By James Ott
April 25, 2008
AIR HOLLYWOOD OFFERS A FABULOUS TRIP
If you fly with Air Hollywood, expect a new kind of ride, akin to an episode from The Twilight Zone. It starts with the typical boarding call in a passenger waiting area of an airport. As travelers walk into the cabin, uniformed crews going through pre-flight routines may look vaguely familiar. So will some passengers. But the differences start cropping up immediately. It’s obvious that FAA regulations are being ignored. There are no safety instructions in the seat pocket. Wall panels are loose, and the windows are made of ordinary glass. Astoundingly, the aircraft has no wings or a tail — not even landing gear. Is this a rocket ship? Engines roar but are nowhere to be seen. At first glance, the cockpit looks authentic. A closer examination reveals static numbers on back-lighted displays. And, the airplane is static as well. What is moving is inside of giant cameras; celluloid is rolling at 24 frames per sec. and colorful images are being recorded. “Lights, camera, action!” It’s Air Hollywood. This ride, of course, is a fake. Those on board are actors. The boarding announcement is part of a script for a feature film. A warehouse-like studio in suburban Pacoima, near Los Angeles, houses the airport gate area complete with passenger seating, directional signs, waste cans, arrival and departure displays, and X-ray and security walk-through equipment. As a company, Air Hollywood is by no means a fake. It projects the image of an airline frequently seen on television advertisements and scores of feature films. A second studio features cabin interiors for a narrow-body transport, a wide-body aircraft and a corporate jet. Cockpits are either connected to the monocoque structures or stored nearby. One cockpit was used in the classic film comedy, Airplane, that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying right seat. Virtually everything on the sets comes apart at the seams, hence the loose panels, to allow film directors to focus cameras from the top of the cabin or almost any angle. Riveted sections of the fuselage can be pulled way to get a better view of passengers or crewmembers. When most actors sit in the cockpit, they grab the yoke with two hands as if they were driving in the Indianapolis 500, says Norm Jones, an Air Hollywood partner and technical adviser. With a little advice they soon get the hang of acting like pilots. At first, Jones thought the studio’s cockpits looked bogus and would never pass muster, especially with his former airline pilot colleagues. “But when the camera is on them, and the shots are usually only 3-4 sec. long, they look great,” says the retired American Airlines captain. No one sees detail, and the Hollywood people don’t care about it. Jones joined the company as a partner after participating in a 1998 film, “Ground Control,” produced by Talaat Captan, the principal owner. Captan founded Air Hollywood in June of 2001 to capture business as a specialist in aviation sequences. Air Hollywood came at the right time. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government, airlines and airports were reluctant to allow film crews onto secure properties. In 2003 Captan acquired a rival company and is now the only aviation-connected studio in the Los Angeles area. Its slogan is: “Air Hollywood, where filmmakers fly first-class.” Commercials for JetBlue, Continental and Southwest airlines were filmed there, says Robert Shalhoub, general manager and partner. The wide-body set was used in the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill. Uma Thurman stretched her legs in Air Hollywood’s first-class section and drew up a list of victims. The crash scene in the pilot episode of the television show Lost started on an Air Hollywood set. In an explosive decompression scene, actors were yanked out of the cabin on cables. Post-production techniques made it all look realistic. Discovery Channel’s 9/11 documentary, The Flight That Fought Back, about United Airlines’ Flight 93, and aviation scenes from the just-released Forgetting Sarah Marshall were filmed there. George Clooney is featured in the company promotional. In a change of pace, an Air Hollywood set served as a backdrop for a production honoring airplane lessor Steven F. Udvar-Hazy at a birthday celebration. A growing part of the business is stock footage rental. This specialty started in 2003. Air Hollywood personnel located a closet filled with 25-hr. of motion pictures taken by the film unit of Trans World Airlines, and since that time began ApexStock.com, which is expanding its holdings to archival sequences and images of exotic locales and bold or bucolic nature scenes. The show goes on, and the ride is fantastic.