AC explores the field of aerial photography by surveying some of the modern firms that have advanced the craft.

In October of 1858, Gaspard Felix Tournachon (also known as "Nadar") made an 80-meter balloon ascent just outside Paris. Although he was hardly the first to fly a coal-gas balloon over France, Nadar was the first to take a camera and a complete darkroom along with him. He returned to earth with what he described as "a simple positive on glass" made with "detestable materials" apparently, Nadar was no fan of the wet-plate process. His picture of the valley of Bievre, seen from an altitude of approximately 260 feet, was the world’s first aerial photograph.

A craze for bird’s-eye views followed, as amateur tinkerers and professional engineers came up with new ideas. As early as 1863, a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph suggested that aerial cameras would provide sharper images if they were mounted on a gyroscope. (It was a great idea, but way ahead of its time; in the 1860s, stabilizing gyroscopes were far too big to take up in a balloon.)

In 1889, cameras were attached to kites (called "captive airships"), and in 1891, a German patent was issued for a gunpowder rocket-camera, which made exposures at 2,600 feet. In 1903, the "pigeon-camera" was patented. It was strapped to the bird’s chest, weighed just 2 1/2 ounces and produced a 1 1/2" square negative. One lovely picture taken by such a camera shows a castle far below, nestled in rolling countryside. Along the right-hand edge, the sunlit feathers of the pigeon’s wing can be clearly seen.

After pioneers like Nadar came businessmen and merchants who tried to make a living from aerial photography. A Frenchman named Auguste Gomes offered his line of kite-cameras to the public in 1910. They ranged from the affordable Jumelle Populaire to the waterproof and "non-deformable" Wenz-Hermagis, made entirely from the wonder metal aluminum.

The first aerial movie was probably taken by the Pathé company’s L.P. Bonvillain from a Wright airplane near Le Mans, France, in 1908. Audiences couldn’t get enough of airborne sequences, and in 1927, Wings (photographed by Harry Perry, ASC, who used the classic Akeley camera for most of the airplane work) won the Academy Award for best picture. Hollywood’s need for more and better footage from the air has attracted many entrepreneurs willing to try their skills in the competitive world of aerial cinematography. Although it isn’t possible to cover all of the firms currently working in this field, we hope this article will provide a general overview.

Remote-control helicopters

Whether it’s a balloon, kite, plane, helicopter or company, the hardest part about aerial photography is just getting off the ground. "I have to admit, it’s real tough to get into this business," says Garnik Ghaloostian of Copterworks in Glendale, California, "but we provide a very good product. We started out at the beginning of 1997 renting out Jimmy Jib camera booms, a lightweight remote-camera boom used on lots of TV shows. Shortly afterward, we started getting into miniature, remote-control camera helicopters. For more than four years, I’ve been developing and perfecting our camera helicopter systems. These machines are not available as kits, and there is very little out there to be used for reference. Fewer than 10 percent of the components are off the shelf, and the rest need to be designed and manufactured from scratch. We had to manufacture the drive systems for the helicopter, the camera mount and the camera, and make the systems work smoothly together.

"Although feature films generally prefer to go with full-size helicopter camera platforms, miniature remote-control helicopter cameras provide an attractive alternative in certain situations," he continues. "First, if the production budget is limited [because miniature helicopters are less expensive to use]; second, if the camera has to go through cramped, tight spaces [such as tunnels or caves] and get close to the subject; third, if the downwash from the blades has to be minimal [because miniature camera helicopters generally have a blade span of less than six feet); and finally, if lightweight equipment and fast setup and breakdown are necessary. We provide a camera package that includes a helicopter and camera, a camera operator, a pilot, and a coordinator."

Copterworks has completed several small projects, and Ghaloostian says he hopes to land work with TV or feature productions. "I think most of our clients will come from the commercial section of the industry, as well as some feature projects. At the present time, Copterworks can shoot in 16mm or 35mm using a three-axis, gyroscopically stabilized mount attached to the front of the helicopter. Our video downlink is currently used for monitoring purposes only, but if we get enough calls for it, we’ll start to provide digital video as well."

Coptervision of Van Nuys, California, also specializes in miniature remote-control helicopter cameras. The business, run by Carlos Hoyos, Sarita Spiwak and Daniela Meltzer, began operating in 1997. Hoyos had been a cinematographer, director and producer in Colombia and says he was always fascinated by radio-controlled model-helicopter cameras. Four years ago, he moved to Los Angeles and joined a group of model-helicopter enthusiasts meeting in a public park; shortly thereafter, he bought his own machine. Not long after that, he asked Spiwak to join him in his new venture.

"We bought a second helicopter and saw that the technology was 15 years old," Spiwak recalls, "so we worked on developing our own helicopters and designing our own equipment. Three years ago, my daughter, Daniela, joined us as a partner, and we’re now on our fourth generation of helicopter camera systems: the CVG-2002, totally designed by us. It’s more compact and lighter than our previous models, and it’s gyrostabilized and has three axes of movement, including 360-degree roll, 120-degree tilt and 180-degree pan."

The Coptervision camera system can accommodate a variety of 35mm and 16mm film formats, as well as DV. "We make the cameras to our specifications," Spiwak says. "The 35mm camera is modified from an Arri IIC with a 200-foot film load and weighs 10 pounds."

The standard equipment and crew for a location miniature helicopter camera shoot are two aircraft (one for backup), two cameras and three operators: the helicopter pilot, the camera operator, and a telecommunications operator who handles the video assist and maintains the quality of the ground-monitor image. There are usually two monitors, one for the camera operator and another for the director and producer.

"We just finished a shoot on the last show this season of Charmed," Spiwak says. "One of the witches started flying, and we did a POV shot of what she sees; we also did some shots flying between trees and under bridges. They were very happy with the footage.

"In addition to the CVG 2002, we are patenting a new camera system called Rollvision. It does everything our other camera system does, but it has applications far beyond miniature helicopters. Rollvision can be mounted on an insert car, a Steadicam, a crane, jib-arm, a tripod or whatever."

The concept of providing a miniature remote-control helicopter camera platform to the entertainment industry was first made commercially practical in 1988, when Emmanuel Previnaire founded Flying-Cam, Inc., in Liege, Belgium. The demand for Flying-Cam’s services led to the 1994 opening of an additional office in Santa Monica, California. The company’s breakthrough moment came on July 11, 1989, when Previnaire’s Flying-Cam I participated in the bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution by flying down the Champs-Élysées from the Obelisque to the Arc de Triomphe, marking the first broadcast using this type of aerial technology.

Continued innovation brought about Flying-Cam II, which has a patented, gyrostabilized camera mount providing unlimited 360-degree pans and rolls and 190-degree tilts. On a standard job, Flying-Cam provides two helicopters and cameras as well as a pilot, camera operator and technical assistant. Video assist provides each project’s cinematographer and director with the ability to choreograph their shots with the Flying-Cam crew while filming in 35mm, Super 35, 16mm, Super 16 and video formats; the company’s latest development is its EFP DV helicopter camera system.

"Emmanuel Previnaire won an Academy Award for technical achievement for pioneering this technology," says Alma Castro, Flying-Cam’s office manager. "But beyond Flying-Cam’s efforts to have the most innovative technology, we strive to have our professional crews work closely with our clients to deliver top-quality sequences in the safest manner possible. We are involved in commercials, documentaries, live broadcasts and music videos."

The company’s feature work has included The Beach, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Mission: Impossible 2 and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Notes Castro, "On M:I-2, we were originally hired for two or three days, but when director John Woo saw how quickly our crew could set up 10 to 15 minutes and the versatility of the helicopter, the production brought our crew to Australia for about a month to shoot additional action sequences."

Full-size aerial

camera systems

Although miniature remote-control helicopter cameras are being used on more and more feature films, most producers and directors rely on the full-size variety. The first firm to provide camera mounts for standard helicopters was Tyler Camera Systems of Van Nuys, and the company has been honored more than once by AMPAS for technical achievement. "I made my first helicopter camera mount back in the 1960s in my garage," says Nelson Tyler, founder of the company. "It was a combined seat-and-mount placed in a helicopter’s side door. Just about any camera could be operated normally, with the cameraman looking right through the viewfinder, making it possible to get very tight shots. You are not looking at a video monitor or doing anything by remote control. You have direct, hands-on control of the camera and all of its features, such as zoom, focus and so on."

[ continued on page 2 ]