Page 1: From First Cameraman to Director of Photography
Page 2: Film vs. Digital Video
Page 3: Oliver Stapleton: So You Wanna Work in Movies?
Page 4: What It Took to Create 'Collateral'
Page 5: Bleach Bypass - Digital Intermediate - Steadicam - Louma Crane
Page 6: Cinematographers-Turned-Director: A - F
Page 7: Cinematographers-Turned-Director: G - Q
Page 8: Cinematographers-Turned-Director: R - Z
Page 9: A History of Aerial Cinematography
Written by Stan McClain, SOC
[published in 'The Operating Cameraman', Spring/Summer 1996]
[Stunt] Pilots & Cinematographers
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 by Francis Boggs & Thomas Persons; ph by Thomas Persons] began production in Chicago and finished in Southern California. The climate was a major factor in this decision, and from 1910 through 1920 movie moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Adolph Zukor, and Harry Cohn, arrived there to enjoy the perfect shooting climate. By 1920 Hollywood was established as the motion picture capitol of the world.
In the roaring 1920s 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 here 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 [which is still in existence today as a company that provides hangars and fuel services for corporate aircraft] and established DeMille Field No. 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 No. 2. In May 1921 that plane flew its first scheduled flight for Mercury from Los Angeles to San Diego. The public was not yet ready to embrace the idea of using aircraft for serious traveling and his airline never became a viable business. DeMille added his last airfield in Altadena in 1922, now the sight of the Altadena Country Club - aviation was alive and living in Los Angeles.
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.
The Venice airport was probably the most popular for the movie pilots and aerial stuntmen. Those who called Venice home included pilots Frank Clarke¹, Dick Grace¹, Ormer Locklear¹, Art Goebel, 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:
One requirement for membership was that the member's name must contain 13 letters. If the letters in his name did not add up to 13, he was 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.
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 [who's maiden name was Florence Lowe and granddaughter of Thaddeus 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.
The aerial cinematographer of the 1920s was usually a stunt man or fellow pilot and there are few records that indicate otherwise. 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 cinematographers who shot aerials was Harry Perry [1888-1985].
In the 1926-27 aerial epic and first film to win an Academy Award for best picture, 'Wings' [dir by William A. Wellman], 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; ph by Tony Gaudio] 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. More than 50 WWI aircraft were purchased and brought back to flying condition. He then hired over a hundred pilots including all of Hollywood's foremost stunt pilots. Frank Clarke was the chief pilot, Frank Tomick was chief cameraship pilot, Harry Perry was the aerial unit DP and E. Burton Steene, Dewey Wrigley, Elmer Dyer, Edward Colman, Henry Cronjager, Paul Ivano, Alvin Wyckoff, a.o. were his cameramen. Clarke was noted for his daring stunts in the air and many of the thrilling wing-walking and plane changing stunts originated with Clarke while at the Venice Airport where he learned to fly in 1918.
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 two million dollars in creating the biggest war picture ever made, all in true Howard Hughes fashion.
Elmer G. Dyer [1892-1970] emerged as an aerial cameraman in his own right and through the 1940s and 1950s there was rarely a picture that didn't have his name attached to it.
MGM's 1938 epic 'Test Pilot' [1937, Victor Fleming; ph by 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 by Harold Rosson] and 'I Wanted Wings' [1940, Mitchell Leisen; ph by 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 by 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.
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.]. In 1955 the TV series 'Highway Patrol' [1955-59] introduced the helicopter to the public.
In 1957 the series 'Whirlybirds/Copter Patrol' followed.
Later in the early 1960s the TV show 'Ripcord' [1961-63] featured more hand-held camera work from helicopters.
In 1961, 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 by Robert Aldrich; ph by 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. Tallman, heartbroken by the accident, blamed himself for Mantz's death. 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' , 'The Great Waldo Pepper' , and 'Capricorn One' . 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.
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' . 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' featuring Barbra Streisand. 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. It doesn't matter how much expensive gear you've got, you need to have not a little luck, 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' . Shortly thereafter he began production on his mounts and made them available to anyone who had the inclination to use them. The Society of Operating Cameramen recognized Tyler's accomplishments and awarded him the coveted SOC Technical Achievement Award in 1993.
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'  and 'Ice Station Zebra' . 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' , 'The Gypsy Moths' , 'Hello, Dolly!' , 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' [1968-69], 'King Kong' , and 'Apocalypse Now' [1976-77]. Most of David's assistants went on to become aerial cameramen including Rexford Metz, Don Morgan, Frank Holgate, David 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 Art Scholl¹, a national champion aerobatic pilot, and the legendary Clay Lacy, with his Learjets and Continental Camera's Astrovision System. If you haven't seen 'Capricorn One', rent a copy. Its a classic aerial adventure film, and a fine display of David Butler's work.
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' , 'Airport 1975' , 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' , and 'Courage Under Fire' . 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 1960s and early 1970s. 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 by Jordan Cronenweth]. A helicopter TV reporter played by David Janssen witnesses a robbery where the bad guys used a helicopter for their getaway. This film is a 'must see' for anyone studying the art of aerial camera work.
In the late 1970s David 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.
In 1987 Craig Hosking was introduced to flying into the motion picture business by pilot James W. Gavin. Hosking had already established himself as an airshow pilot with his Pitts Special. He was raised around helicopters, as his father owned Hosking Helicopters in Bountiful, Utah. Craig has flown aerial cinematographers on such pictures as 'Lethal Weapon 2' [1988-89], 'Flight of the Intruder' , and 'Executive Decision'  to name a few.
I took the step from assistant to operator on the 1982-83 season of 'Magnum, P.I.' [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' [series, 1982-83] on the days we weren't working on 'Magnum, P.I.'. We then went on to another Bellisario project, 'Airwolf' [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 Tamburro¹, among others.
In the 1960s, 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'  and 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' [1968-69] with Jack Green [a founder of the Society of Operating Cameramen] as the Wescam technician.
In 1972 Ernst 'Bob' Nettmann, formerly of Tyler Camera Systems branched off to create Continental Camera Systems. I worked there in the 1970s through the early 1980s. 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 by Michelangelo Antonioni; ph by Luciano Tovoli]. He also shot aerial sequences for 'Superman' , 'Escape to Athena' , 'The Empire Strikes Back' , 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 Knox sold his company 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 Nox Leavitt, I mentioned to him that I'd like to represent his equipment here. In early 1987 my company, Pasadena Camera Rental, 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. In 1994 I sold Pasadena Camera and the Wescam after substantially building their client base and resumed my full time concentration on cinematography, both on the ground and in the air.
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.
Unfortunately, it has been difficult at best for studio cameramen to get checked-out on some of the gyro mounts. Only with the cooperation of the rental houses and the desire of our membership to garner the experience of working with this equipment can we hope to expand our horizons, thereby benefiting the aerial industry at large.
Additionally with the efforts of the SOC, training programs became a reality in 1997 and in time our successors will then be able to look back to the 1990s and the turn of the century to recognize the names of great SOC members who were a part of this most exciting era of aerial cinematography.
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]. [+ quotes from an article by David H. Onkst and information/photos from other sources]
¹ 'Air Ace' Frank Clarke [1898-1948] died in a plane crash; Ormer Locklear [1891-1920] was Hollywood's first major stunt pilot. In 1919, Locklear performed the first car-to-plane transfer on film in the movie 'The Great Air Robbery' [dir by Jacques Jaccard; ph by Milton Mark Moore]. One year later, he filmed 'The Skywayman' [dir by James Hogan]. 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 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; Mike Tamburro [1957-1996] died in a helicopter crash.
Contemporary Aerial Cinematographers