A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 1]

PART 1:  A History of Aerial Cinematography  |  [Stunt] Pilots & Cinematographers  |  The Aerial Cinematographer

Introduction of the Helicopter  |  Aerial Cinematographers [1960-1980]

PART 2:  Camera Mounts  |  'Wings'  |  'Hell's Angels'  |  'Whirlybirds'


Page 1: From First Cameraman to Director of Photography | The Motion
Picture Cameraman | What Is a Director of Photography?
Page 2: Film vs. Digital | ALEXA | Digital Intermediate | D-Cinema
Page 3: Oliver Stapleton: 'So You Wanna Work in Movies?'
Page 4: A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 1 & 2]
Page 5: Wizards of Visual Effects: The Golden Age [Part 1 & 2]


'A History of Aerial Cinematography' - Part 1

By Stan McClain, SOC
[Published in 'The Operating Cameraman', Spring/Summer 1996]

 

Movies and Aviation Come to Hollywood

Aerial cinematography traces its roots back to the Civil War. In 1863, an inventor from Philadelphia named Thaddeus Lowe [1832-1913] developed a portable hydrogen gas plant. He used the gas to inflate his newly designed hydrogen balloons and personally took his idea of supplying the Union Army with aerial reconnaissance platforms to President Lincoln. Within a few months after his demonstration the Union Army Balloon Corps was initiated. The Yankees soon had an advantage over the Confederate Army as they could raise these balloons several hundred feet quickly by means of a tether, spot the confederates, and send Morse coded messages to their support below. The Army also found that the balloons were valuable for the use of charting the terrain, and with the newly invented photographic camera, aerial mapping was invented.

 

In 1908 a film titled 'The Count of Monte Cristo' [dir: Francis Boggs & Thomas Persons; ph: Thomas Persons] began production in Chicago and finished in Southern California. The climate was a major factor in this decision, and from 1910 movie companies arrived there to enjoy the perfect shooting climate. By 1920 Hollywood was established as the motion picture capitol of the world.

 

In the roaring 1920's aviation came alive, especially in Los Angeles. Airfields sprouted up everywhere, and with Hollywood's new motion picture industry taking root, aviation was embraced by many top producers and directors.

Cecil B. DeMille [1881-1959] was one of Hollywood's general aviation pioneers. In 1917 he bought a wrecked Canuck in Canada and had it shipped to Los Angeles and restored to flying condition. With this plane he became competent and later spent time in the U.S. Air Service as a pilot. After the war he built his first airfield at Crescent Blvd. [now Fairfax Ave.] and Melrose. He then bought two more Canucks and six Curtiss JN-4D's ['Jennies']. Business increased as he added equipment and in late 1918 he formed the Mercury Aviation Company and established DeMille Field #2 on the north side of Wilshire Blvd. and the west side of Crescent [Fairfax].

 

 

In August of 1920, DeMille bought his first factory new plane [JL-6] from Junkers, and it was delivered by famed WWI ace, Eddie Rickenbacker to DeMille Field #2. In May 1921 that plane flew its first scheduled flight for Mercury Aviation from Los Angeles to San Diego. But, the public was not yet ready to embrace the idea of using aircraft for serious traveling and his airline never became a viable business.

 

Businessman Syd Chaplin came to Hollywood in 1919 to manage his brother Charles. Being well financed, he explored the struggling aeronautical industry and founded the Sid Chaplin Aircraft Company along with Emory Rogers at the Wilshire Airport. As with many businesses during those days, their company grew rapidly and they established the first successful regular service between Wilmington and Avalon with a Curtiss 'Seagull' flying boat. The company enjoyed a four year existence, and in 1923 the Wilshire Airport was purchased and subdivided. Rogers bought Chaplin out and opened the Rogers Airport at the south east corner of Western and El Segundo.

 

[Stunt] Pilots & Cinematographers

The Venice airport was probably the most popular for the movie pilots and aerial stuntmen. Those who called Venice home included pilots 'Air Ace' Frank Clarke [1898-1948], Dick Grace [1898-1965], Ormer Locklear [1891-1920; was Hollywood's first major stunt pilot. In 1919, he performed the first car-to-plane transfer on film in the movie 'The Great Air Robbery'. One year later, he filmed 'The Skywayman'. The movie's main stunt called for a nighttime crash. Locklear attached magnesium flares to his plane to simulate an aircraft going down in flames. While performing the maneuver, Locklear's plane went into a spin and he crashed.], Art Goebel [1895-1973], and Ken 'Fronty' Nichols. One of the more prominent movie pilot and stunt groups called themselves the '13 Black Cats.' Organized in 1925, they set the standards for aerial stunts. Here are some of their stunts and rates:

 

STUNTS RATES
>  Crash ships into trees or houses..... $ 1200.00
>  Loop with man standing on center section..... $ 150.00
>  Change airplane to train..... $ 150.00
>  Blow up plane in mid air, pilot chutes out..... $ 500.00
>  Loop with man on each wing, standing up..... $ 450.00

 

One requirement for membership was that the member's name must contain 13 letters. If the letters did not add up to 13, the members were given names such as 'Fronty' Nichols, [William] 'Spider' Matlock, and [Ronald] 'Bon' MacDougall. All of these pilots and stuntmen often doubled as the first aerial cameramen in Hollywood.

 

"13 Black Cats" - photo from The Denny Archives

 

In 1929, since so many would-be pilots were attempting and getting work, the nucleus of the aviators formed a union called 'The Associated Motion Picture Pilots'.

 

 

Pancho Barnes [1901-75; her maiden name was Florence Lowe] was a charter member and they would meet at her home located on the border of Pasadena and San Marino. Some of the charter members included Frank Clarke, Boots Le Boutillier, Ira Reed, Dick Grace, Al Wilson, and Dick Rinaldi. They set pricing and were able to keep producers from seeking lesser qualified pilots.

Barnes, an accomplished aviatrix with several aviation records to her name, eventually founded 'The Happy Bottom Riding Club' in 1937. Her club, which included a bar,  restaurant, bedrooms, stables, flying school, and air strip, was located in the Mojave Desert near Muroc Dry Lake [or Rogers Dry Lake] where the U.S. Army Flight Test Center began experimenting with new high speed aircraft. That test center came to be known as Edwards Air Force Base. Her character and club were depicted in the legendary aviation film, 'The Right Stuff' and later in the television movie 'Pancho Barnes' [1988, Richard T. Heffron; ph: William Wages] with Valerie Bertinelli playing the role of Pancho Barnes.

 

The Aerial Cinematographer

The aerial cinematographer of the 1920's was usually a stunt man or fellow pilot. Their work was limited to pictures that featured aircraft dog fighting or aerial stunt sequences and their equipment usually consisted of a hand-held, hand-cranked camera until the modern spring and motorized cameras were invented. As today, there were many hard-mounted cameras and there were some WWI waist gunner turrets modified for camera use.

 

 

 

Despite the lack of credit given to the aerial cameramen, one of the most famous aerial cinematographers was Harry Perry [1888-1985].

In the 1927 aerial epic and first film to win an Academy Award for best picture, 'Wings' [dir by William A. Wellman], Harry Perry created some of the most spectacular aerial footage that is still considered to be best 'combat' footage even by today's standards. Dick Grace performed many of the live on screen crashes. In the film, they actually dropped live bombs over a 'town'. The bombardier's perspective of the bombs dropping and hitting their targets added a realism that would be hard to match with today's computer generated imaging technology.

 

Stunt pilot Dick Grace specialized in controlled crashes. He is credited with more than forty deliberate crashes for motion pictures. He had a superstition that the crash must be made at 11:45 A.M. and those made at any other time would result in injury. He was one of few who died of old age.

 

While 'Wings' was wrapping up, another epic was in pre-production. Howard Hughes' 'Hell's Angels' [1927-28, Howard Hughes & (uncred) Edmund Goulding & James Whale] became the motion picture that set new standards for large budget aviation shows. Hughes sent aeronautical experts all over the world with cash in hand to purchase planes for his film. He soon had at his command the largest fleet of aircraft ever assembled except by governments.

Hughes leased several hundred acres in the San Fernando Valley and built a base of operations that was photographed as an allied base. The airfield became to be known as Caddo Field, located close to Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, now known as Van Nuys Airport. Over the hill in Chatsworth, an exact replica of a German Airfield where German ace Baron Von Richthofen based from was built. Hughes spent three years and close to four million dollars in creating the biggest war picture ever made, all in true Howard Hughes fashion.

 

#2: Paul Mantz - photo HollywoodPilot.com

 

Elmer G. Dyer [1892-1970] emerged as an aerial cameraman in his own right and through the 1940's and 1950's there was rarely a picture that didn't have his name attached to it.

 

MGM's epic 'Test Pilot' [1937, Victor Fleming; ph: Ray June] starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore and Myrna Loy. It starts out with Gable's character attempting a transcontinental speed record. Later he enters the Thompson Trophy Air Race in Cleveland, Ohio. Actual footage was shot during the race, and on the day after, a mock race was created using some of the actual race pilots. Albert Paul Mantz [1903-1965] was the chief pilot for the aerial filming unit.

Mantz, undoubtedly the most famous stunt flier in Hollywood history, and Dyer teamed up many times in years to come on aviation films including 'Flight Command' [1940, Frank Borzage; ph: Harold Rosson] and 'I Wanted Wings' [1940, Mitchell Leisen; ph: Leo Tover]. The last picture they worked on before reporting for active duty in the Army Air Corps was 'Air Force' [1942, Howard Hawks; ph: James Wong Howe]. Mantz and Dyer used several aircraft as platforms for their jobs including a Lockheed Orion, Stinson Model A and a Boeing 100.

In 1961, Paul Mantz joined up with pilot Frank Tallman [1919-1978] and created Tallmantz Aviation Inc., based at Orange County Airport. Mantz and Tallman's collaboration did not last long. In 1965, the two men were working on the movie 'The Flight of the Phoenix' [dir: Robert Aldrich; ph: Joseph Biroc] when Tallman, who was supposed to fly a landing sequence in the Arizona desert, shattered his kneecap during a fall at home, and Mantz took his place. On July 8, Mantz was performing the landing when one of his aircraft's wheels hit a small, sun-baked, mound of sand and caused him to lose control. The aircraft 'nosed in' killing Mantz instantly.

 

A few days after Mantz's crash, Tallman faced his own individual tragedy when doctors amputated his leg because of a massive infection that had resulted from his broken kneecap. Despite the loss of his leg and his close friend, Tallman retaught himself how to fly using only one leg and returned to stunting. In subsequent years he worked on several big pictures, e.g. 'Catch-22' [1969], 'The Great Waldo Pepper' [1974], and 'Capricorn One' [1977]. On April 15, 1978, Tallman lost his life during a routine flight when he failed to clear a ridge near Palm Springs, California, due to poor visibility.

 

Introduction of the Helicopter

For the next fifteen years there were few advancements in aerial photography even though there were several major aviation films made each year. The aerial cameramen's assignments were pretty much exclusive to those aviation related post WWII films and by today's standards the cinematography was limited in style and technique.

 

It was to be the introduction of the civilian helicopter that changed aerial cinematography. The first time a helicopter was used in a feature film production was in April 1945 in the film 'The Bandit of Sherwood Forest' [d: George Sherman & Henry Levin; ph: Tony Gaudio, William Snyder & George B. Meehan Jr.]. A specially designed helicopter with camera mounts in the cockpit was employed to film the scene in which Robin's men seize the castle.

In 1955 the TV series 'Highway Patrol' [1955-59; ph: Curt Fetters, Robert Hoffman, Monroe Askins, a.o.; helicopter pilot: Bob Gilbreath] introduced the helicopter to the public.

 

Director Herbert L. Strock [left] talking to actor Broderick Crawford

"Highway Patrol"

 

In 1957 the series 'Whirlybirds/Copter Patrol' [1957-60; 111 episodes] followed. Later in the early 1960's the TV show 'Ripcord' [1961-63; 76 episodes] featured more hand-held camera work from helicopters.

 

Aerial Cinematographers [1960 - 1980]

Prior to utilizing helicopters as camera platforms, aerial shots were always on the move, with no ability to start a 'dolly' move nor end with one. The helicopter allowed directors and cameramen to design crane shots as they would for ground cameras but on a much larger scale. One shot that stood out in its day was Nelson Tyler's close up on Barbra Streisand's face while she stood upon the bridge of a tug boat on the Hudson River for the film 'Funny Girl' [1968]. This shot, which ended the film, set the standard for all aerial cameramen and those who could not achieve similar abilities were 'weeded out of the pack'. Tyler however did have an advantage back then with his newly developed Tyler Major Mount.

 

'... one would be the work of Nelson Tyler in the sixties, and in particular a sequence for the movie 'Funny Girl'. There's a very long continuous move that starts wide on New York, that finds a tugboat on the river, that goes down to the tugboat, that finds Barbra Streisand on the bridge of the boat, that goes in tight on her head and shoulders, that hits the end of the lens as she hits the high note in the middle of the song, and then goes out and up and back. You need to have a great deal of skill, and a telepathic relationship between pilot and cameraman to pull that off. And Nelson Tyler pulled all that off right back in the mid-sixties.' [Jerry Grayson]

 

 

Tyler, who came up through the studio system, got the idea of trying to isolate vibration while viewing the aerial credits on 'West Side Story' [1960-61]. They were shaky and he knew that there had to be a way to create smooth footage from helicopters. Within a year he put his new prototype mount to use on John Sturges' 'The Satan Bug' [1964]. Shortly thereafter he began production on his mounts and made them available to anyone who had the inclination to use them.

Two of the first to use Tyler's mounts were John M. Stephens and David Butler. The camera of choice was the Mitchell Mark II because of its pin registered movement. Additionally its heavy weight added stability to the mount. Stephens, already a DP, worked with Tyler in the development years of the Major Mount and shot the second unit and aerials on 'Grand Prix' [1966] and 'Ice Station Zebra' [1968].

 

David Butler started out as Tyler's assistant and moved up to operator in 1966. Some of his aerial adventures with pilot David Jones include 'Planet of the Apes' [1967], 'The Gypsy Moths' [1968], 'Hello, Dolly!' [1968], 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' [1968-69], 'King Kong' [1976], and 'Apocalypse Now' [1976-77].

Most of David's assistants went on to become aerial cameramen including Rexford Metz, Don Morgan, Frank Holgate, David B. Nowell, and myself.

 

In 1977 David Butler and J. David Jones brought in some of the top pilots for Peter Hyams' film 'Capricorn One'. Frank Tallman doubled as Telly Savalas in a Stearman which eluded government helicopters through Redrock Canyon. Butler asked me to build him a platform that would enable him to sit outside a Hughes 500 with a Continental Mount and shoot straight forward or back. This, the first 'Outside Mount', worked perfectly for the chase sequences and added realism to the action. In addition to Tallman, Jones brought in the national champion aerobatic pilot Art Scholl [1931-85; died during the filming of 'Top Gun' when his Pitts S-2 camera plane never recovered from an inverted flat spin and plunged into the Pacific Ocean], and the legendary Clay Lacy, with his Learjets and Continental Camera's Astrovision System.

 

 

Rexford Metz emerged as one of today's leading aerial cameramen and he flew with pilot Jim Gavin on most of his earlier work. Some of the films on which he was either 2nd unit and/or aerial DP include 'Dirty Harry' [1971], 'Airport 1975' [1974], 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' [1976], and 'Courage Under Fire' [1995]. Metz utilizes the Tyler Major Mount, Gyrosphere, Wescam, Astrovision, and Vectorvision as some of his aerial tools.

 

Frank Holgate is another who was a product from the Tyler school of the 1960's and early 1970's. He became very popular by shooting the aerial sequences for one of the most spectacular helicopter chase films ever exposed on film: 'Birds of Prey' [1972, William Graham; ph: Jordan Cronenweth]. A helicopter TV reporter witnesses a robbery where the bad guys use a helicopter for their getaway. This film is a 'must see' for anyone studying the art of aerial camera work.

 

In the late 1970's David B. Nowell, who earlier had assisted Metz and Butler, began operating the Continental Mounts and the Astrovision. He worked with pilot Rick Holley most often until Holley died in a helicopter crash while working on 'Runaway Train' in 1985. Nowell then began working with Holley's protégé Robert 'Bobby Z' Zajonc. David's loyalty and trust in 'Bobby Z' has unwaivered over the years since Holley's death, and their teamwork is in constant demand.

 

I took the step from assistant to operator on the 1982-83 season of 'Magnum, P.I.' [tv-series, 1980-88], thanks to pilot David Jones. For six months we lived in Hawaii and worked on Don Bellisario's 'Tales of the Gold Monkey' [tv-series, 1982-83] on the days we weren't working on 'Magnum, P.I.'. We then went on to another Bellisario project, 'Airwolf' [tv-series, 1984-87], which lasted three seasons. This four year association with Jones and producer Don Bellisario laid the foundation for my career as an aerial cinematographer. Because of the multitude of aircraft used on 'Airwolf' - sometimes we had up to ten helicopters - Jones introduced more pilots into the industry. They include Dirk Vahle, Kevin LaRosa, Rick Shuster, Peter McKernan Jr., and Mike Tamburro [1957-96; died in a helicopter crash], among others.