That logo on the right was the reason why my business partner and I traveled to Los Angeles for an unusual photographic assignment way back in the mid-1970s. TWA, at that time a really major airline, was just changing their graphics and the way their planes were decorated. They had already shot the new TV commercials on a soundstage at the historic Culver Studios using plywood-and-plastic mockups of the new plane interiors, and now it was our turn to do the still photography. We had never worked on a soundstage before, and very rarely in a union shop — so this was to be a whole new Little Adventure.
First, a lttle background about the Culver Studios. Located in the Culver City section of Los Angeles, just south of the Santa Monica Freeway, the historic studio complex first opened in 1918. In 1924 it became the De Mille Studios, home of those movie extravaganzas of Cecil B. De Mille, and in 1928 a merger changed the name to RKO. By 1935 the studios were known as Selznick International, producing such all-time favorite flicks as King Kong, A Star Is Born, Citizen Kane, and Gone With The Wind. Its Colonial-style administration building of 1919 (photo, left) is still a striking sight, easily visible from Washington Boulevard. The giant Sony Studios (formerly M-G-M), just south of Culver Studios, were once part of the same complex and now offer studio tours. Culver Studios themselves are rented out to film makers for independent productions. Some 14 sound stages are available, ranging in size from about 3,000 to 17,000 square feet.
At that time, one of the larger stages was filled with airliner interior mockups, used for both feature films and commercials. The newest of these was a plywood-and-plastic Boeing 747, painted in TWA's brand-new color scheme and with the new logo. What was really strange about it was when you climbed the forward spiral staircase that was supposed to lead to the upstairs lounge, you walked out onto a pile of wood. There was also a Lockheed L-1011 done up the same way. The interiors were actually quite convincing, as they had to be for still photography.
We flew to Los Angeles on a TWA L-1011 (photo above, with the new livery) along with the client and an art director, and checked into a Culver City hotel. Along with our cameras and lenses we also brought our own Balcar studio strobe lights as this is what was needed for the slow Kodachrome film we used — movies and TV employ tungsten lighting that would have been be useless to us. On a union set — which this most definitely was — we could not touch our own lights, let alone plug them in. This all had to be done through a hierarchy of union grips; we had to tell the foreman what we wanted done, then he had a grip do it. I could have done this myself with one hand in about two seconds. Oh well, it keeps people employed. How thankful I was that the still photography industry in New York was not unionized. At least we could handle our own cameras!
We had a dressing room set up for the models, who were local TWA employees recruited for their fleeting moment of fame. Once dressed, they were positioned inside the cabin mockup, and we had some wall segments removed to make way for the lights and cameras. This is the way they do it in Hollywood. The proceedings took all day, and then began the night work.
It seems that as of that day, only one actual TWA plane had been repainted with the new color scheme. And that one aircraft — a 747 — was landing that very night at Los Angeles LAX, but had to leave early the next morning. We could get pictures inside it that just could not be done in the sound stage mockup. But it was already dark, and they wanted sunlight streaming in the windows. How to work this?
Liberating a pile of white bedsheets from our hotel rooms, we headed down to the airport. I then climbed up on the wing of this 747 and, using gaffer tape, spread the bedsheets over the outside of the windows in the section over the wing. This would diffuse the bright strobe lights that I positioned outside on the wing. Then photography on the inside could begin. The first Polaroids (used to check the lighting and exposure) showed that everything was working just fine, and the finished photos actually looked like they were taken on a sunny day high above the clouds.
One last job, around 6 a.m., was a photo of people checking in at the terminal. After that, we went back to the hotel (with the purloined bedsheets) for a well-deserved snooze. And then back to New York.
A few days later this same plane made a visit to New York's JFK airport during daylight hours, so we rushed out there to do exterior photography on the tarmac. Within a week or so another plane, an L-1011, had been redecorated and was briefly available at Newark's EWR airport, so we finished the whole assignment there.
Interested in photography? Check out my "Assisting Avedon" blog.
SO, just what Little Adventure am I up to now in 2013? Why, just the most challenging one of them all! CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT.