"A" is for Aerials, "L" is for Lunch: Part Two
By Peter McLennan
Helicopter equipped with Tyler Nose Mount camera in action*
By mid-day it was time to land, refuel, and have lunch. One of the many reasons Vancouver has become a favourite location for film-makers is the high standards set by the catering outfits. We hear it all the time from foreign producers and actors: “You’re so lucky. The film catering in Vancouver is as good as it gets.” And lucky we are. It started out at a very high level back in the eighties, with natural competition helping to maintain the quality of food and services ever since.
Even out here in the wilderness, the girls had managed to prepare an amazing meal. Grilled swordfish steaks, T-bones, baked ham, every kind of vegetable known to gardeners, several types and flavours of pasta, a choice of salads, pickles, mustards, sauces, condiments, you name it, we had it. Several long tables were laden with food, food and more food. And that was just the main course. There were desserts. Oh my, the desserts! Pies, cakes, pastries, and all manner of amazing goodies waited at the end of the table to tempt both the teamsters and the incautious.
Unable to decide between the ham, swordfish or the steak, I took a little of everything, heaping my plate high. With a full one-hour lunch scheduled, I intended to partake of a good feast and a snooze, a luxury determined in part by the schedule of the rest of the Camera Department. A pair camera assistants and grips had already had their lunch, and were hard at work moving the camera from the side mount -- where we’d been shooting everything so far -- to the nose of the helicopter. With a long-range zoom lens, the wide, flexible shooting angles of a side mount allows for some spectacular cinematography, but it lacks one crucial capability: if you want to shoot straight ahead along the flight path, you can only do so at slow speed because the helicopter has to fly sideways.
The nose mount solves this problem by putting the camera in the front of the helicopter, looking straight ahead. The camera can remotely tilt up and down, but it can’t pan left to right. In effect, the helicopter itself has to aim the camera. To enable accurate framing, the camera sends an electronic image to a portable TV console inside the helicopter -- and because it’s far too bright inside the helicopter to actually see a TV screen, the camera operator must press his face against a large rubberized hood, much like those used to peer into a radar screen on a ship.
The camera assistants were well-practiced at installing the nose mount and needed no supervision, leaving me free to enjoy my large, leisurely lunch and snooze.
Airborne once again, we began to fill the blanks left from the morning’s work. Our seating arrangements had changed, with Richard sitting behind me in the backseat and me up front in the co-pilot’s place where I could operate the nose mount camera console.
A camera ship is more of an observer when using a side mount, providing a stable aerial platform for the camera with the added capabilities of a superhero-scale jib arm, dolly and tripod combined. It’s a whole different game with a nose mount, which requires the helicopter to become a much more active participant in the filming process. Using a medium wide-angle lens forces the camera to remain close to the subject, so shooting this chase scene would mean staying very close while enduring rapid, intense, and continuous maneuvering. Under such conditions, things can get really hairy inside a camera ship. This might be fun, but it certainly wasn’t going to be easy.
It was now well past midday in the hot summer sun. The air that had been cool and smooth in the morning was now hot and turbulent, causing all three helicopters to bump and dance as we flew low and fast along the winding river. But the footage looked great through the viewfinder, with all that movement adding a sense of speed and tension to the shots. Just what we wanted. The ever-present imaginary Editor is there, watching over my shoulder, happy. And so was Richard, in the seat behind me.
But I had problems. Instead of sitting in the open rear door bathed in fresh, cool air, I was now sitting in a greenhouse -- and rather than spending much of my time looking out at the real world, I had my head down, glued to that rubber hood, watching a flickering black and white image on a TV screen. You can guess where this is going. Little dancing dots started to appear in my vision, and they weren’t on that CRT screen.
I don’t often get airsick, but it can happen when the conditions are right. Rough air, intense maneuvering, hot sun and the damned TV picture were my enemies. Being airsick in a light aircraft is a nightmare, especially when you have to keep working, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that there’s no sympathy. Not from the pilot, who really doesn’t want you puking in his helicopter. Not from the client, who really couldn’t care less how shitty you feel. And certainly not from yourself, because you chose this line of work in the first place. When it starts to get bad, you’re afraid you’re going to die. Later, when it gets really bad, you’re afraid you’re not going to die. This afternoon, as those little dancing dots continued to accumulate in my vision, I was halfway between those two extremes.
Finally it became all too much. I pulled my head off the rubber hood and looked over at Steve, who immediately reduced power, leveled the machine and began to rub off airspeed. He knew.
I’d waited far too long to reveal my discomfort. One advantage of our removing all the doors was that I didn’t have to open any windows or even search frantically for something, anything, to vomit into. I simply turned my head towards the empty space to my left and let go.
Thanks to my extra large lunch, both the volume and duration of the barf were extraordinary. There were multiple barfs, actually. Never-ending, or so it seemed to me. I had ample time to dwell on these miserable calculations as my stomach dutifully emptied its entire contents into the air -- and as it turned out, all over the rear of the helicopter.
Steve wasn’t about to let me off easy, and as we returned to the gravel pit, he broadcast my misfortune to the entire crew by radio. As we landed, my humiliation was mitigated only by the sight of Theo, my long-suffering assistant, running towards me under the still-spinning blades carrying a bottle of cool, fresh water. I took a long drink, then emerged from the seat to inspect the rear of the helicopter.
"Amazing," I thought to myself. "What colours!"
The entire tail boom was sprayed from end to end with the remains of my lunch -- a good twenty feet of barf rapidly drying in the summer sun. There were red bits, white bits, green bits, even some blue bits, which must have been the sprinkles on that last cupcake. It was an incredible mess.
“Nice work,” said Richard, smirking at me as he clambered out of his seat, brushing a some green flakes off his shoulder.
“I hardly got any on you,” I replied, helping him with the lettuce bits while trying not to think about what barfing on the boss could mean to my career.
“This isn’t my first canoe ride,” he laughed. “I took one look at your face and hit the floor.”
The grips (god bless all grips, everywhere) soon appeared with several buckets of water and a mop, and in short order had Steve’s helicopter looking clean and bright again. After a few minutes to recuperate, we returned to complete the rest of the work, including the boat scenes later in the day.
It was a painfully embarrassing lesson, but at least I didn’t get fired. Richard, Steve and I went on to greater things together, and besides learning the error of my lunchtime ways, we all learned the real meaning of the term “coverage.”
* Photo of helicopter and camera mount courtesy of Tyler Camera Systems to provide examples of the equipment described. Neither Peter, his crew, nor the actual helicopter/camera rig they used are pictured here.