Lights, Camera, Action! Flying in Hollywood

By Ernie Stephens | February 1, 2009
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Dramatic shoot-outs, fast chases and spectacular explosions are just a regular part of a not-so-regular occupation.

You’ll have to go through several hundred titles at your local video store before you’ll find one movie that didn’t use a helicopter or show one. Sure, there are flocks of helicopters appearing in war pictures and secret agent films, but don’t forget about the other sequences, like the opening credit shots in "Forrest Gump," where the view is supposed to be that of a feather floating to earth. Dozens of scenes from the blockbuster hit "Independence Day" included helicopters on and off camera. And the scene from the movie "Jurassic Park" showing the anthropologist’s arriving at the remote island is a double whammy, in that the helicopter shown approaching the park was shot from a helicopter trailing behind it. Do you recall the hit television drama series "Dallas"? The Bell 206B that took the opening aerial shots of the city can actually be seen reflected off one of the skyscrapers it was flying past.

Flying for Hollywood’s film, television and TV commercial industry is a very small, but very elite segment of helicopter aviation. And nobody knows more about it than Peter J. McKernan, owner of McKernan Motion Picture Aviation in Southern California.


The 50-year old McKernan has been flying for the motion picture industry since he was 22. His work can be seen in hundreds of films, including "Transformers" (2007), "Casino" (2000) and "Con Air" (1997); over 50 television commercials, some of which were for Audi, BMW and Mercedes; and numerous TV shows, such as "CSI: New York," "Medium" and "Night Rider."

McKernan says that most of his business, as is the case with other companies, comes by word of mouth when a producer or director of photography tells another film maker who they used for one of their projects. It’s during that first telephone conversation that a lot of things are discussed, such as what kind of shots are needed and what type of helcopter is suitable.

No single studio or helicopter operator has every conceivable rotorcraft that a director might want, so as soon as the location and nature of the shoot have been determined, people like McKernan check their extensive list of helicopter owners to see who has the right aircraft closest to the filming location. If the aircraft can be flown to the set, it is. If not, the helicopter might be trucked in. All the studio requires is enough information to satisfy their insurance company that the aircraft carries the appropriate liability coverage. The operator will provide its own pilot with McKernan or one of his people on board.

If the job is local, McKernen may fly it in his company’s AS350B3, or lease a more suitable aircraft based on the needs of the studio for that particular assignment, which might include carrying a camera crew or actually being on film.

But whether the helicopter will be needed as a camera platform for a car chase, or as an on-camera prop that will actually be flying, the pilot must carefully assess the fine details of the job.

Once the pilot understands the role the helicopter will play, it’s time to gently educate the studio people on what needs to be in place to make the producer and director’s vision a "reality," so to speak. This can include factors that are obvious to the pilot, but completely foreign to the production people, such as the damaging affects of rotor wash on the set, unrealistic flight profiles for the aircraft requested, and meteorological conditions that could jeopardize the flight. Not only will the pilot’s shared wisdom and experience help the producers get the shot they want, it can make the difference between a successful take and a deadly accident.

McKernan tells the story of a fatal crash that involved a highly experienced Eurocopter BO-105 pilot who had no experience flying for a movie.

"That guy got the script, saw it was from Hollywood and decided to do it," explained McKernan. "What the script said to do was to fly a 180-degree return-to-target at less than 100 feet [AGL]. The 30,000-hour pilot went out, tried it and killed himself the first time."

What the pilot didn’t know — but what seasoned Hollywood pilots know — is that placing the camera that was filming the helicopter higher will give the illusion of the aircraft flying 100 feet off the ground when it’s actually 1,800 feet off the ground. "This is where experience comes in," said McKernan. "Some of these writers and directors don’t know this stuff, but we do."

The same safety concerns apply when a helicopter is going to be used as a camera platform. Pilots need to know the capabilities of the helicopter and the camera systems equally as well. For example, when the director wants the helicopter to provide an aerial view of something moving fast and close to the ground, like a train, McKernan and other experienced pilots can suggest that the director of photography change the frame rate of the camera, thus making the footage filmed at 40 kts look more like 100 kts, which will keep the pilot within the aircraft’s height-velocity chart and not sacrifice the illusion of speed.

Physically putting a camera aboard an aircraft can also be a tricky business. Placing a movie crewmember in the aircraft with a handheld camera will most assuredly result in an image that will bounce all around. And the more the camera is zoomed in, the more pronounced the shaking will be to the audience.

To combat camera shake, helicopters serving as camera platforms use specially made mounts that cancel out a rotorcraft’s incessant shaking. The first, and probably most well-known device, is call the Tyler Mount. It stabilizes the camera with very little effort from its operator, regardless of the aircraft’s maneuvering. And while some pilots like to fly camera missions with a monitor located where they can use it to maintain the desired shot, McKernan says he doesn’t like them.

"I was trained to know what the camera is seeing without it," he said. "And I know people who have struck wires because they didn’t see them coming up on a monitor."

But just like any other star appearing on a movie or television screen, helicopters sometimes need to be in costume in order to add realism to a scene. And with the same creative style that Hollywood is known for, a way was found to make helicopters look the part for which they must play.

For years, movie producers needed to change the color of cars and trucks that were going to be on camera, but wanted to avoid the time and expense of painting them. So, a company in Los Angeles came up with a spray-on coating called Spraylat, which came in various colors that could be applied in a matter of minutes and be ready to use the following day. It wasn’t long before Hollywood began spraying its helicopters with that same color-coating material.

"It’s like that Teflon tape you wrap on pipes. Once you’re finished with it, it will come off in sheets," explained McKernan. "The CIA got a hold of it, though, and some of it came off in flight and put the engine out. The FAA came out with a directive that said no more Spraylat on aircraft."

Tinseltown, however, was not discouraged by the loss of their instant paint. The new method for a temporary helicopter paint job is, for all practical purposes, watercolor.

"The formula we use now is floor wax, pigment and whiskey," laughed KcKernan. "The wax is the clear base, they put in the green [for a military helicopter] and then they put in the whiskey. [The whiskey] makes the watercolor dry faster!"

McKernan also said the wax-pigment-whiskey treatment is simple and quick, and can be used to create any color scheme.

"You mask the aircraft off from 2:00 to 6:00 on Monday. The guys come in and paint it all day on Tuesday and let it dry. They use it on Wednesday on a shoot. And then they clean it on Thursday — it takes about [90 minutes]," explained McKernan.

Whether they’re painted for the shoot or not, FAA regulations still apply to an aircraft needing to display a registration number. So, in many cases, the aircraft’s tail number is still visible on the aircraft. But if the director wants something different, the aircraft operator simply notifies the FAA of the need to fly with a bogus tail number or no number at all over a designated area for a specific time; a request that is almost always granted.

If a helicopter is to appear in the movie, TV show or commercial, chances are the pilot will be seen, even if for a split second. When this happens, he or she may be required to join the Screen Actor’s Guild.

More commonly referred to as "SAG," the organization is the official labor union for on-camera performers, and applies to anyone who appears on camera more than one time, regardless of their role. This applies to everyone from a megastar to a person hired to be in a crowd with 500 other extras. The pilot of a helicopter is no exception.

"The fact that you’re on camera... the fact that you’re on’re going to need a Screen Actor’s Guild card," advised McKernan. "The SAG card is $1,400. And that’s about how much you make on your first day of work as a pilot. You just have to pay $60 for your base, and you pay 65 percent of what you made. And then there’s a cap... $5,000 per year."

All film industry pilots have a particular job that stands out from the others. Peter McKernan is no exception. His involves his work on the movie "Interpreter" directed by the late Sydney Pollack, and staring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.

McKernan was tasked with flying the camera ship above the United Nations building in New York as two other helicopters hovered over the lawn and the roof. The city even had to shutdown Second Avenue and the 59th Street Bridge to normal traffic to help make the shot work. No problem, that is until the phone call came from the FAA.

"After a couple of weeks of thinking about it, [the FAA] said we couldn’t get permission to fly over the U.N. because it’s sovereign airspace," said McKernan. "They didn’t have any jurisdiction over it."

McKernan and the movie’s producers had to go to then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to get permission to fly over the complex. Annan was so excited after the presentation, he didn’t ask any questions. The go-ahead was given and filming proceded.

"I went back to the 34th Street helipad and I told the guys, ‘If something happens to us, it’s going to be in the headlines of news papers around the world that a helicopter went down in the U.N." chuckled McKernan.

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