Pan Am Cinematographer Captures The Chariots In The Sky

Cannes Film Festival

Sony Pictures Television

Cinematographer John Lindley remembers the excitement and enthusiasm for that flying Pan Am’s trademark blue uniforms and globe logo instilled.  He gladly jumped aboard the trip back in time when stepping on a Pan Am plane was like stepping into "a chariot in the sky," and capturing the beauty of the early 60s in the pilot for the new series, "Pan Am."

Reunited with director Thomas Schlamme who he previously worked with on some past projects, the two men agreed to shoot the pilot with the Arri Alexa.  Lindley had used the camera on a number of commercials and felt the camera would lend itself nicely to capturing the type of look he wanted to achieve.

"I pitched the idea to Tommy that the period ‘Pan Am’ takes place in was a period of transition visually," said Lindley.  "In terms of television and photography, the world was changing from black and white to color, and the color people embraced was saturated pop color.   I remembered as a little kid being in Grand Central Station seeing these gigantic Kodak billboards for various Kodak products, kodacrome being high amongst them.  I have a book of stills of many of those images I showed Tommy.  What I pitched to him was that I didn’t want to do a period piece that was muted and brown.  I wanted it to be really contrasty and really saturated color.  That’s the look I laid over the raw data when we were shooting and when we were doing the final color timing."

A challenge to highlighting high contrast saturated color in the series was working around the primary color associated with Pan Am: blue. Recalling how the color red would dominate the kodachrome images he saw in his youth, Lindley worked with the production design staff to minimize the color red on set.  However, red would be punched up in playful ways such as in bright red lipstick to offset the predominence of blue appearing on set.  Additionally, because blue is such an introspective cool color that would dominate the frame through the uniforms, the Pan Am logo, the terminal and interior of the plane, Lindley along with the production design and costume design staff spent a lot of time testing and modifying the palette.

"We pushed it a little bit farther than what it usually is.  Our costume designer did very careful research to find out exactly what the color of the uniforms was," said Lindley.  "I shot tests of that fabric and those colors, and it didn’t have the kind of life that we needed for the show.  We took some liberties with that, and we pushed that blue to be a little bit more electric."

Lindley prefers to approach his lighting as a method of subtracting light, rather than building lighting for a scene.  With a great deal of the storyline taking place on the plane, he was very aware that it would be easy to over-light the set.  He preferred to building a light source that would highlight the actresses faces.  To keep from having too much of a monotonous feeling with the lighting on the plane, he also worked to develop some changes that are apparent in the plane’s windows that indicate sunny skies, over-cast areas, or time changes such as dusk.

Shooting on the plane is not only limiting in regards to lighting but also camera angles.  The production designers worked with a real fuselage, widening the walls and raising the ceiling slightly.

"We spent a bunch of time on that because it would have been easier to make it even larger than we did, but it would start to look like it was a set.  On the other hand, if we had utilized the real dimensions, it would have been pretty much impossible to work in," said Lindley.  "The plane didn’t come apart very easily and that made it hard to do shots that otherwise would have been possible.  On the other hand it kept us from doing shots that would seem kind of wacky where you would get outside the fourth wall, or, I guess on a plane it would be the second wall."  

The production crew had inquired about shooting at an actual Pan Am terminal however asbestos abatement issues prevented the location’s use.  Because the form of entering and exiting airplanes was so different in that period, a virtual set was incorporated.  The set consisted of a gangway, some set pieces and four green walls.  Lindley enjoyed working with the visual effects team and was amazed at the quality of their work, and found it interesting that much less of his time was spent designing shots but merging his work with the visual effects backgrounds. 

 

"On the stage, we had that gangway, but then we had no terminal behind it and we didn’t have an airplane; those were things that had been mapped digitally so when we set the camera up, I could look at a monitor, I could blend the 3D middle of the terminal and the airplane with the actual gangway which we did have," said Lindley.  "People could walk through a pair of doors that didn’t have glass on them onto the gangway and disappear into what would latter be added as the airplane."

While Lindley primarily focuses on shooting feature films, he enjoys having the opportunity to work on television pilots.  While he won’t be continuing as the series cinematographer, he enjoyed working with the producers and director on capturing the look for "Pan Am."

"They reached out to me as a camera man, and they trusted me," said Lindley.  “I didn’t go off on my own, I talked about all these choices with them, but nobody ever questioned them, and some of them were embraced pretty enthusiastically.  I had a lot of freedom in terms of the look and the camera.  Pilots are more appealing to me than series are because you are setting a look, instead of maintaining a look, and especially something like ‘Pan Am.’  The opportunity to create a look was appealing, so that’s why I did it."