Aged 13, Gifford Hooper built his first model helicopter in order to get aerial shots of his school for a geography project. Fast forward a few years (and models) and he’s an Oscar-winner and one of the world’s leading aerial filming camera operators.
Back in 1979, Gifford Hooper’s school geography department wanted aerial photos of the school, prompting him to build and operate a model plane with a 35mm clockwork camera so that he could get the necessary shots.
35 years and a few generations of technology later, Gifford is now the proud owner of an Academy Award™, having pushed the aerial shooting envelope with Hawkeye and HoverCam. His work can be seen in 24 Hour Party People, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Finding Neverland and 28 Weeks Later.
Can you still remember your first big break?
It was in 1990, when a riot broke out at Strangeways. I got in touch with ITV news and explained I could get them shots they’d never seen before, so they were very excited and ended up commissioning us to film the rooftop protest live – the first time a live TV broadcast relay had been achieved from a civilian drone. That was also the first time I worked with Philip George, with whom I went on to found HoverCam. I’ve moved on since then am now working with a different set up and crew.
How has your kit changed since then?
When we started working together as HoverCam, we had a 16mm Beaulieu, a S16mm ARRI SR and an ARRI IIC with Cinematography Electronics’ crystal motor base. The first big change was when turbine engines became reliable, because the extra power let us carry bigger payloads and better guidance systems. With the advent of digital cinematography we’ve been able to move to smaller RED cameras, which make life a lot easier.
What drives your changes? Are you always looking to improve, or do you look at the setup on a job-by-job basis?
We’re always trying to improve, although if the client wants something exotic then a flying machine will have to be built for that project. Technology, reliability and safety are the main driving forces behind our changes.
What drives your choice of camera when it’s your choice?
Image quality, size and weight are the biggest issues. When it comes to image quality we have to test different cameras for rolling shutter issues and well we can electronically communicate/integrate with the camera to control its functions remotely. If we have to use a bigger camera, we look at what can be stripped off it without it losing functionality – in some cases we’ve physically cut parts off the camera.
Which camera has generated the most issues when it comes to aerial shooting?
All cameras have different issues to get over, but I guess when we used to shoot full frame 35mm motion film, we had to modify the camera gates, machine different lens adapters and install our own video assist cameras and remote controls. Nowadays all this involves is programming different protocols to talk to the camera’s electronics.
Are you working on the rig at the moment?
The most recent development is a new GPS autopilot system that I’ve implemented, dual autopilot controls for redundancy, new integration of camera controls with the GPS systems. It’ll allow for safer flying and new motion control possibilities.
What’s the most challenging shoot you’ve undertaken?
Well they all have their ups and downs – in aerial filming, all shots are challenging, that’s why they’re the icing on the cake. The hardest things are action sequences in feature films, when you have lots of cast and crew who have to be in the right place at the right time. This isn’t a crane that you can just leave in one place while adjustments are made to the set or actors, so you have to rehearse everything without flying first.
Is there a shot that you’re most proud of?
Working on feature films is the best work to have, but I guess working on commercials with huge budgets means you get to go to some amazing places. We filmed a soft drinks commercial in the Maldives, I think it was for Japanese TV. The shot called for a small beach island with one palm tree and a couple drinking the soft drink, they are on sun loungers and have a kite flying above them giving them shade. Our shot was an aerial view of the complete island surrounded by sea, the couple on the sun loungers with a kite flying close to the aerial camera in the foreground.
To achieve this we had to assume there would be no wind to fly the kite, so that was tethered to the ground and lifted up by a smaller model helicopter. Then we positioned the aerial filming helicopter above the kite. Because the complete island and the sea surrounding it was in view, we couldn’t operate the helicopters from the island and had to build scaffold towers in the sea instead.
Are there any moments where things have gone drastically wrong?
In the early days, mechanical faults where our biggest challenge. The machines had to be completely stripped down and rebuilt overnight while the film crew slept, so we could have a fresh working machine for the morning. We got very little sleep on film shoots! The biggest technical problem we ever had was filming a hotel commercial in Thailand – we lost power and ditched the helicopter in the empty pool. This was back when we were shooting film, so could pull the camera out, strip it, dry it, clean it, grease it, reassemble and test it, then carry on with the shoot with our second machine.
You’ve just won an Academy Award™, which must have felt amazing…
It was awesome, and a complete shock. It’s very nice to have fellow filmmakers acknowledge your many years of hard work.
But looking forward from that, where do you see aerial filming going next?
The market for drones for aerial filming is booming. This is a fantastic time for the market, with lots of computer controlled drones and high quality small cameras. Our systems are all electronic now, so we have fewer mechanical problems to deal with. Usability and reliability are up 100 fold compared to 25 years ago.
Do you see any downsides?
Unfortunately, this leads to some rogue use of technology. A lot of people doing this for the first time are unskilled in aerial filmmaking and flying, and I think a lot more training needs to be done. For example, a lot of people are unaware that it’s illegal to fly without a CAA licence for commercial filming. Even if you’re only doing it as a hobby, you have to abide by the CAA air navigation order.
So your advice to young aerial cameramen is to know the law?
Well your first starting point is to learn how to fly a model RC plane and helicopter to give you a good understanding of flying, start asking for help from people who have being doing it for 30 years. Then obtain the licence for commercial aerial filming work from the CAA.
Looking to get started? We can’t issue pilot’s licences, but if you’re wondering which cameras to invest in, give the team a call.