Feature Article written for
The Operating Cameraman
By Stan McClain, SOC
(updated and revised for this website)
Aerial cinematography traces its roots back to the Civil War.
In 1863, an inventor from Philadelphia named Thaddeus Lowe 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 Balloon Corps
were iniated. 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 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 here to enjoy the perfect shooting climate. By 1920
"Hollywood" was established as the motion picture capitol of the world.
In the roaring 20s aviation came alive, especially here in Los Angeles. Airfields
sprouted up everywhere, and with Hollywoods new motion picture industry taking root,
aviation was embraced by many top producers and directors.
Cecil B. DeMille was one of Hollywoods 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 JN-4Ds (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 #2 on the north side of
Wilshire Blvd. and the west side of Crescent (Fairfax.)
Cecil B. DeMille
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 #2. In May 1921 that plane flew its first scheduled flight for Mercury from
L.A. 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 L.A.
Businessman Sid 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 Curtis "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 Clark, Dick Grace, Omar Locklear, Art
Gobel, and Fronty Nichols. One of the more prominent movie pilot and stunt groups called
themselves the "Thirteen Black Cats." Organized in 1925, they set the standards
for aerial stunts. Here are some of their stunts and rates:
Crash ships into trees or houses........................................ $1200.00
Loop with man standing on center section.......................... 150.00
Change airplane to train..................................................... 150.00
Blow up plane in mid air, pilot chutes out.............................. 500.00
Loop with man on each wing, standing up............................ 450.00
One requirement for membership was that the members 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, "Spider" Matlock, and "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 (whos 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 Pancho , 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 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 and it was
there where legendary pilots Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, Pete Everest, and Tony Levier
claimed their stakes in aviation fame. Her character and club were depicted in the
legendary aviation film, The Right Stuff and later in the MOW Pancho Barnes
with Valerie Bertinelli playing the role of Pancho. Former MGM owner and film producer
Kirk Kerkorian learned to fly at Panchos school.
The aerial cinematographer of the twenties 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 wound 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. In the 1927 aerial epic and first film
to win an Academy Award for best picture, Wings, Perry created some of the most
spectacular aerial footage that is still considered to be best "combat" footage
even by todays standards. Wings was directed by William Wellman and starred
Clara Bow and Charles "Buddy" Rogers. Dick Grace performed many of the live on
screen crashes. In the film, they actually dropped live bombs over a "town". The
bombardiers perspective of the bombs dropping and hitting their targets added a
realism that would be hard to match with todays computer generated imaging
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 Hells Angels 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
Hollywoods 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 &
Elmer Dyer were the assistants. 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.
Elmer Dyer and Frank Clark "Men with Wings"
Technicolor three strip camera
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
Elmer Dyer emerged as an aerial cameraman in his own right and through the 40s and
50s there was rarely a picture that didnt have his name attached to it.
Elmer Dyer and his Akeley
MGMs 1938 epic Test Pilot stared Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lionel
Barrymore and Myrna Loy. Victor Fleming directed. It starts out with Gables
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. Gable was then hired to test
fly the new YB-17, the Flying Fortress. The Army Air Corps, eager to impress Congress with
their new state of the art long range bomber, the B-17, participated in the film by
supplying all twelve of the prototypes for the directors use. Within a few years,
those very planes saw action in WWII. Paul Mantz, after only seven years as a Hollywood
aviator, was the chief pilot for the aerial filming unit.
Mantz and Dyer teamed up many times in years to come on pre and post WWII era aviation
films including Flight Commander for MGM and I Wanted Wings for
Paramount. Both were shot in 1940. They worked on three films in 1941, Dive Bomber
and Captains Of The Clouds for Warner Bros. and Keep Em Flying for
Universal for which Joe Valentines (SOC) father was the DP.
The last picture Mantz and Dyer worked on before reporting for active duty in the Army Air
Corps was Warner Bros. Air Force, released in 1943. USAAC WWI vet, Howard Hawks
directed and James Wong Howe was the DP. 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 theme films made each year. The aerial cameramens
assignments were pretty much exclusive to those aviation related post WWII films and by
todays standards the cinematography was limited in style and technique. It was to be
the introduction of the civilian helicopter that changed aerial cinematography. In 1957 a
TV show called Whirley Birds introduced the helicopter to the public. The two
Bell 47s and later a Bell J2 were flown by Bob Gilbreth and Harry Hauss, and all of
the camera work was hand-held with an Arri 2B. Later in the early 60s the TV shows Highway
Patrol and Rip Cord featured more hand-held camera work from helicopters.
Pilots Harry Hauss and J. David Jones recalled working with Elmer Dyer in those early
days, and it was around then when Elmer retired.
During the 60s Mantz joined up with pilot Frank Tallman and created Tallmantz
Aviation, based at Orange County Airport. Together they worked on several films including Flight
Of The Phoenix where Mantz met his fate, when a make shift plane crashed on take off,
killing him instantly.
Frank Tallman emerged as the leading movie pilot with
several big pictures to his name that included Its A Mad, Mad, Mad World, Catch 22,
The Great Waldo Pepper, The Black Sheep Squadron TV series, and Capricorn One.
Frank died on a routine ferry flight while crossing the mountains near Palm Springs in
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 Tylers close up on
Barbara Streisands 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.
Tyler, who came up through the studio system, got the idea of trying to isolate vibration
while viewing the aerial credits on Westside Story. 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 Sturgess 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 Tylers accomplishments
and awarded him the coveted SOC Technical Achievement Award in 1993.
Two of the first to use Tylers mounts were John Stevens 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.
Stevens already a DP worked with Tyler in the development years of the Major Mount and
shot the second unit and aerials on Ice Station Zebra and Grand Prix.
Over the years some of his assistants included Don Morgan , Don Burgess , and Steve Shaw,
all who have become ASC cinematographers.
David Butler started out as Tylers assistant and moved up to operator in 1966. Some
of his aerial adventures with pilot David Jones include the Batman TV series, Gypsy
Moths, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Planet of the Apes, Hello Dolly, King Kong, Apocalypse Now,
Capricorn One and The Final Countdown. Most of Davids assistants went
on to become aerial cameramen including Rexford Metz ASC, Don Morgan ASC, Frank Holgate,
David Nowell SOC, and myself.
In 1977 David Butler and 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 Scholl, a national champion aerobatic pilot who was later killed
while working on Top Gun, and the legendary Clay Lacy, with his Lear Jets and Continental
Cameras Astrovision System. If you havent seen Capricorn One, rent a copy. Its
a classic aerial adventure film, and a fine display of David Butlers work.
Rexford Metz ASC, emerged as one of todays 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 Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Airport 75.
77, and 79, The Gauntlet, Dirty Harry, The Eiger Sanction, Rocketeer,
On Golden Pond, and Courage Under Fire. Metz utilizes the Tyler Major Mount,
Gyrosphere, Wescam, Astrovision, and Vectorvision as some of his aerial tools. He is also
accomplished in underwater and visual effects cinematography.
Frank Holgate is another who was a product from the
Tyler school of the 60s and early 70s. 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. A helicopter TV reporter played by David Jansen witnesses a
robbery where the bad guys used a helicopter for their getaway. This 1973 film is a
"must see" for anyone studying the art of aerial camera work. Some of his other
work includes, Blue Thunder, Diamonds Are Forever, Terminal Velocity, Drop Zone, The
Tuskeegee Airmen, and Dumbo Drop.
Today Stevens, Metz, Butler and
Holgate are still working as much as ever, despite the recent influx of gyro mount
In the late 70s David Nowell,SOC who earlier had
assisted Metz and Butler, began operating the Continental Mounts and the Astrovision. He
worked with pilot Rick Holly most often until Holly died while working on Runaway Train in
1986. Nowell then began working with Hollys protégé Bobby Z. Some of Nowells
aerial unit work can be seen on The Blues Brothers, Airport 79, The Great
Santini, Jurassic Park, and Outbreak. Davids loyalty and trust in
Bobby Z has unwaivered over the years since Hollys death, and their teamwork is in
In 1987 Craig Hosking was introduced to flying into the
motion picture business by pilot Jim 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 Leathal Weapon II & IV, Navy Seals,
Flight of the Intruder, City Slickers, Con-Air, and Executive Decision to name a
I took the step from assistant to operator on the 82-83 season of Magnum
P.I. , thanks to pilot David Jones. For six months we lived in Hawaii and worked on
Don Bellisarios Tales Of The Gold Monkey on the days we werent
working on Magnum. We then went on to another Bellisario project, Airwolf, 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 La Rosa, Rick Shuster, Peter McKernan Jr., and the late Mike Tamboro, among others.
Jones completed Twister with Ron Goodman as the aerial DP, and Courage Under
Fire with Rexford Metz ASC and was prepping Con Air when he found that
he had cancer. he passed away in July 1997.
Hauss is still focusing his talent on the short term
commercial productions. Another veteran pilot, Chuck Tamboro, has flown on The
Terminator films, Die Hard I & II, and True Lies to name a few. Pilot
Jim Gavin has ties with Clint Eastwood and flew Metzs cameras on most of his films
since The Gauntlet in 1977 Metz and Gavin also contributed their talents on all
of the Airport films, Foul Play, Forever Young and many others.
More Camera Mount Vendors
In the 60s, up in Canada, Westinghouse developed a gyro stabilized 35mm mount for a
military contract. Its chief designer Knox Leavitt bought the rights to the project and
formed Istec, with the 35mm Wescam as its product. The "ball mount" was four
feet in diameter and weighed far more than todays version. KTLA had a Wescam made
for a cumbersome video camera and it covered such historical events as the Baldwin Hills
Dam when it overflowed and gave way, and the 1966 Watts riots. KTLA sold it to KNBC, and
it was demolished in a 1976 fatal helicopter crash piloted by the famous cold war U2 spy
plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. One of the first feature films the 35mm system worked on
was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969 and Tora! Tora! Tora!,
in 1970 with Jack Green ASC (a founder of the Society of Operating Cameramen) as the
In 1972 Bob Nettmann, formerly of Tyler Camera Systems branched off to create Continental
Camera Systems. I worked there in the 70s through the early 80s. 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 Lacys 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 1983. 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 Bobs other developments included the Cam Remote, the new
Nettmann/Kenworthy Snorkel System, and the Gyron, which is a gyro stabilized helicopter
mount currently for video use only. He plans to have a 35mm system finished in the near
Ron Goodman, 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. With it he shot aerial sequences for Escape to Athena, The Empire
Strikes Back, and Superman I, II, & III. In 1984 he moved to L.A. with 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 Hollywoods
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
gyrostabilized "Ball" mount.
Istec, 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 80s the Gyrosphere was the only ball mount based in L.A. 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 Knox Leavitt, I
mentioned to him that Id like to represent his equipment here. In early 1987 my
company, Pasadena Camera, introduced the Wescam to the United States. Using Bob Nettmann's
and Nelson Tylers 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 ASC, Frank Holgate, David Butler, and David Nowell SOC, 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.
Goodman, noting Wescams rapid growth decided to start from scratch with a new design
and built the Spacecam. He 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 has made an assortment of side, nose and rear facing brackets for
a variety of helicopters. Flying Pictures acquired the Gyrosphere and have two units at
their Van Nuys office.
With the race on to capture the market, Wescam introduced its four gyro system in 1992.
Today the U.S. based Wescams are factory owned and operated through the Canadian company
Wescam, Inc., with offices in Toronto, Van Nuys,CA and Florida. Currently, Wescam in Van
Nuys has two three-gyro systems and one four-gyro system.
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°. There are two series II units and Spacecam III was scheduled for release
in the fall of 96. Like Wescam, Spacecam received an Academy Techinical Achievement
Award for its individual merits. To this day, Goodman still has a closed door policy
(which still baffles the aerial cinema industry) for use of his equipment, even to the
most experienced aerial camera operators.
In 1993, Tyler began development on his gyro stabilized mount called The Sky Gyro. Like
Goodman, Tyler has taken yet another new approach in his design. Being a perfectionist, he
has not released this unit, insisting that all bugs are removed prior to sending it out.
Also in 93, east coast aerial cameraman Don Sweeney began experimenting with Ken Lab
K-8 gyros placed on the front of a Tyler Major Mount. This adaptation improved the
mounts performance while maintaining the dutch, whip pan, and snap zoom capabilities
that have made the Major Mount so versatile. In late 94 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 Tylers 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 DPs, 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 can become a reality 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.
For more information on the history of aerial
cinematography and motion picture pilots, visit The Aerial
Cinema Book Cellar.
About the Author-- Stan McClains 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 1974-1981, he worked as a 1st assistant for David Butler, Rexford Metz,ASC
and David Nowell,SOC. He has worked on over fifty feature films as an aerial cameraman
including Rambo, Eight Million Ways To Die, Flatliners, At Play In The Fields of the
Lord, Firebirds, Basic Instinct, Wind, Passenger 57, Drop Zone, Nell, Seven, Nixon, Bird
Cage, and Contact. Some of the main unit cameramen who have used
McClains aerial expertise repeatedly include John Toll ASC, John Lindley, Jan Debont
ASC, Bob Richardson ASC, Bill Fraker ASC, Ian Baker, and Julio Macat, to name but a few.
He has worked 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 Operating Cameraman Magazine since 1997 and
is the immediate past President of the
Society of Operating Cameramen.