Interview

Director Jon Chu on Creating the Best Pre-Flight Safety Video Ever

Learn all about how the wildly entertaining Virgin America safety video came to be and how the low budget helped Chu to become creatively resourceful.

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(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

For our NOTscars we’d thought we’d honor one of the most watched forms of visual media in the world: airplane pre-flight safety videos! They’re viewed by some 600 million people last year – yet they don’t have an Oscar category. Which is a crime, especially since over the last few years the genre has undergone a renaissance. Airlines now compete to make their safety videos actually entertaining. And the company that started this arms race is Virgin America.

Their latest video was directed by Jon Chu, who’s big-screen credits include “GI Joe: Retaliation,” and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” Below he explains how the video came about, how he worked around tight restrictions and a low budget, and why his mom is now treated like a queen on flights.

Interview highlights:

On how the video came about

The whole reason I did it was because people are forced, by law, to look at your work. Like, what other artist wouldn’t love that? They’re actually locked into their seats and cannot turn away.

So, the job, obviously, was to make something that people would pay attention to. And Virgin has a long history in music, and they wanted to incorporate that in their new video. They also had to top their old video, which was sort of the flagship video, starting sort of the arms race. And that had been playing for five or six years.

So, this one was supposed to use music, describe the things, get people’s attention, and it’s a lot of fun and crazy. We have dancers from all walks of life, roboters, crumpers, b-boys, ballerinas, you name it.

On working around Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions

Trying to write a song with the FAA is a very difficult situation [laughs].

We had pages and pages of Federal laws that we had to follow and phrases that we had to say. And Todrick Hall, who wrote the song, he can come up with rhymes to anything, and this was sort of a challenge for both of us.

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We were definitely more irreverent. Like, when she says, “If you don’t know how to use a seat belt,” in our original version, she says, “What the —- is wrong with you?” and she literally says…and we like, bleeped it out, but they didn’t want that.

The FAA definitely wanted to show how do you get your safety vests on and off, and where do you find it? And everything was very abstract because we had these IKEA chairs that we retrofitted to look like airplane chairs because we didn’t have enough money to rent a plane, and Virgin America didn’t let us use a plane.

The one life vest that doesn’t inflate in the video was actually defective

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We had a very tight budget, and in order to use a plane, it costs money, and we didn’t have that money, including the uniforms. We had to rent those things from them. But even like, the vests. We only got like, six life vests, and once you pull the cord, they’re dead.

We could do two takes, and that’s really scary when you’re shooting a day and a half and trying to get it all in.

So, we pull it, and one guy’s vest doesn’t open, and it just so happens, in the lyrics, it’s like, you know, if it doesn’t inflate, you can blow into the tube. So, we used that, incorporated, and the shot works perfectly, but that was not planned.

On how a low budget breeds innovation

Right before this video, I had just done “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which was like, $120 million movie with The Rock and Bruce Willis and Channing [Tatum], and just, it brings out the real storyteller in you. You really have to come down to: what are we trying to say? And then, how do we bring life to it? How do we bring our own personality to it?

I think the fact that there wasn’t the pressure of like, “Oh, but an audience has got to, like, pay money to see it.” I think it just was really freeing, and as a storyteller, it was just such a great exercise even though we had no clue whether anyone was going to watch this, in terms of like, beyond being forced to in a plane.

On the few perks that came after the video

It’s pretty awesome. Yeah, my mom, whenever she goes on a Virgin flight, she like, tells people around her because she’s so excited. And so, some people groan because they’re like, “Oh, god, not that thing again,” but then she gets treated like a queen by everybody. So, she loves it. They make announcements on the overhead. It’s pretty nuts.

I did this thing with Paul Allen, and he has this thing with Vulcan Pictures where they try to teach people about the economy, and so, they had ten different filmmakers do one. And it’s because of this, they had me come on and do one, and it’s called “Supply and Dance, Man.”