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Unlocking the world

How the airplane changed us—through a filmmaker’s eyes

Terwilliger is the young filmmaker who highlighted general aviation in his first film One Six Right, about Van Nuys Airport where he learned to fly.

Have you seen the Mona Lisa? The real thing, not a print or a photo. Stood there in the Louvre, in France, and puzzled at her enigmatic smile? That’s a question filmmaker Brian J. Terwilliger poses to viewers of his latest film Living in the Age of Airplanes.

Which makes you ask—what’s the Mona Lisa have to do with airplanes?

A portal to the planet

“Here’s a crazy idea,” Terwilliger says. “Imagine walking into a building where inside there are a series of doors—depending on which one you enter, you end up somewhere else in the world. Maybe Tokyo or Buenos Aires.” Or in the case of the Mona Lisa, France. The airplane, he says, takes us places that we once never knew existed. What was once a migration is now a vacation.

Terwilliger is the young filmmaker who highlighted general aviation in his first film One Six Right, about Van Nuys Airport where he learned to fly. He was just a teenager when he got his pilot certificate and has been fascinated about aviation ever since. Well, maybe more than fascinated—passionate might be the better word.

The reaction to One Six Right was so great and so many in the general aviation world are so enamored with that film, Terwilliger could have sat back and used that success to be a GA ambassador and simply point to that achievement. He in fact pondered the “what next” question for quite a while.

But he discovered that his passion for aviation went beyond a love of flying. He found himself looking at aviation as a “marvel.” And he challenged himself to be as ambitious as possible and to tell a story as big as he could tell. “The airplane has changed our lives forever,” he says. “Yet, for many, flying has gone from fascination to frustration. Turning that around became the paradigm for the film.”

Terwilliger calls aviation the “tipping point of unbelievable change” in the world. When he started to think of how the airplane changed the world, he had his idea for his next film. Living in the Age of Airplanes took him five years to film, across all seven continents and through 18 countries on 95 locations. He wrote the script and worked as one of the small six-member crew.

Not yet explored

It fascinated Terwilliger that, prior to the invention of the airplane, there were still places in the world that were marked on maps as “not yet explored.” And, he says, the airplane has redefined the word “remote.” His film captures the idea that the airplane has unlocked the world.

To dramatize how remarkable it is that air travel has made the world accessible, Terwilliger wanted to search out and find the most exotic places on Earth. “Capturing the most beautiful images was very important to me,” he says. To achieve the soul-stirring and jaw-dropping images he wanted the film to bring, Terwilliger hired cinematographer Andrew Waruszewski. In their three-hour-long interview, the pair shared the same vision for the film. The images were shot on the Alexa digital motion picture camera, which Terwilliger acquired before the cameras were available to the public. Theirs, in fact, was only the seventh one made at the time.

From Brazilian waterfalls to Cambodian ruins, the Australian Outback to the African savannah, the film crew sought out both wild and manmade wonders. In Africa, watching a herd of elephants cross a runway, Terwilliger says he had a profound moment realizing that even in isolated areas the airplane can take you anywhere. “We can go anywhere that anyone has ever lived,” he says. “It’s like science fiction. Imagine what the Wright brothers would think if they could see how far we’ve come and how fast we got here.”

Directing hermit crabs

Creating Living in the Age of Airplanes was both exhausting and exhilarating. Weather, the extreme locations, and even simple scenes proved challenging. Wanting to capture images in the southernmost part of the world, the crew traveled to Antarctica and then two more flights to the South Pole. They stayed for 11 nights in tents in Antarctica before the weather cleared to get to the pole. The flight in a DC–3 landed on a two-mile-thick sheet of ice and the crew was giddy with the joy of achieving a goal few experience; there is only a four-month window to get into the South Pole.

For what seemed like a simple scene shot in the Maldives—filming a hermit crab crawling over the sand—it took the crew two hours to get the little actor to travel in the right direction. And that was after “auditioning” several other candidates before selecting the most talented of the crabs.

“One of the biggest challenges was the fact that the camera and lens weigh 55 pounds and the tripod weighs about 60 pounds,” says Waruszewski. “And we had to pack another 45 pounds of additional camera gear. On a project like this, half of the job is carrying equipment; the other half is actually shooting.”

Because Terwilliger wanted to also show how the airplane brings the world to us as well as us to the world, a time-lapse scene in the film follows flowers cut in Kenya to the flower markets in Amsterdam and to a home in Alaska. In the home viewers see not only the flowers from Kenya but various other household goods from all over the world. In the scene is a photograph of the crew in Costa Rica, and on a bookshelf is a copy of One Six Right.

Taking a risk

“This is a conceptual film, not a linear story,” Terwilliger says. Narrated by actor and pilot Harrison Ford, the film traces transportation from the beginning of time to the present and is divided into chapters. In fact, for aviation buffs, it’s a bit disconcerting that few aircraft are seen for the first 10 minutes of the 47-minute film.

“The story structure itself was the biggest challenge,” Terwilliger says. “A film like this doesn’t have a storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, so we really needed to put all these concepts into a cohesive narrative that makes sense to the audience.”

After One Six Right, people had asked, “What airport are you going to do next?” Especially his pilot audience. But, he says, “I told that story. I wanted to make a film about aviation that was different. It was a risk—will people get it?”

Terwilliger says he hopes to restore a sense of wonder for aviation. “It’s become such a commonplace experience that it doesn’t seem to kindle people’s interest anymore. You have a lot of disgruntled passengers where their focus is on the inconvenience and delays. My hope is this film inspires audiences to see aviation with a new sense of appreciation and awe. If they leave the theater thinking I’ll never think about flying the same way again, it worked.”A

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  • How the airplane changed us—through a filmmaker’s eyes A national geographic film: 'Living in the Age of Airplanes' premiered April 2015. It is currently playing in IMAX theaters and other giant screen venues nationwide ( BluRay and DVD release anticipated November 2016.
  • Nearly inaccessible and exotic areas of the world were important locations for the film. The ability to visit once-isolated places such as Rome...
  • ...and Africa illustrates the heart of the film. “I want to reignite people’s wonder for one of the most extraordinary aspects of the modern world,” Terwilliger says.
  • For the expedition to the South Pole, Terwilliger hired wildlife cinematographer Doug Allan. “Doug’s spent 30 summers in Antarctica but never made it to the South Pole, which shows you how rare it is to actually go there,” said Terwilliger.
  • “Three airports have to line up with perfect weather in order for you to make the journey. There’s only a four-month window when you can go there.
  • When summer turns to fall, it gets dark for seven or eight months. We spent 11 nights in Antarctica sleeping in tents.” The filmmakers made the expedition in January.
  • In the Maldives, nearly unseen marvels like this shipwreck can only be discovered by aircraft. The waters are so shallow, only seaplanes can access many areas of the island country.
  • The Amsterdam flower mart and how flowers are sent around the world is a fascinating chapter in the film.
  • “Five million flowers fly in and out of Amsterdam every day, so by going to this warehouse, we were able to show how quickly things move around in the age of airplanes,” Terwilliger said.
  • The small, close-knit film crew—in Egypt—wasn’t all work and no fun.
  • Composer James Horner (right) on the Emirates A380 with Terwilliger at the in-flight premiere. Tragically, Horner was killed in an aircraft accident as this issue went to press. “James’ passion for aviation made the music he created for this film all that more magical,” said Terwilliger.