Birds over Hollywood

By Morgan, Bob | American Cinematographer, August 1985 | Go to article overview

Birds over Hollywood


Morgan, Bob, American Cinematographer


Scarcely an hour passes in prime time television without seeing a helicopter in an action show. Even more often, the helicopter is used as a camera platform.

As far as television drama is concerned, helicopters first came on the scene with the Whir/ybirds series in the early '50s. But it was not until a decade later that the chopper really started to come of age in film production, in both features and television.

This most popular symbol of adventure films was still in its infancy at the time of Whir/ybirds - the first helicopter having been certified for commercial.usage just a few years before in 1947. Aerial cinematography goes much further back than Whir/ybirds, however, having come into its own in the 1920s.

At first, cameras were handheld in open cockpit aricraft and handcranked. By the time of Wings (1927), someone (possibly cinematographer Harry Perry, ASC) had the idea of mounting the camera on the machine gun ring of a surplus World War I fighter plane. Such motion picture flight pioneers as pilots Paul Mantz, Frank Clarke, Frank Tallman, Dick Grace, Al Wilson, Leo Tomick and CoI. Roscoe Turner lent their expertise to the making of more sophisticated aerial scenes. Some top cameramen became celebrated for their superb aerial cinematography, among them Perry, Thomas Tutwiler, ASC, Elmer G. Dyer, ASC, Charles Marshall, and Glen Kershner, ASC.

The early talkie era brought forth such fine flying yarns as Hell's Angels (still the most elaborate of all such films), Hell Divers, Ace of Aces. The Eagle and the Hawk, The Dawn Patrol and The Lost Squadron. Eventually, however, there was a period of stagnation of aerial photography. Because of wartime restrictions, most of the aircraft films made during World War II were done with studio mockups and model shots.

As stunts became more important, another problem was the lack of maneuverability in winged aircraft, as well as the fact that extremely low speed flight and hovering were impossible. Shots from the air of action taking place on the ground just didn't seem to work.

By the '50s, the advent of television and the shrinkage of audiences attending theaters on a regular basis forced major producers to recognize the technical innovators who were coming up with exciting new systems which would revolutionize the contemporary art of filmmaking. The producers hoped these innovations would return mass audiences to the theaters. Cinemascope, Cinerama, stereo and high fidelity sound became commonplace in high-budget pictures, many of which quite naturally fell into the category of spectacles.

The advances in electronics (many as a result of government research that had been conducted as part of the war effort) in particular made the magnetic recording of sound possible. Magnetic recording reduced the size and weight of sound recording equipment and made recording sound in flight possible.

Into this atmosphere of change and technological progress came the first airborne camera platform that was truly steady and suitable for aerial photography. That platform was the helicopter, the most maneuverable of all aircraft.

Among the leaders of the helicopter age in film was a former Marine Corps pilot, David Jones. Jones came to California following his discharge from the service and brought his own helicopter with him.

"I came tripping into town in 1960," he says. "By pure luck that coincided with the transition period when cameras were first beginning to really get into motion. The industry was moving away from those gigantic Mitchells that had to have huge wheels so they could be moved around the soundstage; cameras were getting smaller and smaller.

"Then some very smart producers went to New York and found the John Frankenheimers and the Sidney Lumets and all those great live television directors of the late '50s and early '60s period. Those guys used to take giant RCA video cameras and move them all around the TV stages. …

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