Stunt pilot Frédéric North has decades of experience working in Hollywood on films like “Kong: Skull Island,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and Justin Lin’s latest “Fast & Furious” sequel, “F9.” So I shouldn’t be nervous as I climb aboard in mid-February for my first trip on a helicopter with him and aerial director of photography Dylan Goss (“Matrix 4”) for a commute to a big-budget studio film set, the title of which I’m not allowed to reveal.
North’s helicopter is outfitted with a camera housing unit in front that weighs nearly 260 pounds. It allows the aerial DP to use the same type of camera and lens as the ground crew to ensure airborne footage blends seamlessly with the look of the production. The unit’s value approaches $800,000, depending on the camera package. And it’s so heavy that the helicopter would tip over if not for counterweights below the back cabin and at the end of the tail.
Everything that happens in the helicopter correlates to North’s actions. He’s licensed across North America, Europe and Asia. Since there’s no overarching international pilot’s license, he has to submit to more than 20 written exams a year, in addition to multiple flying tests and physicals, all of which allow him to work all over the world on the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.
While local pilots may be adept at basic flying from point A to point B, North understands how to put the aerial DP in a position to capture the necessary footage through a variety of situations.
When we land at a location, North and Goss meet with the film’s director and DP. “Everything is in the prep,” says North. “We have a protocol, we have a plan, and then we don’t deviate from the plan ever.”
Before take-off, everyone except the necessary actors gets sent inside for safety. To minimize risk, I’m not allowed on board. But there’s also a logistical consideration: Additional weight directly impacts fuel consumption. With the high cost of hiring North and his team — around $25,000 daily — every minute counts.
All communication with North and Goss is funneled through two people on their team when airborne via a dedicated set of walkie-talkies that filter out the noise of the helicopter. Peter Graf, the aerial camera system tech, works before the flight with the onboard equipment and mans the monitors that key crew use to watch Goss’ footage.
Michael Christian Tosi, the ground pilot coordinator, relays potential obstacles and issues. Tosi and I climb atop a shed on the property, granting us a vantage point 10 feet up from which to watch.
When I question why the helicopter isn’t swapped for a drone, I’m told that device isn’t a practical replacement. Drones can’t react to obstacles and understand spatial orientation, because the person controlling them is so far away. “We go up in the air, feel the timing of the action and find the best shot,” explains North. Both drones and helicopters are integral to the filmmaking process, but one cannot replace the other.
Goss engages the onboard camera via a laptop console that includes a monitor and a slew of switches and knobs. North can quickly check Goss’ footage via two small monitors on either side of the cockpit, enabling in-the-moment flight adjustments to complement the work, as neither typically speaks while shooting.
Contrary to what I’ve imagined, Goss says, “In the helicopter, quiet is good. Less conversation in the ship means it’s all working.”
Goss simultaneously fulfills three on-set positions — DP, camera operator and focus puller — all at speeds of 70 mph or more. It wouldn’t be feasible to re-create his work simply by strapping an unmanned camera to the copter. The vehicle is physically incapable of completing the moves to get shots like zooms, and it would be impossible to keep actors focused and in frame at those speeds.
The pair streak across the outdoor set, sometimes as low as six feet off the ground, ending in sharp turns and what look like midair stops. The moves are similar to those North executed with aerial DP David Nowell on “Bad Boys for Life,” in a scene in which star Will Smith jumps from an exploding truck to a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter.
Scarcely 45 minutes after they start, North and Goss land, job complete. “You don’t just show up and get the shot,” Goss says. “You have to hit it out of the park.”