Back in ’87, I was granted permission by the USAF to produce a documentary about the Thunderbirds, the United States Air Force Jet Demonstration Team. Each year, the team appears in dozens of airshows throughout the country. They’ve also represented the U.S. in numerous foreign countries. As a pilot myself, I thought it would be interesting to film the people and behind-the-scenes operations of this unique squadron.
HD didn’t exist in 1987. Neither did small video cameras like the GoPro that record to solid-state memory. Originally, I planned to shoot this documentary on film. I wanted lots of in-cockpit cutaways of the pilots as well as air-to-air footage of the F-16’s.
FYI, if you want to install a camera or other device in a military aircraft, the pilot, crew chief and often a rep from the aircraft manufacturer has to sign off that the installation is solid, secure and does not affect the operation of the aircraft or its emergency egress (ejection) systems. It’s a big deal.
A year or so before my production, Sony introduced a relatively small, Video8 camera that weighed only 2 pounds with a self-contained battery, and could record for over 30 minutes. The CCD-M8 was our only option. We decided that the entire show would be shot on 1” broadcast videotape with Video8 aerial cutaways.
After several phone calls, Sony gave us four Video8 cameras and 50 cassettes. For the ground based footage, I used one of Sony’s first CCD broadcast cameras, feeding composite NTSC video to a 30 pound, Sony BVH-500A portable 1” recorder.
During initial pre-production, I sent one of the 8mm cameras to the Thunderbirds and asked if something could be fabricated so the camera could mount inside the cockpit, pointing at the pilot’s face. One of the team’s crew chiefs made a bracket that attached to the jet’s glare shield, next to the HUD (Heads Up Display). It’s amazing to think how much easier this would have been today with GoPros and foam tape.
Our other challenge was jet-to-jet photography. The representative for General Dynamics, who was assigned to the squadron, made a few phone calls and secured a MAU-12 wing pylon equipped with a camera housing. The system attached to the F-16’s wing as if it were ordinance. Another Sony CCD-M8 camera fit inside and was locked in position to point at the other jets. (If you watch the show carefully, you’ll occasionally see this white camera pod attached to the #1 jet.) Of course the quality of these first generation Video8 cameras was not great, but it was my only option to get certain shots. Also, the tremendous G-forces exerted by the aircraft during maneuvers affected the camera’s spinning record heads and tape mechanism.
I have years of experience directing and filming TV commercials for ad agencies, but working on a project with the United States Air Force was unique. Once you receive official permission to produce your requested project, a liaison is assigned to you. This person is experienced in working with film crews and will help you accomplish almost anything you need to happen. They know the protocol of the military base and who’s in charge of what.
In my experience, the Air Force was very organized and buttoned up. They expect production people to be equally organized. I created a basic shot list of what we were trying to film each day. We’d have a brief early morning meeting with our liaison and whomever was to be involved in that day’s filming. Every Air Force person at the meeting had throughly read my shooting plans and had specific questions. Often their suggestions improved camera locations and other logistics.
I always hire and work with crew people who have positive attitudes and posses multiple filmmaking skills, especially when it’s a small crew. It’s really important to carefully choose crew people for a military project. Before the production, I was required to submit a detailed list of all crew personnel that I intended to bring on base. I was warned before submitting the list, that no crew person would be allowed on base if they had a criminal record. Probably, the scrutiny is even higher today in our post 9/11 world.
To revive this older program (and to replace the ugly Chyron titles) I went back to my original edited 1” videotape sequences. I ran each one through a Black Magic Design, Terranex video processor, which cleans up video noise and repairs blanking differences between cameras or tape decks. I then re-assembled the program, eliminating commercial breaks, while creating new title graphics in FCP-X.
This program was shot in standard definition, interlaced, NTSC video. (There was no progressive scanning in 1987.) Using the Terranex, I blew the SD original master up to pillar boxed, 1080P which looks better on a computer screen.