approach. All the dialogue was improvised save for some of the technical air traffic commands and we keep the camera running for long uninterrupted takes.”

Similarly, Vollrath decided not to shoot any material from outside the cockpit looking in. “The camera was to always stay locked in with the actors,” Thaler says.

Thaler’s fly-on-the-wall camera work is unobtrusive and all the more remarkable since there were at least three actors and at times more, with him in the confined space of the cockpit for takes up to 50 minutes in length.

The production purchased a real Airbus destined for scrap, and sliced and diced the vessel so that they could manipulate the front third of the aircraft for camera

“The most important thing for me was to give the actors the confidence that they can move freely in the cockpit without being disturbed by the camera,” Thaler reports. “At the same time, I had to make myself as ‘invisible’ as possible despite the spatial confinement in order to allow the actors the space for emotional development. Moving around each other was like a dance. After a few days, everybody instinctively knew how to move and not touch each other during the scene and we found our rhythm. 

Production designer Thorsten Sabel and the art department had to buy or rebuild those and worked with Thaler and his electricians to rig the lights and displays specific to his lighting and color palette

In preparation, Thaler had been granted access to the cockpit of a plane during a flight. “We flew at night since that was when we were setting our story and experienced the space, how it might be possible to move, how the instruments illuminated the cockpit. I took photographs of everything and we used that to rebuild in the studio what we saw in the air to be as realistic as possible.”

The production purchased a real Airbus destined for scrap, and sliced and diced the vessel so that they could manipulate the front third of the aircraft for camera. The segment of the aircraft used for filming included the front galley (food-prep area) and the first eight rows of seats, but it had no flight instruments. The ceiling was raised by 10cm or so to enable actors and crew to stand upright and the cockpit itself was elongated by a similar degree just to allow a little bit of extra space.

Joseph Gordon Levitt 7500

The Airbus came without its instrument panel so production designer Thorsten Sabel and the art department had to buy or rebuild those and worked with Thaler and his electricians to rig the lights and displays specific to his lighting and color palette. The light sources and the practical lights were placed tactically. They were modified and replaced by film lights.

Thaler used the Cine Reflect Lighting System (from The Light Bridge) that diffuses and modulates the light source. Thaler used this to create dynamic yet natural-looking light to intensify the hostage situation.

During filming, a lighting board operator and gaffer watched a feed on a monitor and would fade the lighting in and out in accordance to Thaler’s camera movements so that he didn’t throw any shadows on the actors.

“The lighting conditions in the cockpit were particularly difficult because of our goal to make long and 360 degree takes,” he says. “In preparation, I discussed with Patrick all possible movements  of our actors to understand where we would need some additional practical lights and where we could integrate our film lights into the cockpit.”

During filming, a lighting board operator and gaffer watched a feed on a monitor and would fade the lighting in and out in accordance to Thaler’s camera movements so that he didn’t throw any shadows on the actors.

In a throw-back to old-fashioned special effects, they hoisted the plane on a pneumatic rig that allowed it to be shaken by hand to simulate the plane’s vibrations as it encounters turbulence or makes steep ascents or descents. 

Thaler’s single camera was the compact ARRI Alexa Mini shooting open gate at 3.2k to leave headroom for reframing in post.

His first choice of lenses were Leicas but after finding that they produced a strange lighting effect from the cockpit dashboard he selected a set of Zeiss Ultra Primes and Celere HS Primes. 

“The further the narrative progressed, the more that closer lenses were chosen. I really like to be physically close with my camera to the actors."

He mostly used 18.5mm and 25mm, the longest focal length being 36mm. “The further the narrative progressed, the more that closer lenses were chosen. I really like to be physically close with my camera to the actors. With long lenses you create a noticeable distance between the audience and the protagonist. When you are really just 20 centimeters away from the actor’s face with the lens to catch their emotions, you have to be very careful and empathetic to not cross the line of feeling uncomfortable for the actor. You have to build up trust and a relationship with your counterpart so they let you into their comfort zone.”

Critical to the story’s realism is that Tobias can only see the hijackers as blurry figures on a grainy black-and-white CCTV monitor from a camera outside and above the cockpit door.

This material was shot at the same time as filming in the cockpit. Thaler and Vollrath had rigged three similar POV cameras for coverage but chose to just use just the one.

The first portion of the film features scenes looking out from the cockpit windows to the airport terminal and passenger gate while the plane is parked and then taxiing.

This backdrop is formed of images shot on multiple cameras at Vienna airport, stitched into a single 270-degree panorama and front projected at the studio in Cologne. 

The production shot bluescreen for the plane’s taxi sequence (landing and take-off) and for mid-air sequences featuring the lights of a city. 

As one can imagine, the process was physically demanding. “Each take would be around 40-50 minutes long and we’d do 4-5 takes a day. Any longer was not possible. We broke the script into sequences in the course of which [we knew we would] capture certain emotional moments. After each, we discussed what we could do better or what we missed and then went again.

Joseph Gordon Levitt 7500

“In between each take, the art department would come in and reset everything (such as making adjustments to the flight path dials). In such a tight space with only one entrance and exit, we had to have a strict protocol of art, make-up, lighting, actors, director, and so on going in and out.  It was a very complicated process.”

Co-incidentally, German actor Carlo Kitzlinger who plays the plane’s captain Michael, was previously a commercial airline pilot.

“There was a very nice moment when in the film Carlo/Michael makes the first announcement to the passengers and he said that with the front projection and whole environment that it felt real as if he were flying again.”

7500 lands on Amazon Prime on 19 June.     

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