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Goin’ Mobile

Mobile film and video production can range from small trucks to big rigs, helicopters to small airplanes to big blimps. It’s called flexibility.

By Tom Inglesby

[Above Left] Camera Copters’ turnkey approach works on all types of projects.   [Above Right] Sometimes, a project calls for specialty equipment. Island Century Media (ICM) has you covered.   [Left] Shooting from the high ground can mean from the top of a mobile rig like this one at Token Creek.
[Top] Camera Copters’ turnkey approach works on all types of projects.
[Bottom Right] Sometimes, a project calls for specialty equipment. Island Century Media (ICM) has you covered.
[Bottom Left] Shooting from the high ground can mean from the top of a mobile rig like this one at Token Creek.

Few places in the United States can compare with Hawaii for scenic beauty. As a filming location, it can provide almost every environment a director will call for. Well, maybe not an “old New York” street, but that’s why there are sound stages in Hollywood. And one of the best ways to convey that scenic beauty is by incorporating aerial shots in your film.

Hawaii Five-O (on CBS) isn’t the only show that’s under camera in the Islands, but it is the current champion in bringing the Paradise of the Pacific to the screen. A previous champion was Magnum, P.I., the project that brought Tom Selleck and the Ferrari 308GTS into millions of homes each week. Following the original Hawaii Five-O, which shot in Honolulu from 1968 until 1980, the year that Magnum started, the series also starred another form of transportation, TC’s Hughes 500 helicopter affectionately known as “The Chopper.”

Before takeoff, a Paradise Helicopter crew adjusts the camera and tests its movement.
Before takeoff, a Paradise Helicopter crew adjusts the camera and tests its movement.

The Chopper is back! If your script calls for it, Paradise Helicopters (www.paradisecopters.com) might just let you use it in one or more of your scenes. Paradise doesn’t use the Hughes 500 replica as a camera platform, but it makes a colorful image on film.

Rob Payesko, director of business development at Paradise Helicopters, noted that they are called on by producers for a number of reasons besides The Chopper. “Knowledge of the areas is first and foremost. The Big Island has ten different climate zones. You can get snow on Mauna Kea – hence its name: White Mountain – or be out in the Kau Desert with the cactus. The producers rely on our intimate knowledge of every part of the island.”

Paradise typically doesn’t supply the cinema gear but, as Payesko said, “We do a lot of work with CineFlex and partner with them at the client’s request. We have also had plenty of productions that bring their own 2K and 4K equipment.”

Paradise Helicopters is flying a replica of The Chopper from Magnum PI shown here with Roger E Mosley (actor from original series) at the controls
Paradise Helicopters is flying a replica of The Chopper from Magnum PI shown here with Roger E Mosley (actor from original series) at the controls

While there are a lot of scenic reasons to shoot on the big island of Hawaii, getting to the location can be a challenge. “Much of the island is not accessible other than by aircraft. The helicopter is unique in its filming capacity because of its ability to maneuver. We are particular to the Bell 407 Helicopter because of its particular smoothness of flight and long range. We are the only aerial filming company in the state of Hawaii to use the Bell.”

Paradise Helicopters is flying a replica of The Chopper from Magnum PI shown here with Roger E Mosley (actor from original series) at the controls
Paradise Helicopters is flying a replica of The Chopper from Magnum PI.

As Payesko acknowledged, most productions bring their own camera gear, but Paradise provides the rest. “We will arrange for mounts as needed since the production companies typically don’t own that equipment. We do a lot of work with Tyler Mounts.”

Surrounded by water, Hawaii provides an environment that attracts extreme sports as well as extreme beauty. “We handle the Iron Man [triathlon] filming for NBC on the Big Island and have done so for the past five years. They come in a few days early and mount up the camera and remote rig. The day before they shoot all their B-roll and on Iron Man day they are out covering the race all day. Seems to go really smooth every year and the coverage has a prime spot in the NBC Sports broadcast schedule with nationwide coverage.”

Fixed or rotating

Sometimes, a project calls for specialized equipment that can’t be found locally, wherever “locally” is. Cut off from the mainland by a lot of ocean, Hawaii has developed a strong self-sufficiency in film and video production mobility, but it doesn’t have everything.

Aircraft in use for aerial photography and cinematography range from helicopters to small general aviation airplanes, and larger twin engine aircraft to the blimp familiar to football fans across the USA. Not many mobile production companies can provide all three – often they are restricted by their pilot’s FAA licensing to one or two categories. One company that has flown all three categories is Island Century Media (ICM) (www.icm4hd.com).

Rob Gunther, president of ICM, discusses helicopters, “We utilize AS350, MD500, and Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopters, all well proven turbine engine aircraft, and the AS355 twin turbine engine helicopter for highly demanding projects. It can work lower and much further into remote areas than a single engine aircraft.”

The 18th green at Muirfield Scotland, near Edinburgh. Island Century’s Rob Gunther shot the Scottish Open there.
The 18th green at Muirfield Scotland, near Edinburgh. Island Century’s Rob Gunther shot the Scottish Open there.

“Our proven fixed wing camera platform is the single engine Wilga, an aircraft that is ideal as an economical camera ship,” continued Gunther. “Producers want a stable platform that can go where they want to shoot and can hang around as long as necessary. They want long lens capability and all the latest equipment. We can provide that in either fixed wing or rotary.”

ICM’s Rob Gunther does a lot of aerial work at golf tournaments, such as the British Open and the Scottish Open. In January 2014, he is covering three golf tournaments in Hawaii.
ICM’s Rob Gunther does a lot of aerial work at golf tournaments, such as the
British Open and the Scottish Open. In January 2014, he is covering three golf
tournaments in Hawaii.

A gyro-stabilized gimbal mount gives the best all-around performance for aerial filming. ICM offers the Flir Ultramedia HD for both standard and high-definition shoots. The UMHD with 84X lens can be supplied on either helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft for “go-anywhere” filming.

Gunther does a lot of aerial work at golf tournaments, such as the British Open and the Scottish Open. In January 2014, he is covering three golf tournaments in Hawaii that provided an additional challenge. “We had to disassemble the Wilga and pack it into a 747 freighter to get it to Hawaii. We’re using it to cover three weeks of golf for NBC.”

The Wilga – Polish for Oriole – is a short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft that was made in Poland for decades. Designed for slow flight – it cruises at 121 mph – the Wilga mounts the Flir camera pod on the centerline, which gives the operator a horizontal 360-degree range of movement unlike wing-mounted cameras.

Perhaps to extend their time in Hawaii, after three weeks of golf, Gunther and his crew will shoot the NFL Network’s Pro Bowl team selection show. Then breaking their little Oriole down for the flight home in the belly of a 747 will take up their time until they head for home in Florida.

On the ground

On Maui, Paul Ehman, head of Ehman Productions, (www.ehmanproductions.com) can offer a producer the complete range of grip and gaffer equipment and the vehicles to transport it. For him, the major clients are in the islands for sports, lots of sports. “In mobile-truck capabilities, it is all sports coverage. We can provide all the gear they need and save them the cost of shipping it in from the mainland,” he said. “When you think about moving around from location-to-location, we can handle everything needed besides the equipment, such as remote production offices and communications.”

Remote work can be very remote as this shot of a turtle shoot by Ehman Productions shows.
Remote work can be very remote as this shot of a turtle shoot by Ehman Productions shows.

According to Ehman, they aren’t getting calls for 4K for sports and television, but “some DPs are playing with it for commercials for some reason. The slo-mo and ultra-slo-mo stuff is being used more.” A major rental house on Maui, Ehman Productions has worked with producers for 25 years. They have produced award-winning sports programming, reality shows, print campaigns and commercials including Big Break for three seasons on the Golf Channel, The Amazing Race for 10 Seasons on CBS and four episodes of America’s Next Top Model.

Meanwhile, still on the ground but on the Mainland, trucks are the big thing in mobile. And sometimes they are very big things. Wisconsin, for example, produces more than cheese and football champions; it also has one of the most mobile of mobile production companies, Token Creek Mobile Television (www.tokencreek.com). President John Salzwedel said, “We recently wrapped up coverage of the 32nd annual Minnesota State Prep Bowl at the Mall of America’s Metrodome in Minneapolis.”

The control room aboard Token Creek's rig.
The control room aboard Token Creek’s rig.

In 1992, Salzwedel decided he wanted to start his own business but something unique. “I always liked live event television production and so I built my first mobile production truck. We built it in the driveway at my home; that was a good learning experience. We ran that truck until 2000 when I built a larger truck, and we are currently up to five trucks in our fleet.”

The newest truck is called the Sioux HD. It joins the Hiawatha HD production truck that brings high-end HD in a smaller footprint, which is ideal for regional or local HD sports and event broadcasting. Hiawatha is 1080i, 720 switchable, fully loaded with EVS XFile Digital Archive station and a robust Replay feature set, Grass Valley Kalypso HD production switcher, Thomson LDK 8000 World Cams, Calrec Omega with Bluefin and Abekas DVEous MX.

Token Creek has added a new big rig to its mobile production fleet
Token Creek has added a new big rig to its mobile production fleet.

“We work all over the country,” Salzwedel said. “As a matter of fact, Wisconsin is our home, but we are seldom working in our own backyard. We travel coast to coast and occasionally into Canada for the work that we do. For example, we do is the Heisman Trophy Presentation in Times Square, New York every year, and have for seven years. And we’ve done inaugurations at the nation’s capital, a lot of things that are basically non-sports or not game-related type of shows.”

Looking toward the future, Salzwedel said, “I think we’re all taking a look at 4K as not necessarily a complete throughput in the truck, but as maybe islands of 4K production within mobile production trucks. But as far as a complete 4K truck from bumper to bumper, I don’t really see that happening in the very near future.”

Flexibility is the key

Moving further East we come to Nashville, a name that is closely associated with country music. If he has his way, Nic Dugger hopes to make it just as recognized in the TV and film industry as the home of TNDV: Television. TNDV: Television (www.tndv.com) has been in business for 10 years and owns a fleet of five television production vehicles, four of which are primarily video and audio, like traditional broadcast trucks. One of the five is a full-sized 53-foot, 256-input audio recording facility.

Inside TNDV’s mobile production rig with 24 camera feeds during the CMA show.
Inside TNDV’s mobile production rig with 24 camera feeds during the CMA show.

TNDV isn’t limited to working the Nashville market, as Dugger, the company’s president, pointed out. “We go all over the country, although probably half of our work is in Nashville. Just about every month we’re in California, Florida, or maybe Washington, D.C., averaging about 250 to 300 projects per year. And we also have four different fly pack systems that go all over the world. We just got back from a job in Brussels.”

According to Dugger, flexibility is what sets TNDV apart from his competitors. “I think most TV truck companies have a format they stick to. In other words, they can give you a spec sheet because whenever you get a truck, it’s going to have the same equipment in it. What we are based on is a fluid inventory. We find out what our client needs for that show and we’ll pack the truck for that show.”

If you need a five-camera truck or if you need a 20-camera truck they will pack it appropriately and adjust the bid. The value is that the client is not paying for things they don’t need. “When I was producing shows before I built my first truck, it would really disturb me when I paid a big rate for a truck and they would show up with seven long lenses and I didn’t need them,” recalled Dugger. “I didn’t want to be paying for gear I’m not using. So we à la carte the truck from top to bottom so the client is using and paying for only the gear needed. That’s a very different approach in our industry, but I think our clients appreciate it and it allows them to build their budgets per show.”

TNDV’s rig parked outside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the Country Music Awards show.
TNDV’s rig parked outside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the Country Music Awards show.

It’s very simple to move camera base stations from one truck to the next, so it doesn’t make sense to outfit every truck with 10 cameras when the client might need seven or three. “I was able to do a 23-camera show out of the same truck we use to do five- and six-camera shows,” Dugger said. “For us, it’s about infrastructure. We wire for our worst-case scenario. We’ll install cabling and patching and routing for more cameras than we think we need so when the client needs more it’s easy for us to pop that hardware in there, test it and make sure it’s perfect, then move it to another project the following week.”

“I think flexibility is key,” Dugger concluded. “We’re not a sports production company and we’re not an entertainment production company. We’re a company that wants to make sure that the tools are right for your show, and that’s why we can so easily move from doing a 7-camera HD football game live for FOX Sports, to the CMA Awards red carpet show in the same week – which actually happened in 2013 with the same truck. That flexibility and our attention to detail set us apart from the competition that has a spec sheet that never changes.”

Camera Copters owner Paul Barth is qualified in fixed wing, amphibian/seaplane, and helicopters for aerial filming.
Camera Copters owner Paul Barth is qualified in fixed wing, amphibian/seaplane, and helicopters for aerial filming.

Back in the air

Heading south to the warmer climes of Florida, we wrap up our look at mobile production with a quick visit to Camera Copters (www.cameracopters.com). One of the biggest houses devoted to mobile production, Camera Copters belies its name by offering fixed wing as well as helicopter aerial platforms and can, through a network of contacts in the aviation field, supply specialized aircraft such as military and antique planes outfitted to be camera ready for any storyboard. They have been doing aerial filming for a long time and can provide the producer with qualified crew members, all permits and permissions, and even act as a second unit crew.

One of Camera Copters’ unique capabilities stems from its big rig, a transporter large enough to swallow a MD-500 helicopter with space to spare for equipment, monitoring room, uplink, and even, in a pinch, living quarters. Rather than fly the helicopter to a remote location, incurring added costs, wear and hours on the aircraft, they load it up in the truck and drive it to the best launch location for the shoot. The company’s all-inclusive package brings the chopper, camera mount, film and HD stabilized camera systems, recording and monitoring gear, the crew and any specialized equipment called for.

Camera Copters' big rig is large enough to swallow a MD-500 helicopter with space to spare.
Camera Copters’ big rig is large enough to swallow a MD-500 helicopter with space to spare.

Owner Paul Barth is personally qualified to fly fixed wing, amphibian/seaplane, and helicopters for aerial filming. He is a member of SAG and can act as aerial coordinator, as well as pilot. Mobile production used to mean a truck with a camera in the back. Now that camera flies, drives, sails, and speeds through all three media: air, land and water. Companies can supply everything you need or the basic transportation to haul your equipment and crews. As Dugger says, it’s all about flexibility.


December 4, 2013