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History of Hollywood's Aerial Cinematography

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 Hollywood’s new motion picture industry taking root, aviation was embraced by many top producers and directors.

Cecil B. DeMille was one of Hollywood’s 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
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 member’s 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 (who’s 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 Pancho’s 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 today’s 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 bombardier’s perspective of the bombs dropping and hitting their targets added a realism that would be hard to match with today’s computer generated imaging technology.

Harry Perry
Harry Perry

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 Hollywood’s 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"
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 fashion.

Elmer Dyer emerged as an aerial cameraman in his own right and through the ‘40s and ‘50s there was rarely a picture that didn’t have his name attached to it.

dyer1.jpg (43559 bytes)
Elmer Dyer and his Akeley Camera

MGM’s 1938 epic Test Pilot stared Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore and Myrna Loy. Victor Fleming directed. It starts out with Gable’s 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 director’s 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 Valentine’s (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 cameramen’s assignments were pretty much exclusive to those aviation related post WWII films and by today’s 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 47’s 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.

The Phoenix
The Phoenix

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 1980.

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 Tyler’s close up on Barbara Streisand’s 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 Sturges’s 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 Tyler’s accomplishments and awarded him the coveted SOC Technical Achievement Award in 1993.

Two of the first to use Tyler’s 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 Tyler’s 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 David’s 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 Camera’s Astrovision System. If you haven’t seen Capricorn One, rent a copy. Its a classic aerial adventure film, and a fine display of David Butler’s work.

Rexford Metz ASC, emerged as one of today’s 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 70’s. 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   tech/ operators.

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 Holly’s protégé Bobby Z. Some of Nowell’s aerial unit work can be seen on The Blues Brothers, Airport ‘79, The Great Santini, Jurassic Park, and Outbreak. David’s loyalty and trust in Bobby Z has unwaivered over the years since Holly’s death, and their teamwork is in constant demand.

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 few.

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 Bellisario’s Tales Of The Gold Monkey on the days we weren’t 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 Metz’s 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 today’s 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 Wescam technician.

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 Lacy’s 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 Bob’s 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 future.

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 Hollywood’s 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 80’s 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 I’d 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 Tyler’s 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 Wescam’s 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 it’s 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 mount’s 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 Tyler’s 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 DP’s, 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 1990’s 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 McClain’s 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 McClain’s 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.

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