Living in the Age of Airplanes

A conversation with documentarian Brian J. Terwilliger about the airplane’s gifts to humankind

A Twin Otter seaplane flying over the shallow waters of the Maldives.

In his 2005 feature One Six Right, documentarian and pilot Brian J. Terwilliger captured a day in the life of Southern Californias Van Nuys Airport. With its breathtaking high-definition photography and its unbridled affection for general aviation, the film became a favorite among pilots and enthusiasts. Terwilligers just-released follow-up, Living in the Age of Airplanes, has a much broader focus, examining the way the airplane has enriched humankind in the space of just over a century. Shot on all seven continents and featuring narration by Harrison Ford and an original score by Academy Award-winning composer James Horner, the movie does nothing small. 

I spoke with Terwilliger the morning after the films premeire at the National Air and Space Museum.

Air & Space: You shot this movie in 18 countries, over a period of years. Many other lines of inquiry must present themselves to you, but you’re trying to bring in the film at under an hour. How do you keep your focus on the big picture, no pun, when you're shooting for that long in so many varied locations?

Terwilliger: I wasn’t doing any editing in the shooting process. We just shot and shot and shot, even though I know we’ll never use this. Most of the time I was right: We didn’t use it. But sometimes we did. When you have those options later, it’s a beautiful thing.

Part of it is being open to new ideas. Most of it is planned; we’re going to shoot something specific, at least a location or a few “anchor shots,” like the underwater shots in the Maldives. Those were conceived of ahead of time. But many others, like the shipwreck, were organic. The seaplane is taxiing by, and there’s a shipwreck sticking out of the water. I didn’t think about that until we got there. We saw it in a boat first, then tried to figure out how to get the seaplane close enough, safe enough, to taxi by at just the right speed. We spent a few days just to get that shot. We did a shipwreck dive.

We have 260 hours of footage for a 47-minute film.

The number of 47-minute films you could create from that without repeating one frame of what we saw last night is effectively limitless.

But only a few of them would be any good.

The film is presented in five chapters. Did you always have that structure in mind?

No, that was all done in the edit bay, after we were done shooting. The anchor ideas—like Portal to the Planet, Migration Vacation, Perspective Out the Window, Aviation Went from Impossible to Nearly Perfected in a Single Century—were there. But dividing it into chapters came relatively late in the editorial process. The film doesn’t have a linear storyline: It starts in a graveyard and ends with airport reunions. There’s no beginning, middle, and end. We’re not following a character, there’s no arc. It was really challenging to arrange these concepts in a way that would make sense.

You give it a little framing. We see the same woman with her children looking exasperated in the check-in line at the beginning, and at the end she’s happily reunited with whomever she was going to visit.

That’s all done in editing. In the end it has to be a story. But to make a story where we’re not following something was challenging.

How long did you spend editing?

Four years, from the fall of 2010 until the end of 2014.

I think all the commercial passenger jets we see are Airbus A380s. Was that a condition of sponsorship?

There’s an A380 section. There are just as many Boeing planes in the film, believe it or not. But that section is very focused. It’s the biggest plane in the world. The whole point of that sequence, going from the horse to the airplane, is to show the extreme of it. [The A380] is very iconic.

We tried several sequences there. What ended up working well is that, because the airplane is the same type, and you have all the different airlines from all around the world [using it], we go to four continents in that sequence. When we tied together just random planes, it just looked like a montage. Now it feels more like a cohesive sequence than it did when we used all different makes and models.

Living in the Age of Airplanes has an exponentially broader focus than your prior film, One Six Right, about regional airports becoming endangered.  How do you decide to go from a subject that has a managably-sized frame around it to one that’s basically covering the evolution of the human race?

One Six Right was shot in one square mile, the whole thing, at Van Nuys Airport. This time I wanted to do something epic. The working title for the film was Aviation Epic. That was my mindset. I wanted to tell the biggest possible story in a very new way, about how amazing it is that we can fly.

One Six Right does that in a very pilot-centric way, but it’s not as accessible to non-pilots. Living in the Age of Airplanes is not a movie about airplanes, but about how they’ve changed the world. For a mainstream audience, there has to be a balance. I wanted to reach people who don’t like flying. The ultimate prize would be to get people who aren’t interested in flying, or are frustrated by it, and have them say, “Huh. I never thought about it like that.”

Living in the Age of Airplanes

Obviously this is a short film, but even so, did you consider making room for the case against flying? The environmental argument against it, for example, or the potential for a disease to be transmitted quickly around the globe because of air travel?

The focus of the film is positive. It’s about all the things we don’t necessarily see or know about; making the ordinary extraordinary. The issues you just presented about are in the news, they are talked about, they do get their screen time.  [This film] is meant to take the things we don’t think about and put them front-and-center. The advertisement for the movie is, “It’s a beautiful thing that we’re living in the age of airplanes.” It’s a celebration of that. It makes no excuses.

It’s not a propaganda film. It’s not a Wright brothers film. As you saw, we don’t mention any of the milestones of aviation. It’s very big picture, a 35,000-foot view of aviation.

Right. There’s a shot of a wheel rolling along the ground, and we don’t know it’s attached to an aircraft until it leaves the ground. Then there’s a shot of the shadow of an airplane flowing over the Earth. It’s very poetic.

Thank you.

James Horner is one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood. How did you land him?

He’s an avid pilot, as is Harrison, so he’s very receptive to this kind of story. I had a chance to meet him several years ago. He’d seen One Six Right. I told him I was working on something, and I said, “I’m working on something now, and when it’s far enough along I’d love to show it to you. And if there’s a chance to work with you…” It seemed like a long shot, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.  He said, “Yeah, when you’re ready, give me a call.”

Then two years went by. When we had a critical mass of footage, in the middle of our edit, and I invited him over to the office to show it to him, just for half an hour or an hour. And he stayed for five hours, at our very first meeting. He absolutely loved it.

And Harrison Ford?

Similar story. I didn’t want to have just a celebrity narrator, but someone who really understands what they’re saying and means it, to bring the words to life and make them his own. I needed someone who cared enough and was dedicated enough to doing whatever it takes until we get it. If we don’t get it on the first try, we’ve got to keep doing it until we get it.

We did it over three different days, and were able to edit it and work with it in between, and really dial it in. His commitment level was so incredible. He was unbelievably dedicated and onboard with the mission. After I shared the rough cut of the film with him, which had a temporary narrator in it, he absolutely got what the film was about. He said, “I want to do this.” He watched the film five times before the first day of recording; getting into “character,” if you will.

It’s really a different side of him. We’re used to him playing gruff, tough guys, and to hear him being enthusiastic and persuasive is odd.

I have to ask you this, just because it’s the only other Harrison Ford voiceover track in a movie I’m aware of: The cut of [Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult-classic sci-fi film] Blade Runner, with the narration that Scott didn’t want to add and that Ford famously recorded under duress. He’s actually said he tried to make it so dull it would be unusable, but it’s there in the original, theatrical version of the movie anyway. Have you seen that cut of Blade Runner? Were you aware of that story?

Yes. But that was so long ago, and…this one, he wanted to do. That makes a big difference.

There’s a wonderful sequence where you examine the contents of a kitchen table and tell which country each object on it originated from, which segues into following a shipment of flowers from the time they’re cut to when they reach their destination. How did you conceive of that? Did you specifically want to use flowers, or would any ordinary, perishable object that needs to be transported a great distance suit your design there?

That was conceived very much in the beginning. I wanted to illustrate how the world comes to us; how even people who’ve never flown are positively affected by the airplane. We can order things on the Internet, but the Internet doesn’t bring them to us; transportation does that. Airplanes bring it overnight. I chose a flower because it’s timeless. Every culture appreciates them. They’re affordable to just about anybody. We’re not showing an iPhone or something, although that would be really cool. A flower is just simple. And perishable, is the main thing. They live for 14 days, so there’s a ticking clock. A flower cut in Kenya a few hundred years ago could never leave that country alive.  It couldn’t make it to the border. Now a plane can bring it to the other side of the planet, and it still has 10 more days to live.

Living in the Age of Airplanes is now playing at the National Air & Space Museum and at IMAX and large-format cinemas. A list of venues showing the film can be found at its official site.

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