Crazy Rich AvGeeks: Production Designer Dishes About Movie’s Airline Design

Sep 2, 2018

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As Crazy Rich Asians heads into a third week of record-breaking numbers at the box office, The Points Guy got in touch with Nelson Coates, the production designer for the movie, to answer some AvGeek-specific questions we’ve all been wondering about.

TPG: In the book version of Crazy Rich Asians, author Kevin Kwan references Singapore Airlines when describing luxurious first-class commercial flights – yet for the movie, you went the route of creating a fictional airline. How did you develop the branding and appearance for the movie’s fictional Pacific Asean Airlines?

Coates: We first had to create an original name that was not in use by any existing airline or charter service, and check in with our legal team to make sure it was OK for us to use. Movie director Jon Chu and I both wanted the name to have a regional feel, and just about every permutation of the word “Asia” or “Asian” was already in use by an existing airline. The term Asean [which stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations] has been coming into use in the region and had not yet been used for an airline. Thus, Pacific Asean Airlines was born.

I wanted the airline’s logo to help viewers embark on their visual journey of Singapore, so I designed a graphic of a flower blossom, and used various orchid colors to begin the introduction into our Singapore color palette.

TPG: Does Pacific Asean Airlines draw inspiration from any current airline?

Coates: Our set for Pacific Asean Airlines was not meant to mimic any airline; instead, we tried to improve upon the most luxurious first-class plane service out there. I researched a lot of airline brands before designing our own.

I’ve also designed several planes for previous films such as the fictional airline in the 2012 film Flight featuring Denzel Washington, which helped me feel quite at home creating my own on-screen version with my crew. The elements for that first-class cabin set at the beginning of the Crazy Rich Asians movie were fabricated from scratch in our construction shop, and later assembled in a small soundstage on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380 was used as an inspirational archetype for the windows and square footage of our Pacific Asean first-class lounge area. I also designed the branding for the plane exteriors, and provided our visual effects (VFX) team with reference images of the planes. The final graphics effect was executed by our VFX team.

TPG: We noticed a ton of attention to airline branding detail in first-class. Can you tell us more about that?

Coates: We created embroidered napkins on the bar, as well as all the printed collateral which included safety cards and a magazine, all to carry forward the brand. We even custom-designed flight attendant name plates!

TPG: Tell us about the logistics of filming plane scenes. Did you book an actual plane and bring actors to Changi International Airport (SIN), or build out a movie set to recreate the environment?

Coates: From a production design standpoint, we first had to decide what we wanted to accomplish. After that, we had to evaluate whether to use a real plane, or create a movie set instead. All crew has to go through a security pre-screening prior to the day of filming; for Crazy Rich Asians, as in most cases, a team generated special approved photo badges to help airport security personel identify crew.

When filming on real aircraft, you have to have engineers standing by to be able to remove seats, or to assist with any rig that is interfacing with or attaching to the actual plane. It simply isn’t enough to just get permission to film on board commercial aircraft, either. You first have to have a secure place to film, located away from the active areas of the airport. Then there’s the issue of security, and of getting your crew and equipment to the filming site. Finally, you have to account for issues such as adequate air conditioning flowing through the plane while filming with idling engines that aren’t running! 

TPG: How did you go about choosing the interior design and what was ultimately depicted in the movie on the flight to Singapore?

Coates: I wanted the airline colors for Pacific Asean to introduce the colors of its Singapore heritage without looking like a fake airline. In order to accomplish this, you’ll see that the first-class lounge carpet is a strong Chinese ruddy red. We also used a ton of red- and cream-colored leathers. The graphics we created for the cabin walls incorporated elements of the logo in varying densities; for instance, you’ll notice that the orchids in the cabins matched the color used in the logo.

TPG: Those seats look like the interior of a high-end car. We know Mercedes-Benz worked with Emirates to build out their latest suite. Did you also develop a similar partnership with a luxury brand?

Coates: That was the idea! However, we did not have the financial means to fabricate our seats from scratch. Instead, we found high-end massage chairs and retrofitted them! Since the film doesn’t even depict flight attendants converting the plane seats into a double bed, we simply removed the chairs and installed the mattress in its place.

All images courtesy of Nelson Coates for Crazy Rich Asians.

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