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The Right Tool For The Job

By Staff Writer | August 1, 2005

While the fame and glory of flying for the film industry is being in front of the camera, whether actually having a speaking role or just flying left seat while some famous movie star pretends to fly from the right, the primary role of the helicopter in the film industry is simply being a camera platform.

The majority of helicopters used as platforms are light utility, such as the Bell 206 or Eurocopter EC120 or AS350 AStars. They are highly maneuverable, quickly able to move into position to get the shot and relatively inexpensive.

As for helicopters in front of the camera, it obviously depends on the nature of the movie. With today's technology, scenes of large numbers of aircraft flying in formation, such as in "We Were Soldiers" is computer generated. However, there still needs to be some core helicopters that are, in fact, real aircraft. Some of which are getting more and more difficult to find.

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For "We Were Soldiers," aerial director Cliff Fleming leased the UH-1 Hueys he needed from a company in southern California that has several on hand. "There are still a lot of Hueys out there. However, some Hueys we won't use, such as any that have been used for experimental or crop dusting."

The film industry also uses helicopters that look like other helicopters, "such as using Bell 212s for Hueys," he said. "One (filming) company even used CH-46s for CH-47s."

It is possible to get helicopters from the military, but difficult, Fleming said. "You have to get approval from DOD, and it requires about three to four months." The military also carefully reads any scripts before approving the use of its aircraft to ensure that the movie will be favorable to the military.

Leasing a helicopter requires liability coverage of $5-10 million, "with $5 million minimum," Fleming said.

When the aircraft have to be painted to fit a specific role, such as for military action, they are painted with a wax-based paint, basically floor-wax with color pigments in it. After the shoot, the aircraft is just washed with hot water and off it comes.

The biggest change in the industry is in the types of cameras and mounts being used to do the actual filming, with the movie industry benefiting greatly from long lens, high definition (HiDef) digital cameras being developed primarily for law enforcement and electronic news gathering--to include major sporting events.

Major directors such as Steven Speilberg are now backing HiDef technology for the quality of the product, while helicopter operators are promoting HiDef not only because directors want it, but because of the benefits it provides.

For one thing, the new cameras are lighter. "Traditional film balls are huge, 36 in. across and weigh 250 lb., so you need 250 lb. of lead in the tail cone of the Astar," Helinet President Alan Purwin said. The new HiDef balls are only 14 in. and the entire system comes in at around 100 lb. They also allow the cinematographer to shoot longer. With the standard film camera system, a 1,000-ft. roll of film at 24 frames per sec. will last 10 minutes, which means the helicopter has to land, break down the ball camera, protect and unload the exposed film, put in another roll, then take off and start the scene again. "Now you have a 100-lb system and 40-min. tapes, and can take 10 hr. worth of tape on board, so your efficiency is increased exponentially," Purwin said.

Helinet recently purchased the Cineflex company, giving it the Cineflex HiDef, a compact, lightweight and versatile gyro-stabilized camera system that can easily be mounted on a variety of aircraft and operate with the helicopter flying up to 200 mph., Purwin said. The camera system provides a 360-deg. pan with a long 40X lens, 165-deg. tilt and +/- 45 deg. roll, automatic or steerable. Initially purchased for its excellent news gathering capability, the system is now becoming a major asset for making movies.

Purwin said Helinet's Cinema Solutions division has set up a dedicated division of engineers who are building custom, FAA-approved rigs for the particularly challenging, difficult, or imaginative shots required in the film industry.

Needless-to-say, with a 40X lens, vibration can be a major factor--which means helicopter mounts are becoming critical to the new HiDef cameras. Most mounts simply stay on the helicopters to serve the range of camera roles, from law enforcement to the film industry. However, when necessary, they can be removed or reattached within about 20 min.

Cal Meeker, founder and president of Meeker Aviation, a major supplier of camera mounts, said operators primarily want high quality, heavy duty mounts. "They want mounts that are overbuilt, meaning safe, easy to install and remove, and that have excellent stability. Long lens cameras spare no quarter for mounts that shake. Most important to all operators is image quality, so vibration is not acceptable." Meeker Aviation currently develops mounts on its own or works with companies such as AirFilm Camera Systems to develop mounts for a wide range of helicopters.

He noted there is not any real difference between the mounts for film cameras or for digital HiDef cameras, except that the ones for the HiDef cameras could be a bit heavier because of the need for greater stability, with lots of solid aluminum billet construction.

While side mounts tend to be more popular with law enforcement systems, "nose mounts have been the norm in ENG and film work for the unobstructed field of view." he said.

For the future, Meeker is working on "mechanical isolation devices, and collar and pancake isolators. Our new 2nd generation dovetail plates are our latest developments. We are also working with all the major camera manufacturers and airframe OEM's both domestic and international on civil and military applications as well. Meeker aviation is extremely fortunate to have the best manufacturers/designers in Aeropacific, AirFilm, Amtech, Fox Engineering and C-Tech."

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