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Mobile Production: Bird's Eye View

By Mark R. Smith

Mobile production isn't just trucks hitting the road. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft offer perhaps the ultimate in mobility taking to the air to capture the action, record spectacular vistas and provide unique viewpoints. Three leaders in the field of aerial cinematography talk about what it takes to go mobile — way above any road.


Paul Barth at the Atlantis Resort, Paradise
Island for Nik Wallenda’s world-record,
wirewalking attempt.

Island Century Media Gets 'That' Shot
Rob Gunter has made his living by lensing a variety of projects from the skies, mainly for entertainment and sports. The owner of Island Century Media (www.icm4hd.com) often shoots from his fixed-wing Wilga, a specially-built airplane designed for slow flying — which “makes it ideal” for carrying the Flir UltraMedia HD camera mount with a 5-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal.

Inside the flying machine is a Sony Cine Alta F950 with a Fujinon telephoto wide-angle lens that extends to more than 800mm (9.7mm on the wide side).
Gunter also takes to the skies in various helicopters, notably the Hughes/McDonnell Douglas MD 500, a five-bladed, turbine-powered craft that's “ideally suited to shooting video, due to its maneuverability and smooth ride,” he says. Other favorites include the Bell Jetranger 206 with an AirFilm nose mount and the EuroCopter AS 355 (known as the “Twin Squirrel”) with an AirFilm sidepole mount.

Helicopter flying over Monument Valley
Rick Shuster flying over Monument Valley
with a SpaceCam mount.

Gunter has worked from these aircraft to shoot events such as The British Open, the LPGA's Nabisco/Dinah Shore Open in Rancho Mirage, California and The Breeders' Cup for ABC/ESPN as well as documentaries for The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, A&E and other networks.

Also in the mix were exteriors for a to-be-named Bravo reality series shooting in Miami; A&E's Billy the Exterminator on location in Shreveport, Louisiana; SEC college football for CBS; and post-season Major League Baseball for TBS.

Gunter also covered high-wire artist Nik Wallenda as he set twin world's records at Paradise Island in the Bahamas cycling more than 100 feet on a wire strung between two hotels at the Atlantis Resort and walking about 2,000 feet across a wire suspended over the resort's marine habitat stocked with sharks and piranhas.

Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island
A sweeping aerial by Rob Gunter showing
the Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island.

“We flew [the Twin Squirrel] at low levels but at quite a distance, a good 300 yards, away from where he was walking,” he recalls. “It was really amazing that there were rain showers that came through the area so that delayed his long walk. Also, his father had a medical issue in between the bike ride and the long cable walk, so that was another concern. This was the scariest event I've ever shot, yet I was told to stay focused on Nik — no matter what.”

Weather and rather remote venues always pose challenges. “The British Open can be tough due to the rain and 40- to 50-mph winds, which even suspended play at St. Andrews during the telecast this year,” notes Gunter whose fixed-wing aircraft had to land about 25 minutes away.

Fixed-Wing Wilga
Rob Gunter’s fixed-wing Wilga carries a
Flir UltaMedia HD camera mount.

For the British Open Gunter acted as shooter with Chad Palmer, who has served as a blimp pilot for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last 15 years, at the controls. Once the duo was airborne, they stayed that way for “four or five hours at a stretch,” Gunter reports; live microwave transmissions were done via the Vislink L1500.

“Ultimately, we were airborne for more than 30 hours for the four-day tournament, so that's two stints of about four hours each a day,” he says. “We circled the course and, depending on where the coverage was at the moment, we'd focus on that area. We made laps and altered orbit depending on who they were covering. It's the same drill at the LPGA Solheim Cup.”

In the end, Gunter's part of the broadcast is about logistics. “We have to coordinate with the production. We're working with the producers, just like the handheld and hard-site camera operators on the ground,” he says. And, despite the altitude, “We get close ups just like they do.”

Helicopter at Mammoth Mountain
Rick Shuster shot a spot for Jeep at
Mammoth Mountain, California with a
SpaceCam mount.

Camera Copters Racks Up Frequent-Flyer Miles
As befits the company name, Camera Copters (www.cameracopters.com) offers full-service aerial production at any location in North America — mainly from helicopters and usually from the Hughes/McDonnell Douglas MD 500.

“We use a variety of copters,” says owner/operator Paul Barth, “but our two transport trucks are designed to move the MD 500. That's the copter we use about 75 percent of the time and bring to locations.

Hughes/McDonnell
Rob Gunter often uses the Flir UltraMedia HD
camera mount on a Hughes/McDonnell
Douglas MD 500.

“No one else in the film industry operates the way we do, since no one else has a NASCAR-style tractor-trailer transport unit. It makes for a tighter, more efficient package; the aircraft is less costly to operate.”

The other main copter in the stable is the EuroCopter AS-355 (or the Twin Star). “That's used for most of the rest of our work, since it can accommodate bigger camera systems, like the SpaceCam with its action arm and the Pictorvision eclipse camera mount, due to its bigger camera payload,” he explains.

Nik Wallenda on bicycle on high wire
Rob Gunter captures Nik Wallenda as
he prepares to set a world’s record cycling
on a wire at the Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island.

Barth and company use a variety of aerial camera systems for custom nose and side bracket mounts; he can also sling the camera system on a cable, the Longline, for specialty applications, on the MD 500. To underscore Camera Copters' full-service approach, Barth reports that he also flies the occasional fixed-wing boat plane, the Cessna 206, but mainly for scouting.

Barth had several ship-themed assignments recently. For the new Adam Sandler/Al Pacino feature, Jack & Jill, he worked with Pat Longman of Active Camera Systems as co-aerial DPs capturing shots of the Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas as it cruised and upon its arrival in Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale. Then the duo lensed plates while the ship was in port to show “one of the film's characters exiting the ship by helicopter on a rope ladder.”

Nik Wallendaís wire walk
Rob Gunter’s POV of Nik Wallenda’s wire walk.

Barth also captured aerials in Nassau for the feature, The Cruise, shot aboard the Costa Atlantica.

For Outdoor Network Barth handled aerial photography for Beau Knows Outdoors, starring Ted Turner's son. “We traveled to the Turner property in Bozeman in October with our Big Rig turnkey aerial unit and used the gyro-stablized Cineflex HD camera system with Warm Springs Productions' director/producer Chris Richardson and Steve Cassidy, who owns and operates the camera,” he recalls. “We spent a week there filming Beau hiking, hunting and riding on horseback on the ranch and, in general, shooting all over the vast, beautiful protected area. That offered us the opportunity to shoot many bison and capture the breathtaking scenery of the mountains. It was a bit challenging since it was starting to get cold, but we work all over and we're trained and geared up to handle the elements.”

Nik Wallenda mid-wire
Rob Gunter caught Nik Wallenda mid-wire
as he walked across the marine habitat.

Other aerial credits for Barth include USA Network's Burn Notice, the CBS CSI franchise, VH1's Football Wives reality show, the Yosemite camping segment for Oprah, and segments for JM Associates, producers of the Bass Masters fishing tournament.

While the work seems to be finding him, Barth still deals with budget concerns. “For some jobs, production has to be tighter and more efficient,” he says. “Productions want to squeeze more into a work day and get more content for less.”

One Camera Copters client who effectively deals with the bigger picture is Chris Richardson, a principal in Warm Springs Productions, who produces outdoor TV series. He combines resources and sets up shoots where similar aerial shots are lensed for different shows; thus, he maximizes his aerial budget.

“Some features still have plenty of money, but the smaller shows often don't,” Barth says. “Many shows want an aerial shot, but even many experienced producers don't understand what they really want or need, or the costs. But I work with them and help them understand how to acquire high-end aerial shots.”

tractortrailer transport unit with MD 500
Camera Copters’ NASCAR-style
tractortrailer transport unit with MD 500;
Paul Barth pictured at left.

Shuster Knows the Thrill of the Game
No one can accuse Rick Shuster of not going the extra mile, or across the extra continent, for that matter: He's worked in 10 countries, with credits that include Hollywood features such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Batman: The Dark Knight.

2010, however, has been a period of mostly domestic work for Rick Shuster Aviation Services Inc. (www.moviepilots.com), based in Thousand Oaks, California. This fall, it even had a stretch working in seven states during a two-week period.

Helicopter with SpaceCam mount.
A camera crew prepares for a Navy project shot
by Rick Shuster with a SpaceCam mount.

When Shuster, president of the Motion Picture Pilots Association, takes to the skies, it's in a helicopter 98 percent of the time. His transportation of choice? His own AS 350 Bravo-2, or A Star, “the Corvette of that model of helicopter. That name carries a lot of weight in the business.”

Why? “It's very user-friendly due to its ability to carry heavy loads,” possibly including the DP, producer, pilot and director; a 600-pound camera system; and fuel, “and still go out and complete the job.”

Shuster has had as many as five people in his A Star, witness one recent gig for FX. “We were shooting highlights for the next season of Justified in Knoxville, Tennessee and carrying a 600-pound mount, plus 500 pounds of fuel (which is good for 90 minutes).

Explosive Scene
Rick Shuster shooting an explosive scene for
X-Men Origins: Wolverine in New Zealand.

“We flew down in a canyon over a river, as low as possible. Everything for that show is crazy and dramatic,” he says. “In this shoot, we were as low, fast and close as we could be over the mountainous terrain, trees and water. If we weren't the shot would be boring to the viewer. It's all about speed and the thrill.”

He often employs SpaceCam gyro-stabilized mounts for ARRI2 35mm and RED One cameras, among others. Cineflex and Gyron systems are standard for news-gathering copters due to their smaller stabilizer balls.

Shooting with the SpaceCam mount
Rick Shuster shooting with the SpaceCam
mount in Tennessee.

Selecting the appropriate mount is “the decision I make,” he explains. “What camera we use is determined by the director/cameraman. We get all of the players involved to select the right copter, right mounts and the right cameraman and cameras. I'm basically the coordinator. That's the big deal here.”

Another big deal is his owning his helicopter. “When you own your own equipment, people feel better about letting you use theirs,” he says. “Then, they know that you'll take care of their equipment and the job.”

Shuster's recent credits include the features Faster and John Carter of Mars, the ABC TV show Private Practice, a variety of auto spots for Chevrolet, Cadillac and Audi, which aired during the last Super Bowl, and a spot for the video game Call to Duty.

Cineflex camera mount is attached
A Cineflex camera mount is attached
to the front of Rick Shuster’s copter
in Loveland Pass, Colorado.

He found that Call to Duty was similar to the Justified shoot. “Not only were we in really tight quarters in an open field in an old rundown mining camp northeast of Palm Springs, we had to be watchful of explosions and people running out of our helicopter with machine guns and into the midst of a large gun battle.”

The biggest challenge this year, though, has been dealing with the sour economy. “The most expensive stuff is what often gets cut and I have felt that this year,” Shuster admits. “For instance, when cars aren't selling that hurts my spot business — although business has picked up lately, and I'm optimistic about 2011.”