Magazine article American Cinematographer

Videotape Records Thunderbirds in Flight

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Videotape Records Thunderbirds in Flight

Article excerpt

Predicting the performance of video cameras mounted inside the cockpits of F-16 supersonic jets was just one of the concerns of the production team shooting a video documentary on the USAF Thunderbirds. Przyborski/Camp Productions recently produced Thunderbirds...A Team Portrait, which began airing in December as a syndicated TV special.

Camera performance in these supersonic jets, the low light conditions in airplane hangars and the rugged conditions encountered in the Las Vegas desert were the primary challenges to overcome. Successful completion of this assignment required a perfect combination of rugged, high performance video equipment.

"We did a site survey at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, where most of the shooting would take place," recalls Glenn Przyborski, co-owner of the 12-year-old, Pittsburgh-based production facility.

Not only did the production team encounter horrendous noise and vibration levels in and around the jets, which cause tube cameras to produce microphonics or horizontal lines in the picture; they also had to consider how to videotape shiny red, white and blue jets, continuously waxed to sparkle in the bright sunshine.

"We were concerned about being hindered by comet tails and beam lags, once the intense Las Vegas sun hit the jets," cited Mr. Przyborski. "They were so shiny they resembled brand new cars coming off an assembly line. The only cameras that could be used for these shots, we decided, were ones with CCD imagers. We had a couple of choices. I had seen a demonstration of the Sony DXC-3000 and felt it was more than adequate. The inherent reliability of Sony equipment was a big factor in our decision to go with the DXC-3000s."

Ultimately, the production package consisted of: two Sony DXC-3000 CCD chip cameras; a BVW-105 CCD camcorder system; a BVW-25 Betacam® field recorder/player; and four 8mm Handycam® camcorders.

Przyborski, who normally directs and shoots television commercials on 35mm film, chose to videotape the entire production. "We wanted to place cameras in each of the jet cockpits and focus them on pilots. Clearly, film cameras were too big," Przyborski calculated. "The only camera/ recorder in the country that would fit in an F-16 cockpit is the 8mm camcorder."

The Sony 8mm camcorders were modified to fit the needs of the production. First, the start switch on the camera was moved from back to front to be within easy reach of the pilots. Then an LED light was placed in the cockpit near the on/ off switch to enable the pilot to confirm when the unit was recording. The head switching mark, visible as a white dot moving across the bottom of the frame, was rendered invisible by moving it into the vertical blanking interval.

One of the most unpredictable factors was the G-force and the impact it would have on the cockpit-mounted 8mm camcorders. In certain turning maneuvers, the jets go up to nine Gs and suddenly a five pound camera weighs 45 pounds. The stress factor couldn't be simulated in advance to determine how well a camera would stand up to it. "None of us could predict whether the 8mm camcorders could withstand the G forces. As it turned out, it wasn't even a factor," Przyborski stated.

The high-pitched vibration of the jet, however, did prove problematic when the 8mm camcorders were first placed in pods located under the jet wings to capture in-air motion shots. The pods were originally designed to hold 16mm film cameras and were too big to hold the 8mm camcorders snugly in place. …

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