|At the February 16, 2006 meeting...
Moving the Moving Image
A moving experience!
When I got home from Thursday evening's SMPTE-NE meeting, my wife casually asked, "How did the SMPTE meeting go tonight, dear?"
I doubt that she was prepared for my answer.
"Oh, just the usual stuff," I said, trying to maintain my best straight face. "Let's see, there was this big helicopter they use for aerial cinematography. It landed right next to us. We wheeled it into the meeting, they showed us how they do it, then we all pushed it back out into the parking lot and it took off." I stifled my best simulated yawn and went on...
"The guy who does the shooting, Brian Heller, showed us clips from his TV and motion picture work, really top shelf stuff. Have you ever seen the opening to the David Letterman show, the Channel 56 Ten O'clock News, or 'Providence'"
"That's his work?"
"Wow, sounds like you had quite a meeting." She said, showing a bit more interest than usual. "I always wondered how they get those shots."
"Well, there's much more to it than you might think. It takes a special combination of flying skill, cinematography know how ... and a boat load of guts."
"I"ll bet," she said.
"Yeah, and that's not all. We had an excellent Glidecam demonstration by John Correira, one the few union Steadicam/Glidecam operators based here in New England. He showed us how the rig works, what it takes to get the shots, as well as some examples of his TV, film, and commercial work. I never realized just how much training, physical prowess and determination it took to become really good."
"Sounds interesting. Tell me more," she asked, obviously becoming more intrigued.
Still charged with enthusiasm from what I had just seen, I was more than glad to oblige.
"Well, Correira showed us how important it is to balance the camera on the rig. You've got to balance the camera just right. He told us when everything is set up perfectly it takes only four fingers to operate and manipulate the camera. In fact, the fewer fingers on the camera, the better!"
"He has this cart that all Steadicam operators use that has both a balancing rig and a place to hang the thing when it isn't attached to his body via its vest. He pointed out that the further away the camera is from his body, the heavier it is. A few feet away and it feels like twice the weight! By necessity, Correira, like most Steadicam operators, is a rather rugged, sturdy young fellow."
"Sounds like a tough way to make a living," My wife comments.
"You don't say. He says he sees his chiropractor once a week, and that it should really be twice. Any Steadicam operator that says it doesn't hurt isn't telling the truth, Correira insists."
"How does the thing work ... with gyros?"
"You mean those little Greek sandwiches?"
"Very funny." She doesn't seem to appreciate my admittedly weak attempt at humor.
"No, no gyros. Garrett Brown, the Oscar and Emmy Award winning inventor who conceived the idea back in the 70's, came up with another way to isolate the camera from the shake, rattle and roll of the outside world. Gyros would've been much too heavy."
"Ha, next thing you're going to tell me is they do it with mirrors," my wife says tauntingly.
"Nope, it' all done with a double-jointed articulated arm that's attached to a vest that the operator wears," I explain.
"The arm has springs and pulleys that work together to absorb shock. That's how they can even run up a flight of stairs and still get a very smooth shot. At the other end of the arm is a long pole with the camera mounted at one end and a monitor and batteries at the other. The batteries and the monitor help to counterbalance the camera at the other end. In the middle of the arm there is a gimbal with a protruding handle. The handle is where the rig attaches to the arm. Are you beginning to get the picture?"
"Well, sort of," she says, "Sounds like an awful lot of physics."
"No doubt about it. The science involved gets pretty dense; stuff like spreading out the center of mass," I say authoritatively, speaking as if I know what it all means. "Correira spoke more about the practical aspects of actually using the devices than he did about the science. He showed us how the camera can be mounted high or close to the ground, and how the two major operating positions, the 'missionary' and the 'Don Juan' work."
"Are you pulling my leg again?" my wife says, stifling a big guffaw.
"No, I'm being totally serious. In Steadicam parlance the 'missionary' is any operating position where the camera lens points forward. In the 'Don Juan' the camera lens points backwards, so the operator can shoot what's directly behind him, yet see where he's going."
My wife interrupts to ask me to tell her a little more about the aerial cinematography presentation.
"It was something I knew almost nothing about," I admit.
Brian Heller and his longtime pilot Mike Peavey obviously love their work and are more than willing to share what they have learned about their craft. Heller is an avuncular fellow who with his handsome white beard could pass for Santa Claus were he to gain some weight. His somewhat short stature is a definite asset in the tight confines of the Bell Jet Ranger III chopper. Cohort Mike Peavey is the picture perfect fly boy, well into middle age, but forever young.
"You should have seen this chopper," I tell my wife. "It is highly compact, but absolutely loaded with equipment. The aircraft itself only weighs some two thousand pounds. Where the rear seat would go, is a Tyler Gyro Stabilized camera mount fitted with an ARRI 35mm camera. It's Heller's weapon of choice. Although it can only shoot for four (or ten minutes with the largest magazine), the results are worth the frequent reloads. We saw some 'one-light' prints transferred to Beta SP and they looked incredible. Of course, you can transfer them to standard or high-def ... anything you please."
When using the side-mounted camera, Heller sits with both feet hanging outside of the fuselage, resting them on a skid. He is firmly strapped into a seat and a windscreen protruding from fuselage protects him from the direct blast of the wind. Usual shooting speeds are 60 to 80 MPH. The triple gyro in the Tyler mount enables very smooth moves. Several of us tried it (on the ground, of course) and appreciated its solid feel.
But the camera and the mount are only half the story.
The other half is the special brand of airmanship that's required of the film pilot. It's a real team effort. Heller and Peavey have been practicing their pas de deux for some 30 years now! Whenever Hollywood directors come to New England and need an aerial DP, they know who to call.
We also got a look at the Tyler stabilized front mount with a high-end Panasonic DVCPRO camera sitting exposed to the open air.
My wife asked what they do if it rains. "I asked Heller that. He says they never fly in the rain. They need good weather to shoot."
Heller also explained the differences between Tyler mounts and those offered by Wescam. "The Wescam provides a super stable platform for telephoto work for news and other applications where you want it to appear as if you are shooting from a rock solid base. It all depends on the application. We sometimes shoot with Wescam."
Heller says he usually shoots with ISO 50 negative stock for daylight and ISO 500 stock for 'magic hour' or evening shoots. Typically, normal (180-degree) shutter angle and 24 fps film speeds are used.
During the helicopter tour, Peavey commented on some of the aircraft's features. Fuel consumption is 25 gallons per hour, and the kerosene fuel for its single turbine can cost over $5.00 per gallon! He paid $5.90 recently in Connecticut!
Another interesting aside, is that in a post 9/11 world, just about every law enforcement authority, government agency, and building manager must be called or otherwise notified before a scheduled shoot. Some folks take a pretty dim view of a chopper buzzing past their office window unless they have a pretty good idea of what they are doing there.
Peavey says the difference between letting a local law enforcement authority know what you are up to in advance or not letting them know, is that when you land to change film magazines or to get re-fueled, the police cruiser that's usually waiting for you when you touch down is either there to interrogate you or to watch your chopper while they drop you off at the nearest donut shop for a cup of coffee.
"So what does it cost to rent a chopper and all this gear for a typical shoot?" my wife queries.
"They tell me you better plan for a minimum of about $5,000 just to get started. Of course, everything is priced a la carte, but that can be very misleading unless you know all of the ins and outs of this very arcane business."
Martin P. Feldman
Special thanks to John Gates for the co-production of this meeting.