BMZ Interview: Air Racers 3D Directors Christian Fry and Jean-Jacques Mantello

August 30, 2012 – 3:30 pm

(L-R) Directors Christian Fry and Jean-Jacques Mantello

AIR RACERS 3D takes a look at the fastest race in the world at Nevada’s legendary Reno National Championship Air Races. Directors Christian Fry and Jean-Jacques Mantello chat with BMZ on their latest film.

Hello and thank you for doing this Q&A with us. Christian, this is your first film for IMAX theaters. Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking background, and how you got involved in the Giant Screen industry?

Christian Fry (CF): Thank you very much! Both my parents were professional photographers so I grew up surrounded by images and was acutely aware of how powerful they could be. I began making — filming, editing and producing — documentary films highlighting the issues faced by marine mammals and their habitat for the US House and Senate, the United Nations and the International Whaling Commission in the ’90s.

I have always been in awe of the beauty and truly immersive nature of the IMAX and Giant Screen film format. In my opinion, it is the ultimate film experience! I always thought that an event as big as the Reno National Championship Air Races had to be shot and shown in this format.

How did the idea for Air Racers originate?

CF: I am a private pilot so I’ve long had a great interest in aviation. From the very first time I attended the Reno Air Races, I knew I wanted to produce something on this event. A few years later, I invited my producing partner, Raúl Leckie, to come to Reno and while we were standing on the tarmac, watching the races, we agreed that we needed to make a film about this exceptional experience.

When we first discussed it, we knew we wanted to not only reach a broad audience, we wanted to bring the sensation of the races — the speed, the excitement and all those things — to the screen and to the audience. Aviation is also a subject matter that lends itself so well to the massive IMAX theatre screens because that venue is all about the experience. It’s beyond just the visual; it’s about feeling it and this film delivers!

Jean-Jacques, you’ve mostly done underwater films for the Giant Screen. What interested you in making a film about air racing?

Jean-Jacques Mantello (JJM): I like projects that take audiences places they normally would never be able to go in real life so when I was approached to co-direct the film, I jumped at the opportunity. “Air Racers” literally puts audiences in the cockpit of these vintage WWII-era airplanes and truly gives them a sense of what it’s like to fly at 500 miles an hour. To have that feeling of flight is truly amazing!

The National Championship Air Races is really much more than a race, though. There is also a world-class air show and, throughout their history, that’s always been the case. There’s the racing as well as the opportunity to thrill audiences with these amazing air show performances. It really does two things beautifully well!

What filming techniques did you utilize to capture in 3D the high velocity races from the ground and air?

JJM: We decided to produce “Air Racers” in 3D because the concept of flight itself is three-dimensional, and just like Dome screens, 3D delivers a powerful, immersive experience. The entire film was shot in 3D using 4K RED cameras. 

In terms of post-production workflow, we went from our cameras to Cineform 4K 3D and then we decided to choose Sony Vegas Pro, which is perfect when you want to edit stereoscopy in real time and 4K.  Our company, Mantello Brothers Productions, has also designed its own post-production tools, including a digital re-mastering solution and a digital noise reduction process that allows us to greatly enhance the quality of the images.

How did you manage filming plans to prepare for the risk associated with the race?

CF: “Air Racers” took 3 years to produce and we expected to face challenges with the technical aspects — the airplanes and the 3D — but getting all the various permissions and groups together to be able to film was a lot more work than we imagined. We had to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we had to work with the Reno Air Race authorities and we had to get all the race teams to be willing to participate with us, which required a lot of trust. They had to believe that we could do it and that we’d be safe. To do that we put together a team of filmmakers that understood airplanes and understood how to work safely with airplanes. We hired some of the best aerial cinematographers in Hollywood, Kevin LaRosa (aerial coordinator) and David Nowell (aerial director of photography).

JJM: The film was shot during the 2009 and 2010 Reno Championship Air Races and we realized that we wouldn’t be able to get the cameras everywhere we wanted during the race for safety reasons so we restaged the final race at a later time. We were then able to have cameras set up in the cockpit, on the wings, as well as a special gyro-stabilized helicopter-mounted 3D rig which allowed us to capture some amazing shots.

Coordination was also instrumental to successfully producing the aerial sequences. Raúl Leckie (producer) did a lot of pre-production to determine exactly what shots we needed, which was of great assistance.

The film also touches upon the history behind the sport. What type of educational and supplemental materials did you make available?

CF: From the time we began working on this project, we’ve had two primary goals: the first was to introduce this exciting and fascinating world of air racing to as vast an audience as possible and the second was to explain the history of the sport, which is nearly as old as aviation itself.

Together with Young Minds Inspired, we have developed a highly-effective and detailed curriculum, called “Let your Mind Soar”, which meets US National Educational standards for grades 2 through 7 and is available in both printed and electronic format to all our exhibitor clients. It introduces students to the history & science of flight through the action of the vintage WWII-era airplanes, motivates their interest in aerodynamics and helps develop their skills in science, social studies, history, etc.

In addition to the educational materials, our distribution team has produced extraordinary promotional tools ranging from posters, banners and lobby standees, to fun window stickers and coloring sheets. Steve Hinton and I have also made appearances at various theatre locations around the US that included detailed presentations on the history of air racing, what it was like to work on the film, etc.

There was a tragic crash at the 2011 Reno Air Race. How did this affect your release plans?

CF: The accident that took place at last year’s Races was a truly unfortunate and tragic event. We had actually wrapped shooting in Reno in June 2011 so the film was in post-production at that time and the release date already set. I was, however, at the Races with other members of our production team when the accident occurred, so we witnessed it firsthand. Without wanting to make that the lasting legacy of this event, we felt it was important to acknowledge the tragedy, which we did by adding a special dedication at the end.

As is probably expected, the sound mix for this film is very loud and heavy, especially in an IMAX theater. How did you achieve this? Did the planes do most of the work?

JJM: We worked with composer Christophe Jacquelin, who wrote the music and created the sound design for all three of my previous IMAX theatre films (“Ocean Wonderland”, “Sharks 3D” and “Dolphins and Whales 3D”) so he’s very familiar with the particularities of this format. He also listened to a lot of the audio we recorded during the races to develop a sense of the atmosphere of the event. Since the film is very heavy on airplane and engine sounds, he created an amazing score and a sound design using original aircraft sound recordings that added color to the action without overpowering it.

Can you tell us a bit about how your narrator Paul Walker became involved in the film?

CF: In addition to being closely identified with his role as Brian O’Conner in the blockbuster “Fast and the Furious” films, Paul Walker actually has a genuine love of motor sports. He also has an ability to connect with moviegoers of all ages, and teenagers in particular, that without question enhances this ultimate air show experience. He was an obvious choice for us from the very beginning!

How did you come about choosing pilot Steve Hinton Jr. and his father to star in the film?

JJM: Steve Hinton was always the perfect character for us. Not only is he an incredibly talented pilot at such a young age, he’s also a gifted mechanic, one of the true up and coming stars of the sport of air racing, and he races in the ultimate and most highly-anticipated race class of them all, the Unlimited!

Steve also grew up volunteering at his family’s Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino (CA) and his father, Steve Hinton Sr., is a two-time National Air Race Champion himself, so he’s been immersed in the world of aviation his entire life.

Do you have any future projects you can share with us, Giant Screen or otherwise?

CF: I have a number of projects — both aviation and non-aviation related — currently in development with my production company.

JJM: Over the summer we completed principal photography on 3D Entertainment Films’ next film, “Kenya 3D: Animal Kingdom,” which will be released at IMAX theatres in the US and internationally beginning March 1, 2013. Needless to say, it has been a truly unforgettable experience and I can’t wait to share it with audiences!

Many thanks for speaking with us, and congratulations with the film!