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Aerial Cinematography Firm Bringing Changes to Business Model

Whether swooping between skyscrapers or soaring over the seacoast, a day with an aerial cinematography team can revive the romance of flight. No wonder some directors can’t wait to get up in the air.

“To leave the noise and the mayhem of a 200-person ground unit and escape, you can let your creative juices flow,” says Alan Purwin, camera pilot and president of aerial cinematography firm ShotOver.

But as serene as shooting in the sky can be, on the ground, the aerial cinematography business is in some turmoil.

Purwin’s Van Nuys-based company is shaking up the industry — long dominated by a handful of companies — with a new, democratized business model. And that has his competitors warning producers to be extra vigilant.

In recent decades, helicopter-mounted, remote-controlled camera platforms have given aerial shooters fine control of the camera in ways that once would have been unimaginable. Those expensive, complex housings were built, maintained and rented out by few firms, notably SpaceCam Systems and Pictorvision.

ShotOver, though, is pricing its advanced camera platforms to sell, so local helicopter companies and d.p.’s such as Ugur Icbak of FilmOfis Aerials in Turkey can keep ShotOver rigs handy.

“When a feature is anywhere in the region,” says Purwin, “they can reach out to Ugur and have a high-end, motion-picture-quality (rig) right there.” That cuts down on rental and shipping costs.

Purwin’s competitors voice doubts about the local-ownership approach. SpaceCam president Ron Goodman worries about “amateur owner-operators.” “In order to be good at this, you have to do it all the time,” Goodman warns, cautioning that rigs may not be well-maintained if they’re unused for months. He compares hiring a pilot who lacks production experience with putting a taxi driver in a stunt car. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.

Steve Stafford, president of production chopper company Studio Wings, prefers to rent rather than buy because he’s sure of getting the latest rigs — but only after they’ve been thoroughly tested. (Studio Wings doesn’t make its own gear, but Stafford is working with Goodman on new camera platforms.) “Technology is moving at lightning speed,” Stafford says. “What is new today is old in six months.”

The argument over who owns the rig can be misleading. Machines don’t create the shot, the pilot and d.p. do. Purwin and d.p. David Nowell, like many top duos, have years of experience together. Their recent shoots include “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” and “Jurassic World.”

Once they’ve covered the shots from the storyboards, aerial duos will often shoot their own take on the scene. Some directors, like Ben Stiller, even plan for that. Purwin says that on “Tropic Thunder,” “(Stiller) would tell me, ‘Go crazy Alan, and do your own thing.’ And most of that stuff ended up in the movie.”

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