A History of Aerial Cinematography [Part 2]

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 2

By Stan McClain, SOC


Camera Mounts

In the 1960's, a Canadian subsidiary of Westinghouse developed a gyro-stabilized 35mm mount as a battlefield surveillance tool for the Canadian military. In 1974 Westinghouse decided to divest its defense division and allowed managers [including the chief designer J. Noxon Leavitt] of the unit working on a stabilized camera system to go off on their own with a company they called Istec Inc.

The product line was a system which allowed an aircraft-mounted camera to be held steady despite the inherent instability of the aircraft.

By 1994, the company was renamed Wescam [= Westinghouse camera] and the former owners sold out to then-president Mark Chamberlain. In September 2002 the Canadian success story was taken over by U.S. defense contractor L-3 Communications. The Wescam Entertainment Group was sold to Pictorvision in 2004.

Wescam's 'ball mount' was four feet in diameter and weighed far more than today's version. One of the first feature films the 35mm system worked on was 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' [1968] and 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' [1968-69] with Jack Green as the Wescam technician.



In 1972 Ernst 'Bob' Nettmann, formerly of Tyler Camera Systems, branched off to create Continental Camera Systems. While at Continental, Nettmann helped develop the Kenworthy Snorkel System, and invented the Continental Mount, and the Astrovision System in 1974.

Astrovision changed the way we shot planes and jets. It is a dual periscope system which mounts in Clay Lacy's Learjets; one looking through the floor and the other through the roof. They pan in excess of 360° and tilt 45°. No longer did one have to mount four separate cameras in the nose, tail and sides of a B-25.

Nettmann departed Continental Camera and formed Matthews Studio Electronics in 1982. At Matthews, Bob developed the Vectorvision System which was an improvement over his older Astrovision by adding a 3-1 zoom and faster and sharper optics. Some of Bob's other developments included the Cam-Remote and the Gyron, the most advanced camera stabilizers and line of sight camera positioners. The product is being used for sports event coverage on fixed wing aircraft and on helicopters for TV news coverage.



Ron Goodman, a native of Canada, who briefly worked at the Wescam factory, went to Europe in 1971 and worked with a Wescam in the Netherlands. There he reworked the electronics, and began marketing it as the X-Mount. In 1973, using the X-Mount, he shot the longest single shot in any feature film to date - an 8 minute continuous shot in 'Professione: reporter/The Passenger' [dir: Michelangelo Antonioni; ph: Luciano Tovoli]. He also shot aerial sequences for 'Superman' [1977], 'Escape to Athena' [1978], 'The Empire Strikes Back' [1979], a.o. In 1984 Goodman moved to Hollywood to forward his career in the growing field of aerial cinematography. He made some additional improvements to the X-Mount and with Howard Preston marketed it as the Gyrosphere. Preston added a fourth gyro and the Gyrosphere made considerable inroads, however less than a handful of Hollywood's aerial cameramen were allowed to use it. The gyro stabilization added a steadiness that became a standard for many scenes, especially when head or tail credits are super-imposed over the stable image. Today, virtually all aerial credit sequences utilize a gyro-stabilized 'ball' mount.

Istec Inc., impressed with the Gyrosphere's improvements, began redesigning the Wescam and vastly improved it. They did away with the Plexiglas viewing strip and replaced it with a tracking optically coated port hole. The big changes happened when the company was sold to some young businessmen and investors who took further interest in the company.

In the mid 1980's the Gyrosphere was the only ball mount based in Los Angeles and most all of the veteran aerial cameramen were not allowed to use it due to Ron Goodman's business policies.


On a chance meeting at the 1985 SMPTE convention in L.A. with J. Noxon Leavitt, I mentioned to him that I'd like to represent his equipment here. In early 1987, Pasadena Camera Rental [Dan Wolfe & Stan McClain] introduced the Wescam to the United States. Using Bob Nettmann's and Nelson Tyler's business practices and ethics, Pasadena Camera invited all of the existing aerial cameramen to add this piece of equipment to the tools of their trade. Rexford Metz, Frank Holgate, David Butler, and David Nowell, are just a few who became proficient in its use.


Ron Goodman stayed with Gyrosphere for only three years, but, noting Wescam's rapid growth, decided to start from scratch with a new design and built the SpaceCam. He eliminated the reflection generating window, added larger and more powerful gyros that increased pan and tilt speeds, added a fiber optic video tap, and created a constant center of gravity film magazine. In addition he made an assortment of side, nose and rear facing brackets for a variety of helicopters. SpaceCam's versatility also allowed it to be mounted on cable rigs, camera cars, boats and cranes.



In September of 1991, tragedy struck. While Goodman was shooting the opening aerial scenes on 'Far and Away' a freak 150' wave caused a helicopter accident that destroyed the only SpaceCam, but fortunately both he and the pilot received only minor injuries.

Two years later SpaceCam II was released. Goodman made further improvements including a gas suspension system and an articulated nose mount that allows the helicopter to bank in excess of 100°. Like Wescam, SpaceCam received an Academy Technical Achievement Award for it's individual merits.


Also in 1993, east coast aerial cameraman Don Sweeney began experimenting with Kenyon Laboratories K-8 gyros placed on the front of a Tyler Major Mount. This adaptation improved the mount's performance while maintaining the 'dutch', whip pan, and snap zoom capabilities that have made the Major Mount so versatile. In late 1994 Tyler modified all of his mounts to accept the gyros.


With the advent of the ball mounts, commercial production companies shifted their interest to them, but recently they have refocused on the Major Mount with the gyros. Most commercials have a series of one to four second shots, and with the newly added stability, the Major Mount is once again in vogue. Today Tyler's Major and Middle mounts rarely leave his facility without the new gyro package.


Aerial Cinematography has left us with some great legacies, most of who came up through the ranks of the studio system. Like most operators and DP's, we learned our craft as assistants from our generous mentors and have applied their techniques and the knowledge we gained from them in our work.


[From article by Stan McClain (published in 'The Operating Cameraman', Spring/Summer 1996) + quotes from an article by David H. Onkst and information & photos from other sources.]

About the author: Stan McClain's introduction to aerial cinematography began with 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' in 1972 where he worked on the aerial unit as a bird wrangler and 2nd assistant for the late aerial DP Jim Freeman. While working at Continental Camera Systems from 1974-81, he worked as a 1st assistant for David Butler, Rexford Metz and David Nowell. He has worked on over fifty feature films as an aerial cameraman and on well over two hundred commercials and has won twelve awards for his commercial work including Best Cinematography at the London International Advertising Awards. McClain has been the editor of 'The Operating Cameraman' magazine and was President [1997-99] of the Society of Operating Cameramen [SOC].




[Filming dates: 19 January - 5 April 1927]



'Wings' would become the first of many aviation films directed by William A. Wellman, who was himself a pilot and a veteran [Sgt. William A. Wellman, Cambridge, MA] of the renowned Lafayette Flying Corps/Lafayette Escadrille of World War I.
Aerial sequences were projected in Magnascope [special screen and projection system that, basically, enlarged the image from a viewing area of roughly 18x24' to anywhere from 18x34' all the way up to 22x38' - filling the entire proscenium area with a motion picture image] and, according to the Variety review, were in color, 'not natural, but with sky and clouds deftly tinted plus spouts of flame shooting from planes.' A horizontally split screen effect was used during one of the air battle scenes.
Military and civilian stunt pilots who performed in the film were Hoyt Vandenberg, Earl Partridge, Frank Tomick, Frank Andrews, Clarence Irvine, Sterling R. Stribling, Denis Kavanagh, E. J. 'Rod' Rogers and E. H. Robinson.
With the thousands of extras battling on the ground, dozens of airplanes flying around in the sky and hundreds of explosions going off everywhere, only two injuries on the entire picture were incurred. One was by veteran stunt pilot Dick Grace. A plane he was crashing was supposed to completely turn over, but it only turned partly over. Instead of being thrown clear of the plane as was the plan, Grace was hurled against part of the fuselage and broke his neck. He returned to the company after six weeks in the hospital. The other was by one of the army pilots helping out on the shoot. His crash was fatal and director William A. Wellman feared it would shut down production, but the army held the pilot, not the director, responsible.
The following people supervised the flying sequences: S. C. Campbell, Ted Parson, Carl von Hartmann [Haartman] and James A. Healy. Brig. Gen. F. P. Lahm and Maj. F. M. Andrews commanded the military pilots.
According to modern sources, the production of the film was made with major contributions from the United States War Department. The recreation of the battle of St. Mihiel was shot on location at Camp Stanley near San Antonio, TX, and aerial sequences were shot above Kelly Field. Wellman's crew spent a year in production at the ground school at Brooks Field to insure authenticity. Besides location sites, the War Department provided airplanes and air pilots from all over the country.
'Wings' is considered by film critics to be the first important movie about World War I aerial combat, and many film historians still rank its photography among the best on film. Stock footage of aerial combat from the film has been used in several other productions.

Ph by Harry Perry; addph: L.B. Abbott, E.F. Adams, Guy Bennett, Cliff Blackstone, Russell Harlan[d], Albert Myers, Gene O'Donnell, Paul Perry, William Rand, Herman Schopp [Schope/Schoop], Al Williams, E. Burton Steene, George Stevens & Sergeant Ward; c.op Akeley camera: Bert Baldridge, William H. Clothier, Frank Cotner, Faxon Dean, Art Lane, Ernest Laszlo, Harry Mason, Herbert Morris, Ray Olsen, Charles Riley, Harry Schapp & L. Guy Wilky.


"Hell's Angels"


[Filming dates: 31 October 1927 - late April 1930]



On 31 October 1927, 22-year-old millionaire Howard Hughes, the founder and president of The Caddo Company, Inc., put into production what, by 1930, would become a $4,000,000 film. 'Hell's Angels' broke all previous records for the amount of money spent on a single motion picture, and its enormous expense was unrivaled until 1940, when the final cost of 'Gone with the Wind' was tallied.
The idea to film a World War I aviation picture was suggested to Hughes by Marshall Neilan in the fall of 1926, and 'Hell's Angels' was begun nearly a year later as a silent film, at Metropolitan Studios. Paramount director Luther Reed was the first to direct the film, and did so for two months before quitting in January of 1928 because of Hughes' annoying interferences.
Following Reed's departure, Hughes decided to direct the picture himself. He took a special interest in the air sequences of the film, and personally oversaw the acquisition of forty warplanes, some of which were authentic World War I fighters. Hughes' fleet of airplanes constituted the largest fleet of military aircraft owned and commanded by a private individual.
Over the course of three years, the 'Hell's Angels' production was plagued with a number of fatal and near-fatal air mishaps. The film, both directly and indirectly, claimed the lives of two pilots and an assistant, who were killed in three separate air tragedies. Stunt pilot Clement K. Phillips was killed in a crash in Hayward, California, while delivering one of the airplanes to the Oakland location. Stunt pilots refused to perform an aerial sequence that director Howard Hughes wanted. Hughes did his own flying. He got the shot, but he also crashed the plane.
When the completed silent version of 'Hell's Angels' was previewed in March of 1929, Hughes, at the urging of co-director [dialogue staging] James Whale, decided to scrap the film and reshoot it in sound.
Production resumed in early September 1929. Not only were thousands of feet of film scrapped for the new production, but so was the star, Greta Nissen. Filming began on the sound version of 'Hell's Angels' without a female lead. Later, Hughes decided on Jean Harlow after being introduced to her by leading man Ben Lyon.
The final scene of the film, the battle scene involving the brigade, was shot on December 7, 1929 and involved 1,700 extras. In addition to sound, the film featured a two-color Technicolor process, which was used for the ballroom scene, and about forty percent of the film was shown in tinted colors. All totaled, a record-breaking 2,254,760 feet of film [about 560 hours] was shot and developed for the picture - the largest amount of negative discarded for a single film.

Ph by Antonio [Tony] Gaudio & Harry Perry; 2uc: Ernest Laszlo; aph: Elmer Dyer, E. Burton Steene, Dewey Wrigley, Osmond Borradaile, Charles P. Boyle, Edward Colman, Henry Cronjager, Jockey Arthur Feindel, Jack Greenhalgh, Paul Ivano, Roy H. Klaffki, Jack MacKenzie, Edward Snyder, L. Guy Wilky, Alvin Wyckoff, a.o.