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NEW YORK TIMES — In Hollywood, Flights of Fancy


Original Story

NEW YORK — In a series of warehouse-size buildings, a few miles from the Burbank airport in Southern California, travelers crowd through airport terminals and stow their luggage in the overhead bins of airliners that never take off.

If the passengers occasionally engage in histrionics, however, it’s not out of frustration: It is because the hangars and all the airline-related accoutrements in them belong to Air Hollywood — one of several studios where filmmakers go when the storyline calls for air travel.

When Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane went for his interview with the Boston Red Sox in the business-of-baseball film “Moneyball,” he was on an Air Hollywood flight — as was Tom Hanks playing a U.S. congressman in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

From the comedy “Bridesmaids” to the suspense-filled “Red Eye,” more than 500 films have been shot in the studio since it opened in 2001, according to Air Hollywood’s chief executive, Talaat Captan.

“There’s so many movies you never think about, people say, ‘There’s a plane in that movie?”’ Mr. Captan said.

While surveys show that real-life passengers are increasingly frustrated with crowded airplanes and airport hassles, Air Hollywood and companies offering similar services report no downturn in business. In fact, travel angst is providing new story lines for the film industry.

The Air Hollywood fleet consists of eight airplanes, both narrow and wide bodies that, with a little doctoring, can be made to look like any one of a number of airliner models, though the company’s set designers have not, so far, recreated the Boeing 787 Dreamliner with its large windows or the double-decker Airbus A380.

“It takes an airplane manufacturer 15 years to design an airplane. We can replicate what it looks like in 15 weeks,” Mr. Captan said.

One thing Air Hollywood cannot offer is an airplane crash — and sometimes that is just what a director wants.

Enter Scroggins Aviation. Early in the season in the American television show “The Event,” a Boeing 767 goes down in the desert. To achieve the aftereffect, which is featured in two episodes, Scroggins, based in Las Vegas, sawed an airliner into pieces and transported them 320 miles, or 515 kilometers, on 12 trucks before reassembling the plane at Pinnacles National Monument in the California desert.

For this project, the chief executive of the company, Doug Scroggins, called on his unusual experience as both a dismantler of airplanes for a salvage firm and as a film producer.

“Right now I’m devoting all my attention to the film industry,” Mr. Scroggins said in an interview.

That includes working on television shows and on the director Robert Zemeckis’s new movie “Flight,” which is scheduled to be released in November — starring two McDonnell Douglas MD-80s and Denzel Washington.

Mr. Scroggins’s most challenging assignment to date was building the Boeing 707 flight deck featured in the short-lived television series “Pan Am,” a celebration of the glory days of air travel. The cockpit had to open like a clamshell to allow the filming of the pilots and the flight engineer at work. Every dial, gauge and breaker panel was checked for authenticity, Mr. Scroggins said, especially since the cockpit structure was really that of a Boeing 727.

“It was a major job,” said Mr. Scroggins. “It was a big, big job. We made sure that the thing was 99.9 percent accurate. That’s how confident I felt about the build. I tell a lot of guys it was a 727, and they can’t believe it.”

But building an authentic interior is often not enough: To create the effect of a plane crashing — as in “The Event” — or to add a static airplane to the scene of a busy airport tarmac — as needed for some sequences in Pan Am — takes sophisticated digital photographic techniques, said Sam Nicholson, chief executive of Stargate Studios, which specializes in visual effects and virtual environments.

A frequent flier himself, Mr. Nicholson said he enjoyed the challenge of trying to recreate the world of aviation circa 1960 with digital special effects.

“I like flying. I like traveling, and I’m glad every once in a while a movie comes along that wants to do it perfectly, historically real,” he said of the scenes in “Pan Am.”

“They are a completely computer-generated environment based on historical photographs rendered by computer,” he said. “What we do looks like a plane and feels like a plane, but there’s nothing there.”

It is just the opposite approach at Air Hollywood. To accommodate the range of demands for movies, television shows, commercials, even promotions for airlines, everything must be physically on hand: airliners; first- and coach-class seats; and a warehouse of check-in counters, meal trolleys and metal detectors.

By Mr. Captan’s estimate, $3 million worth of props are housed in five buildings with 100,000 square feet, or more than 9,000 square meters, of space.

Very soon, Mr. Captan plans to branch into a new line of business, opening the studio to public familiarization classes aimed at taking some of the stress out of the airport and airplane environment for potentially anxious passengers — not necessarily human.

The first session starts this month when 50 puppies, destined to become help dogs for the blind, will be given an eight-hour schooling in simulated air travel. The program will be expanded in October with a two-day class for people who suffer from fear of flying.

With a team that will include pilots, flight attendants and airplane mechanics, Mr. Captan aims to convince his students that flying is safe, no matter what they may see at the movies.

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