Narrated by Harrison Ford and buoyed by music from James Horner, the National Geographic documentary “Living in the Age of Airplanes” takes on the miracle of flight, transporting audiences to 18 countries and all seven continents to visually capture how airplanes enabled a century of global connectedness.
Production on the ambitious film, which has just been released on DVD/Blu-ray, began back in 2010, when cinematographer Andrew Waruszewski joined director Brian Terwilliger and his skeleton crew of four.
The DP welcomed the creative challenge. He wasn’t new to documentaries — or to travel — as he had just completed several other docs for Nat Geo that had taken him all over the globe. “I became very familiar with the concept of trying to create memorable images with a small production team and very limited gear,” says Waruszewski. “I knew I could handle what Brian was trying to accomplish.”
Shooting a technically demanding film takes a great deal of pre-planning. Even though he had an ample budget, Waruszewski had to limit his equipment to what only three or four people — generally the director, a producer, the DP, and one assistant — could carry. Sometimes they had to hike miles up mountains, trek through forests, and plod over sand dunes.
They learned hard lessons on their first scheduled shoot in California’s Mojave Desert, for which they packed 18 cases of camera equipment, a full set of prime lenses, multiple zooms, a triangle jib, sound equipment, and all sorts of support.
“It worked only because it was driving distance from Los Angeles,” Waruszewski says. “But we quickly realized that if we wanted to continue to shoot with the Arri Alexa camera all over the world, we were going to have to figure out a way to trim the package down to only necessary gear.”
Each pound of weight needed to be critically important to the task at hand. Beyond that, they needed to find a way to pack it all into flight cases and make sure everything was within airline weight limits.
“Once we hit our stride,” says Waruszewski, “my team of camera assistants knew exactly how to pack all of our gear for flights — which cables went in which cases to reach the maximum weight limit — and then how to repack all of those cases for shooting.”
Once in the field, they carried a tripod and head, the fully built camera, a giant backpack of accessories, and a hi-hat camera mount. Waruszewski was constantly battling what sort of equipment they needed to achieve Terwilliger’s vision, while continuing to maintain its manageability for a four-person crew.
After premiering at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, “Airplanes” moved to Imax screens for a 2015-2016 run. Imax was not the original intent, says Waruszewski. Although the producers were planning for a big-screen release, they were thinking of “just a 60-foot screen, not an eight-story one.”
In the end, it was the film’s shooting style that held it in good stead. “We wanted to create crisp and clear visual tableaus that the viewer could immerse into,” Waruszewski says. “We had many discussions over symmetry and balance within the frame, which in the end all translate well to Imax. When we were ultimately approached with the idea of distributing the film through Imax, we were confident that the images would hold up.”