I’m a bit of a dreamer. I’m also a huge aviation geek, and I often catch myself browsing the web at 2am looking up articles on aviation and aviation history. So when I found Anthony Toth and learned more about his life’s work, I knew that I had my next personal photography project in mind. As I'm mostly an architectural photographer, I got bored of waiting around for an airline to hire me to photograph their next ad campaign, so I decided to hire myself into my dream gig.
Over the course of three days of scouting, two days of shooting, endless phone calls and organizational headaches, I managed to put together my dream shoot. Here's how I did it in both video and text form. For an in-depth behind the scenes look, check out the video and read the text. Finished photos can be seen at the bottom of the post or by going to my website.
About Anthony Toth's Pan Am 747
I am not exactly sure how I first learned about Anthony Toth and his project, to be honest, but I can remember my reactions to seeing what he’d done. Awe, disbelief, and utter respect were just a few. Anthony had, over the course of 30 or so years, restored the cabin of a Pan-Am 747-200 to exactly the way it would have been in the 1970s. No detail was overlooked, from the working lavatory lights and galleys to the working overhead bins, the original ashtrays, peanut packages, and cutlery. Stepping into Anthony’s creation can be a bit disconcerting - the detail is so incredible that you quickly begin to believe that you are actually in a plane, 30,000 feet above the ocean. Stepping out after spending a few hours in it feels like arriving at a new destination, and to not walk out onto the jetway you expect to be there, is, well, quite bizarre at first.
Anthony himself, as you would expect, is probably the biggest aviation geek you’ll ever meet, a badge he wears proudly. Ever since he was a little kid and would fly Pan Am to see relatives, he would collect souvenirs from every flight he took. Matchbooks, magazines, seatback safety cards, and on and on. He would record the audio of a flight with a handheld recorder, and play it back over and over again. He didn’t know it at the time, but this collection would grow into one of the largest aviation-related prop houses in the world.
As his collection grew, Toth realized that he had needed to start putting it all together. He began making calls to Southern California’s renowned aircraft boneyards, where retired planes are stored before being sold for scrap. Over time, he began to amass what would be the first iteration of his homegrown 747. Taking trips in a Honda CRV, he would travel all over California finding the pieces he needed: a seat there, a galley cart there, an overhead bin. Using his garage, he began to re-assemble the first class cabin of a Pan-Am 747, recreating the experiences he had as a child.
His first version of the project garnered him plenty of media attention and interest from the public - but he knew it wasn’t perfect. Toth wanted the entire experience, and his garage wasn’t letting him build out the plane the way he wanted. A few years ago, he decided to move his entire setup to a new location in East Los Angeles. Over the course of two years, Toth disassembled and re-assembled his entire cabin, building a support structure in the new warehouse to support the upper deck, a version of coach class, and the original first class. Hiring contractors and Hollywood prop specialists to put the plane together piece by piece, the project began to take shape, and his Pan Am 747 came to life.
As a result of his project, Toth became a sort of legend in the aviation world. He regularly hosts dinners in the cabin, inviting guests to fly the friendly skies, complete with original Pan Am flight attendants serving the exact same meals that Pan Am served, catered by the same company that originally made them. The flight doesn’t miss and details: Toth’s recordings of the Pan Am experience are piped in through a built in sound system, so you hear everything from engine spool up to flaps retracting and landing gear doors closing. Caviar and vodka is served as an appetizer, and guests are led to the upper deck dining room for dinner, just like in the old days.
He’s hosted television shows, worked as an advisor to television shows, and provides props for shows and movies. When the recent drama ‘Pan Am’ was released, it was Toth who was called to be the expert on everything from the way the flight attendants interacted in the cabin to the way the ticketing system worked. He did the same for Mad Men, and has supplied props for countless productions.
About the shoot
And yet, despite all this, there was no evidence that the location had ever been used for a photoshoot depicting the glory days of aviation. There had been plenty of marketing and editorial pieces shot in the cabin, which was mostly used for creating a smokey, sexy type of scene (Playboy, among others, have become regular clients of Toth’s). I took a few minutes to let my brain run wild, and tracked down an email address so that I could send Toth my ideas. I told him who I was, what I did, and how as an interiors and architecture photographer, I wanted to shoot and document his project. Seemingly a little skeptical at first, he agreed to meet up for lunch and to discuss some ideas. After our brainstorming session, we realized that we had a huge project on our hands. We wanted to get Pan Am flying again, if it was only captured by our cameras for a brief instant.
My mind began to turn with ideas. How were we going to shoot it? Who was going to model? How would I light it? There were tons and tons of logistical and organizational hurdles. Being an architectural photographer, I don’t usually work with models, and when I do it’s only a couple people at most. We wanted to fill an entire plane with people and give them direction on what to do and how to pose. I also knew were were going to have to light this thing, but how? And how did I want the photos to look? The final look that we had in mind would determine everything from how we lit it to how the people dressed.
The more I thought about the shoot, the more exciting the whole thing seemed. And at the same time, the more I realized that I had to come up with a lot of solutions to challenges I hadn’t worked through before. I visited the location a number of time leading up to the shoot, becoming more and more enamored with Anthony and the plane he had built every time. Both Anthony and myself agreed that we wanted this to be as authentic as possible in every way, so the lighting and staging had to look real. I played with a number of potential lighting setups and ran through a variety of compositional possibilities before making a final decision. Knowing how I’d light and shoot it would be immensely helpful when I went to plan out how many models I’d need, where they’d be, and how they’d be posed in each shot.
Which, of course, led to the next issue: finding the people who would act as models. Like I said, being an architectural photographer, I don’t have the biggest network of models in my rolodex, so Anthony and I had to improvise. We called on a number of friends who had an interest in aviation, and who would love to be a part of getting Pan Am off the ground again. This made for a great mix of models - young and old, with a range of personalities. Once we had the models lines up, we had to figure out how to dress them in attire true to the period. Each model had a meeting with a wardrobe stylist, hair stylist, and makeup artist to be touched up and get into costume. The flight attendants wore original Pan Am outfits that- you guessed it - Anthony had collected over the years. They were each authentic, and worn by an original stewardess - some of them even had the names and home base still written on them of the person who wore them.
Once we had the models in place, the next matter became filling out the cabin with the touches that would make it 100% authentic. We decided on re-creating the entire Pan Am dining experience, plated as it would have been in Pan Am’s heyday and delivered to the passengers by the flight attendants still fresh and hot. Using Anthony’s contacts, we hired the Flying Food Group, a company that provides food for long-haul air travel, who catered it in (seriously) one of those scissors trucks that you see on the ramp whenever you fly. Absolutely too cool! We gave them a menu ahead of time and had the entire thing ready to order: from the Russian black sea sturgeon caviar to the Finlandia vodka, a full appetizer of tomato and mozzarella, the hot medium-rare roast garnished in front of the passengers, and a full dessert menu including a variety of hot and cold cakes and drinks.
Which introduced (yet another) hurdle to overcome: not only was I dealing with shooting an interior, a hard task in and of itself, but an interior filled with 20-odd passengers, all posed and dressed, and on top of that, we had to make the food look appetizing in photos, which is no simple feat. Making three types of photography happen at once in a cramped airplane cabin was an enormous juggling act - the timing had to be impeccable, and we were running an incredibly tight shot schedule consisting of 15 photos for the day.
On the weekend of the shoot, it came to light that my (admittedly, obsessive) planning paid off big time. We (myself, five assistants, and Anthony) spent the first day of our two-day shoot taking pictures of the empty cabin itself - mostly for documentation purposes, treating it as if it were any architectural or interior photoshoot. We staged props, dressed the scene, and made sure that everything was in line for day two, when all of our models showed up and mass chaos would surely ensue. While the shots seem relatively straightforward and simple - they were anything but. Our first shot, a wide interior of the first class cabin looking towards the nose from the galley area, took a staggering four hours of setup time. Being a fairly old airframe (the plane that Anthony owns is actually a 40-or-so year old Boeing 747-200 SP) it had plenty of areas which weren’t light tight, imperfections, and plenty of problem spots to deal with. Making this cabin look new again definitely took some TLC in a photographic sense. Scrimming and lighting it involved draping massive amounts of black cloth all throughout the plane, and even though it isn’t visible, it is doing its best to suck up and control all the light we were pumping into it.
It took about 8,000 watts of light in total to light this thing up - and that only got me to around f8 at ISO 400. Because of the narrow passageways surrounding the ‘fuselage’ there wasn’t much room to aim the lights and control the falloff, so bouncing the light into those cavernous areas and letting it filter softly through the windows was the way to go. Bouncing it, of course, ate up the power like crazy. If we had aimed those lights in, we’d have a very hard, directional light, but it wouldn’t have been very lifelike. Everything here was working against us - the narrow spaces around the plane, the dark interior, and the tiny windows that we had to blast light in, but when all was said and done, it was a pretty simple lighting setup - just emulating the sun, blasting light in through the windows, just like it would look at 35,000 feet above the ocean.
As I mentioned, we used most of day one to choose our final compositions, get the lighting set, and deal with any issues that would arise on day two, when we’d be dealing with 20-odd models and a huge crew. The lighting setup remained pretty similar for all the shots, so once we had it dialed it was only a matter of small adjustments from image to image.
After a long first day of shooting the interiors, we arrived bright and early to the location on day two and got ready to take care of the models who would be trickling in throughout the morning to have their hair, clothing, and makeup done. It was nothing short of chaos, to be honest, but by some miracle we got everyone looking absolutely amazing and in costume. This was no small feat, and the artists did a fantastic job of dressing and styling everyone in only a few short hours. I walked around and got to know everyone, and started getting the lighting dialed in so that there’d be no delay as soon as all the models were ready. After a quick (unplanned, and most likely horrible) speech, it was go time, and we got to work telling the story of Pan Am flight 120 from Los Angeles to London.
The cabin was prepared by the stewardesses, headphones were laid out, and the drinks began being poured. Passengers were ushered in, posed, and generally left to mingle but gently directed into poses that would read as casual yet proper and, well, first-class. After everyone had settled into the mood of things and got used to the rhythm of the shoot, we started heaping on the complicated bits. The food service was prepared a few hours after it was dropped off up by Jaron Schneider, an assistant and good friend of mine, and prepared to look as appetizing as possible. Even for airline food, it looked damn good! Our stewardesses played it right in front of the passengers: caviar and a perfectly cooked roast, along with all the aforementioned goodies were carefully styled, posed and shot. My mouth is watering even thinking about how good the food was, and how good it must have been back when this was a regular occurrence in first class. Getting everyone in place and the food looking good of course proved to be a challenge, but thanks in large part to the posing help offered by my assistants Julia Kuzmenko-McKim and Sarah Williams, things were ironed over relatively quickly. After our wide interior shots and tight detail shots downstairs, we went up to catch the post-dinner lounge action.
Changing our lighting from a bright white sunlight to a directional golden sunlight helped set the mood for the smokey upper deck lounge, where passengers often smoked cigars, drank fine liquors and played cards and mingled during flights. Of course, this seems like an enormous waste of money for the airlines now, but back then it was all the rage and many airlines actively promoted the amenities that their upper deck lounges featured. Shooting up here proved to be a monumental challenge - as most of the crew couldn’t even stand up straight without banging their heads on the ceiling or walls. Many of the lights were burnt out due to old age - so we had to improvise lighting to re-create the mood and ambience that would have been present in these lounges. This, again, proved to be problematic - the homemade lighting solutions we employed required us to shoot at high ISO speeds - up to 1600 - to capture the models without motion blur and the glow from the lights simultaneously. Even at ISO 1600, a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second was needed to get enough light into the lens. This was without a doubt one of the most challenging conditions I’ve ever shot in. The pictures don’t really tell the full story of the tight quarters, the soaring temperatures, and the mental toll that two twelve hour days of shooting inflicted on us. Despite all this, these shots are some of my favorite from the entire shoot.
Lastly - after the smoke has cleared and the upper lounge shut down for the night - the passengers retreated downstairs and settled in for the feature film that would have been shown on the drop-down screen at the front of the first class cabin. Employing a combination of long exposure and light painting techniques, we brought the cabin to life to appear as if it would in transoceanic flight at sunset - quiet, relaxed, and inviting. The passengers have settled in for the overnight leg of the trip and will pass the time through sleep or the movies until arriving bright and early in London the next morning.
While the shots straight out of the camera were (in my not-so-humble opinion) spectacular, they needed a lot of love to get them looking the way we had envisioned. As I mentioned earlier, there were plenty of things that were easily overlooked in person, but rather obvious to the camera. Make no mistake that Anthony’s project is absolutely spectacular, but a 40 year old plane that has been in service flying around the world for decades shows a great deal of wear and tear. After it was retired from service, this particular plane sat in the Mojave desert at the Mojave Air and Space port, awaiting sale for scrap. The desert took a bit of a toll on the aircraft, and it had sat in a state of disuse until Anthony found it and brought it back to life. Most of the post production work involved cleaning up the interior lighting and walls, and making the plane look as new as possible. In a few cases, separate frames were merged with different model poses in order to create the best possible scene. Certain gestures and facial expressions were replaced with those from earlier frames, and Stewardesses were moved around to put them in the best positions. All of the wide shots are composites to some degree, some more than others. The most time intensive task was cleaning up, stretching, skewing, and otherwise tidying up an aircraft interior that had seen 30 years of service.
I opted to create a vintage feel to the photos - in order to bring them more in line with the aesthetic of the time. With the help of Tam Nguyen, I created custom curves and color tone presets in Photoshop and Lightroom that created a surreal, illustrative feel to the photographs. I really believe that this makes the entire shoot much more believable and tangible - it adds a little bit of imperfection back into an otherwise staged and clean series of photos.
That’s a wrap
When all was said and done, it took countless hours of planning, three scout days, two shoot days, over 20 models, six people on the photography and video side of things, three stylists, a full catering service, and a metric ton of lights to get this thing off the ground. Was it worth it? I absolutely think so. I don’t believe that photos similar to this will ever be created again - Anthony, myself, and the crew and models all came together to create something that pays tribute to an airline that sparked the imagination of countless people all over the world. It sounds cheesy, but I think if someone, whether an aviation enthusiast or not, can look at these photos and be inspired, relive their experience and remember what it was like to fly with Pan Am, or have a good laugh at all the changes in air travel over the last few decades, then the shoot was a success. I hope you enjoyed the article - I know I had one hell of a time getting this thing to happen, and hopefully my sharing it with you was interesting enough to warrant reading this far!
For those interested in learning the techniques used to create this image, I teach all of them (and more) in my comprehensive tutorial, Where Art Meets Architecture, which was published in collaboration with Fstoppers. In addition, I'll be teaching at the Atlantis Resort in June at the Fstoppers Workshops (and I'm also giving away an entirely free slot at one of my workshops!). Feel free to come on down and pick my brain about anything from architectural photography and airplane photography to being the biggest nerd the photo world's ever seen.