In the world of aviation photography, the money shot looks like this: Alaska Airlines’ bright-blue Disney plane soars through billowy white clouds, perfectly spotlighted by midmorning sun. The Boeing 737-900 banks slightly to showcase its colorful fuselage painted with the “Fab Five” – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy – along with the cheerful words, “We’re going to Disneyland.”
In an age of computer-generated everything, the surreal scenes look animated. But this magic is real.
“That’s why we do the air-to-air filming, so we don’t have to use computer-generated images,” said Elliott Pesut, integrated marketing manager for Alaska Airlines.
In another video sequence, Alaska’s “Adventure of Disneyland Resort,” lovingly referred to as the “Cars”-themed airplane, cruises past the pillars and buttes of Monument Valley near the Arizona-Utah state line, returning characters Lightning McQueen and Mater to the landscape that inspired their fictional hometown. The red rocks serve as a perfect backdrop for the cloud-colored aircraft.
The videos are the product of a carefully choreographed air-to-air ballet involving skilled pilots, an expert camera crew and a modified Learjet equipped with an aerial cinematography system. It’s all coordinated under the watchful eye of Clay Lacy, a National Aviation Hall of Fame pilot who has been at the center of more than 3,000 air-to-air film projects, including the famous air-to-air shots in “Top Gun.”
“This is like three-dimensional chess,” said Brad Burger, manager of video communications at Alaska. “You have the camera plane, the ‘target’ plane and the background, and these objects are being balanced in real time moving at 220 knots, so that’s really different from anything else you’d do in film.
“The Monument Valley shoot was eye-popping. I think it’s the most stunning photography that I’ve seen in my 25 years with Alaska.”
Up in the air
Alaska hired Clay Lacy Aviation to film two of the airline’s four Disney-themed planes. The shots will be used by Alaska and the Disneyland Resort to promote their partnership and Alaska’s kid-friendly amenities – and serve as a reminder that Alaska has the most nonstop flights between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California.
“We’ll shoot five hours and probably use five seconds for the next five years,” Pesut said.
Months of planning preceded the two days of filming.
“From ‘Top Gun,’ we learned to maneuver with other airplanes,” Lacy said. “Dealing with an airliner, there’s better planning and better communications. There are no surprises.”
Attention to detail is key. The “target” plane would fly north to south to get the best morning light on the left side of the plane, so the word “Alaska” would be most readable from nose to tail. All the window shades were up and no customers were onboard. Pilots were instructed to “look like pilots” – hands on the yoke, perfect uniforms.
“We’ll be able to count the freckles on your nose,” said photographer Chad Slattery.
Lacy’s pioneering Astrovision camera system uses patented periscopes on the top and bottom of the Learjet, which allow for a full circle of rotation during filming. Nearly 40 years of aerial coordination and filming experience translates to safe, efficient filming sessions, Lacy says.
“I love Alaska Airlines,” Lacy said. “I’ve flown them a lot through the years, and we’ve done a hell of a lot of filming with them over the years.”
On the first morning of filming, the “Spirit of Disneyland II” departed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to scout for perfect white clouds to serve as a backdrop for the dark plane. This “target plane” was piloted by Alaska Airlines Capt. Scott Sander and Capt. Bruce Patterson, who served as first officer on the flight.
“We want our shoot to be epic, Bruce,” Sander said. “None of that gray wispy stuff.”
The pair coordinated with air traffic controllers as they sought the best stretches of sky over Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, the Learjet departed Boeing Field packed with camera gear, a cinematographer, an Astrovision tech, a photographer, Clay Lacy and another pilot. A member of the Alaska Airlines video communications department rode along in the Learjet to oversee the project.
For the next few hours of filming, the Learjet hovered above, below, beside and behind the 737.
“This deck of clouds is perfect,” Patterson said. “They couldn’t have picked a better day.”
Alaska’s Disneyland-themed planes