A day’s work shooting helicopter aerials for Hollywood has an unexpected and messy ending. No machines or humans were harmed.
It was with some amusement that I viewed the circus from the helicopter as we descended into set. There were people and equipment everywhere, and this was only Second Unit. The two picture helicopters were already on the ground, guzzling from the fuel truck. Hair, makeup and wardrobe trailers, the grip truck, camera truck, star wagons, honey wagon, genny and the all-important catering truck were arranged in the gravel pit that served as our staging area. Even Crew Parking was impressive.
All told, the unit totaled close to fifty people who would blow through several tens of thousands of dollars today. It might look like overkill for what seemed a pretty simple Second Unit shoot, but this was Hollywood — big budget, primetime television.
The call sheet for the day was deceptively simple.
Scenes 35-42: Day Exterior Forest. Helicopter chase. (Good guys in police helicopter pursue bad guys in another helicopter)
Scenes 48-55: Day Exterior Harbour. (Bad guys attempt escape by jumping from helicopter to yacht at high speed)
After coffee and breakfast burritos, we had meetings. The inevitable meetings. Producers, Associate Producers, Executive Producers, Production Assistants, Stunt Coordinators, Assistant Directors, Safety Guys, Location Manager, Cast Members, Stunt Doubles – they all had to get in on the meetings. The stunt guys are frequently the center of attention at these events because they always have little toy vehicles that they use to pre-visualize their work. This morning they were crouched down in the center of the large circle of attendees, holding brightly coloured toy helicopters, flying them around making realistic sounds and deciding how it all would play out on our televisions.
Steve, the camera ship helicopter pilot and my long-time partner in the aerials business, watched the proceedings and looked across the circle at me, grinning. Having been through this many times before, we knew what the stunt guys and Assistant Directors didn’t: once you get into the air, all bets are off. Everything changes. Everything looks different. That’s why we put cameras in helicopters in the first place.
Meetings over, it was time to go to work. Pilot Steve, Producer Richard and I decided at our own, much smaller, much shorter meeting that we’d do the hard stuff first. With the three of us in the camera ship, we’d shoot most of the helicopter chase material before lunch and save the relatively easy over-water gag for late in the afternoon when the light was better in Vancouver’s harbour.
On this warm summer day, the first thing we do is provide ourselves the rare luxury of removing all four doors, the better to see the action around us. Steve and Richard sit up front while I sit crosswise behind them, facing out the right hand side. With the backseat of the helicopter removed, I sit on the floor with the lower half of my body outside, my feet resting on the skid. Once in position, I can see hardly any helicopter at all. The entire world floats past me, unobstructed. It’s the best seat in the house, just as it should be. That’s where the camera always belongs.
Today, I’ll be using a “Tyler Middle Mount,” an aerial camera platform designed specifically for helicopter motion picture photography by Nelson Tyler. Attached securely to the floor at my back is a vertical metal mast that ends at about my head level. On top of the mast is balanced a teeter totter arm that has on one end a very heavy counterweight and on the other, the camera.
image courtesy Tyler Camera Systems
The Arri III is suspended in front of me, aimed with a pair of handgrips with a switch to roll the camera and paddles for zoom and focus. I’m in the same position as a helicopter door gunner from a Viet Nam war movie — it looks and feels exactly like I’m in one of those gunships — but rather than firing fifty caliber rounds into the jungle, I’ll be (in the vernacular of Hollywood cameramen) “hosing it down with Eastmancolor.”
Airborne at last, I smell the sunlit forest beneath my feet and take long, deep hits of the cool mountain air. Today is a gift. Normally I’m fighting cold air and bundled up like the Michelin Man, but today I wear sneakers, jeans and a shirt. I’ve never, ever been too warm shooting aerials, but today will prove the exception.
As a group, the two picture ships and the camera ship move out into the middle of the valley and turn our attention to shot design. On a normal set this is called “blocking,” an intensely creative and frequently time-consuming process. But with three helicopters in the air, and the machines alone costing close to two thousand dollars per hour, we don’t have the luxury of time. As quickly as possible, we have to design and photograph a sequence of shots that we can make safely and within budget and that will be exciting to watch while advancing the story.
Although we have a pretty good idea of what we need, there is no shot list. Even if we had one, we couldn’t read it. With all four doors off, it’s very turbulent inside the helicopter and everything not tied down becomes a safety hazard. Besides, Steve and I can usually think up far better shots than those guys down on the ground. That’s what they pay us for.
You couldn’t ask for a better location. The air is calm, the light is perfect, the mountains surround us, and the evergreen forest looks gorgeous. A silver river far below threads the valley floor and the sky is clear. We have everything we need to make good television. We’ll need exits and entrances, two-shots, singles, drive-bys, escapes and captures, near misses, good guy successes, bad guy mistakes, accusations, retributions. You know, a chase. The helicopter exteriors will intercut with the already-shot poor man’s process material of the actors yelling at each other as the chase progresses. “Lines”, I believe they’re called. The dialog unit does all the work. We have all the fun.
And fun it was. Air-to-air is by far the most demanding and fun of all the variants of aerial photography, and, since there were three helicopters in the air, this was an even more technically demanding “air to air to air” shoot. For most of the morning we three helicopters chased each other up and down the Seymour River, alternately skimming low over the treetops, then soaring high across the mountain peaks, banking and turning, the camera chasing the other two aircraft as they chased each other. The helicopter is truly a magical machine. It is at once the ultimate hot rod and a magic carpet. The view from my seat is both spectacular and exciting and I’m continuously presented with creative opportunities for storytelling with my camera. It is a great way to earn a living.
The French make damned good helicopters and the Eurocopter A-Star that is our camera ship is powerful, smooth and wonderfully agile. The picture ships consist of two American helicopters: a Bell 206 Jet Ranger and a Hughes 500, equally agile, each one entirely different looking from the other, so we’ll easily be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Steve’s having fun, too. Like cameramen, pilots love shooting aerials. Repeatability, accuracy and safety are part of their daily job, but aerials test their flight and creative skills to the limit. We have a superb partnership, for just as I have learned about helicopters and how they fly, Steve has learned over the years to think like a dolly grip, a crane operator and a camera. It’s a great partnership.
Communicating over the A-Star’s intercom system, Steve, Richard, and I work up the shots between us while Steve instructs the other helicopters on positioning and timing. With three helicopters in the air at once, the simplest error can be deadly, so maintaining good communication is critical. Our chances of getting good footage are excellent, but so are the chances of disaster.
We need to be fast, good, and safe. And there’s always the clock – the ticking dollars-clock that measures our productivity in hundreds of dollars a minute. Even the camera is expensive — every time I roll, the camera burns roughly a dollar per second in film alone, not counting processing and printing costs. We can’t afford to waste film or time, which is why we shoot all the rehearsals. Mountain flying like this is a very stressful environment, but things are going well, and I’m having amazing fun.
Days like this are why I got into this business in the first place.
By mid-day it was time to land, refuel, and have lunch. One of the many reasons Vancouver has become a favourite location for film-makers is the high standards set by the catering outfits. We hear it all the time from foreign producers and actors: “You’re so lucky. The film catering in Vancouver is as good as it gets.” And lucky we are. It started out at a very high level back in the eighties, with natural competition helping to maintain the quality of food and services ever since.
Even out here in the wilderness, the girls had managed to prepare an amazing meal. Grilled swordfish steaks, T-bones, baked ham, every kind of vegetable known to gardeners, several types and flavours of pasta, a choice of salads, pickles, mustards, sauces, condiments, you name it, we had it. Several long tables were laden with food, food and more food. And that was just the main course. There were desserts. Oh my, the desserts! Pies, cakes, pastries, and all manner of amazing goodies waited at the end of the table to tempt both the teamsters and the incautious.
Unable to decide between the ham, swordfish or the steak, I took a little of everything, heaping my plate high. With a full one-hour lunch scheduled, I intended to partake of a good feast and a snooze, a luxury determined in part by the schedule of the rest of the Camera Department. A pair camera assistants and grips had already had their lunch, and were hard at work moving the camera from the side mount — where we’d been shooting everything so far — to the nose of the helicopter. With a long-range zoom lens, the wide, flexible shooting angles of a side mount allows for some spectacular cinematography, but it lacks one crucial capability: if you want to shoot straight ahead along the flight path, you can only do so at slow speed because the helicopter has to fly sideways.
The nose mount solves this problem by putting the camera in the front of the helicopter, looking straight ahead. The camera can remotely tilt up and down, but it can’t pan left to right. In effect, the helicopter itself has to aim the camera. To enable accurate framing, the film camera sends an electronic image to a portable TV console inside the helicopter — and because it’s far too bright inside the helicopter to actually see a TV screen, the camera operator must press his face against a large rubberized hood, much like those used to peer into a radar screen on a ship.
image courtesy Tyler Camera Systems
The camera assistants were well-practiced at installing the nose mount and needed no supervision, leaving me free to enjoy my large, leisurely lunch and snooze.
Airborne once again, we began to fill the blanks left from the morning’s work. Our seating arrangements had changed, with Richard sitting behind me in the backseat and me up front in the co-pilot’s place where I could operate the nose mount camera console.
A camera ship is more of an observer when using a side mount, providing a stable aerial platform for the camera with the added capabilities of a superhero-scale jib arm, dolly and tripod combined. It’s a whole different game with a nose mount, which requires the helicopter to become a much more active participant in the filming process. Using a medium wide angle lens forces the camera to remain close to the subject, so shooting our chase scene would mean staying very close while enduring rapid, intense, and continuous maneuvering. Under such conditions, things can get hairy inside a camera ship. This might be fun, but it certainly wasn’t going to be easy.
It was now well past midday in the hot summer sun. The air that had been cool and smooth in the morning was now hot and turbulent, causing all three helicopters to bump and dance as we flew low and fast along the winding river. But the footage looked great through the viewfinder, with all that movement adding a sense of speed and tension to the shots. Just what we wanted. The always-present imaginary Editor’s there, watching over my shoulder, happy. And so was Richard, in the seat immediately behind me.
But I had problems. Instead of sitting in the open rear door bathed in fresh, cool air, I was now sitting in a greenhouse — and rather than spending much of my time looking out at the real world, I had my head down, glued to that rubber hood, watching a flickering black and white image on a TV screen.
You can guess where this is going. Little dancing dots started to appear in my vision, and they weren’t on that CRT screen.
I don’t often get airsick, but it can happen when the conditions were right. Rough air, intense maneuvering, hot sun and the damned TV picture were my enemies. Being airsick in a light aircraft is a nightmare, especially when you have to keep working, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that there’s no sympathy. Not from the pilot, who really doesn’t want you puking in his helicopter. Not from the client, who really couldn’t care less how shitty you feel. And certainly not from yourself, because you chose this line of work in the first place. When it starts to get really bad, you’re afraid you’re going to die. Later, when it gets really, really bad, you’re afraid you’re not going to die. This afternoon, as those little dancing dots continued to accumulate in my vision, I was halfway between those two extremes.
Finally it became all too much. I pulled my head off the rubber hood and looked over at Steve, who took one look at me, immediately reduced power, leveled the machine and began to rub off airspeed. He knew.
I’d waited far too long to reveal my discomfort. One advantage of our removing all the doors was that I didn’t have to open any windows or even search frantically for something, anything, to vomit into. I simply turned my head towards the empty space to my left and let go.
Thanks to my extra large lunch, both the volume and duration of the barf were extraordinary. There were multiple barfs, actually. Never-ending, or so it seemed to me. I had ample time to dwell on these miserable calculations as my stomach dutifully emptied its entire contents into the air — and as it turned out, all over the rear of the helicopter.
Steve wasn’t about to let me off easy, and as we returned to the gravel pit, he broadcast my misfortune to the entire crew by radio. My humiliation was mitigated after we landed only by the sight of Theo, my long-suffering assistant, running towards me under the still-spinning blades, carrying a bottle of cool, fresh water.
I took a long drink, and then emerged from the seat to inspect the rear of the helicopter. Amazing! What colours! The entire tail boom was sprayed from end to end with the remains of my lunch — a good twenty feet of barf rapidly drying in the summer sun. There were red bits, white bits, green bits, even some blue bits, which must have been the sprinkles on that last cupcake. It was an incredible mess.
“Nice work,” said Producer Richard, smirking at me as he clambered out of his seat, brushing a few green flakes off his shoulder.
“I hardly got any on you,” I replied, helping him with the lettuce bits while trying not to think about what barfing on the boss could mean to my career.
“This isn’t my first canoe ride,” he laughed. “I took one look at your face and hit the floor.”
The grips (god bless all grips, everywhere) soon appeared with several buckets of water and a mop, and in short order had Steve’s helicopter looking clean and bright again. After a few minutes to recuperate, we returned to complete the rest of the work, including the boat scenes later in the day.
It was a painfully embarrassing lesson, but at least I didn’t get fired. Richard, Steve and I went on to greater things together, and besides learning the error of my lunchtime ways, that day we all learned the real meaning of the term “coverage.”