One of the important skills I learned as a boy from my father was how to fold paper airplanes. Soon I graduated to balsa wood gliders that Paul would buy for a dollar at the corner store. Some models had a propeller attached to a rubber band that you could wind up and let loose. I thought this was terrific. When I was fourteen a business associate of Paul’s took us up in his single-engine Cessna and I got to sit in the co-pilot seat. I loved the idea of flying. On the other hand one of the most viscerally scary experiences in my life as a filmmaker was shooting a helicopter shot of Mt. Rushmore for the PBS series, The West of The Imagination. Back in those days (the 1980s) we shot with actual 16mm film. The heavy camera was on a gyroscopically stabilized mount, and aimed out the open side door of the chopper. On the mount you controlled the camera with handlebar-like grips – like those on a motorcycle, only you are hanging half outside the chopper, with your feet on the landing skid. I held onto those grips white knuckled, so tightly that every shake, rattle, and roll of the chopper was transmitted through my body to the camera – making the first flight’s footage completely unusable.
Imagine my relief when I learned that I could do aerial photography while keeping my feet firmly on the ground. For the road trip to film Weidlinger buildings across the United States I have acquired a cool new piece of gear; an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone. I want to shoot aerial moves around structures.
Until very recently UAVs were tricky to fly but the new models are GPS enabled and stabilized. When the flight controller in my Phantom Vision 2+ acquires six or more satellite signals it knows exactly where it is in space. If you let go of the controls it just hovers in place. If it looses its radio link it comes home, like a robotic homing pigeon.
Here is a video of my teaching myself to fly. Do you recognize the music? It’s in homage to the helicopter sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. At the end the seagulls seemed to be laughing at me but at least the Phantom survived its ignominious landing.
FLIGHT TRAINING: DJI PHANTOM TWO+ from Arc Light Digital Media on Vimeo.