A seven-hour flight with Idris Elba sounds like the beginning of a romantic comedy (or a dream we once had), but Apple TV+’s “Hijack” goes a very different route. Shortly after takeoff, a flight from Dubai to London is taken over by a mysterious group for unexplained reasons. No ransom required, no reason offered. Just a plane full of passengers sitting in terror as things get worse and worse. But before a plane can be hijacked, it has to be built. And creating a 3D set where every inch was camera-ready proved to be a daunting task for production designer Andrew Purcell.
“You rarely have seven hours of story to tell on an airplane,” Purcell told IndieWire. “So consequently, you can’t avoid looking at everything, and everything has to feel authentic, and everything has to feel believable. You’re holding that suspension of disbelief for seven hours.
Shot over the course of 70 days, “Hijack” is a fascinating (and somewhat claustrophobic) recreation of an escape from hell. Here’s how Purcell and his team did it.
The aircraft started out with an empty platform, which was eventually filled with over 164 feet of the custom-built aircraft, from cockpit to tail. And while authenticity was paramount, the demands of the shoot required the ability to separate sections as 200 people boarded and disembarked the plane each day, which presented structural issues that a real plane would not have. Similarly, Purcell and his team had to enlarge the typical size of some action-packed areas of the plane to accommodate the crew while maintaining the illusion of a real plane.
That illusion extended down to the airline’s branding — from coasters and logo to first-class decor — and seatback monitors, something done practically rather than with VFX.
“The back of every seat and every seat had to have the option you were going to have in flight, inflight information, the map with the progression of the plane, commercials, movies, music, cartoons, all of that,” Purcell said. “And this had to work continuously. So if you have a hijacker walking from the tail up to the cockpit, past everyone’s monitors, then all the material on all those seats had to be way ahead. So we couldn’t do it with just 10 second loops. There had to be full shows available, sort of.
Similarly, several sequences include the camera located outside the cockpit near the safety door, often interrupting the black and white monitor the pilots watch. That too was practically built. “There is one (crew member) who is actually setting up the camera behind the phone, so when Idris is on the phone to them in the cockpit, that was a live feed, his face on the cockpit screen “Purcell said. And not only has the aircraft lighting been integrated, giving the crew the ability to subtly adjust brightness and tone during what would typically be a fairly mundane daytime flight, but the cockpit control panel has been equipped with a flight simulator to ensure the same authenticity as possible.
“The cinematographer is a flight fanatic and had a simulator at home,” Purcell said. “And (the instruments were) hooked up to a simulator so we could plot the flight from Dubai to London, and we read the appropriate readings for each moment of the flight. A director could get right about the instrumentation and see the dials for real, without having to green screen, without having to do anything in post.
The devil was in the details for Purcell and his team (“Nevermore,” he said with a laugh about creating content for video monitors), and that was especially true when it came to the exteriors of a flight. Using volume, “Hijack” manages to create the illusion of an airplane in flight, from the movement of sunlight through the passengers’ windows to reflections in the camera caused by “light”.
“Now the new technology in terms of LED screens is interactive lighting,” said Purcell. “So in addition to getting a believable picture, you get an interactive light from all the glossy surfaces, which you wouldn’t do with a green screen or a blue screen. You would then have to CGI all of this in post, which is extremely expensive. That’s what’s really exciting about volume.
Purcell even designed the Earth offices with massive windows and high-gloss floors to further take advantage of that ersatz reflective glare, which is exactly the kind of little accent that tricks our brains into believing the reality being presented, even as passengers in the “Hijack” The planes are left in the dark about the ultimate fate of their flight.
The first two episodes of “Hijack” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering every Wednesday.