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BMZ Interview: 'Straight Up' Director David Douglas


Director David Douglas sets up for the PPL live hydro wire repair shoot with camera inside the helicopter.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: September 16, 2002

Premiering September 18th, "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action" showcases the vital roles helicopters play in modern civil and military aviation around the world.


Category: Interviews

The worldwide premiere of 'Straight Up: Helicopters in Action' (main film page -- trailer, synopsis, credits, theaters) takes place September 18th at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Award-winning Director/Cinematographer David Douglas talks to BMZ about captuing the high-flying action, and the heroic pilots, for the really big screen.

BMZ: Congratulations on receiving the Kodak Vision Award at LFCA! [Ed.: This prestigious award recognizes outstanding achievement and excellence in Large Format cinematography.] Tell us a little about your background, and how you got into (Big Movie) filmmaking nearly 30 years ago.

David Douglas: I was making 16mm films in high school and when a friend introduced me to some filmmakers. Right there in the little town of Galt, Ontario, Canada. Robert Kerr, Graeme Ferguson, Bill Shaw and Roman Croiter had formed a little company called Multiscreen. For me at seventeen, it was revelation time. When the chance for an afterschool job came along, it entailed driving with Robert Kerr, the eighty miles from Galt down to Toronto each night after classes. We where helping to spruce up and refurbish box loads of metal shapes that had arrived from Japan. We painted them and turned them over to Bill Shaw who put them together into something called an IMAX projector. It was a great tall hissing monster and I'd never seen anything like it. One night Graeme Ferguson arrived with Toni Meyers and some heavy cardboard boxes of 70mm film. There was no 70 rewind table at the Ontario Place booth yet, so that first print of North of Superior was hand guided by myself, Toni, Zal Yanofsky and others from a vertical rewind table in another room and hand wound onto the massive platters, stopping periodicaly for a short ceremony around something called an Ultrasonic Splicer. This was all rich voodoo for me in 1971 and when that first picture hit the screen that night, I fell in love.

Luckily for the large format, that first permanent theater " Cinesphere" at Ontario Place came with a comitment to continuing production. They recognised it was part of their mandate to make a new program each year, and those 20 min. films in the seventies where a training ground. I assisted a series of cameramen as they made their first IMAX films. That gave me priceless experience without the artistic pressure. It was a time to hone some technical skills, and to find my own eye for a scene. I can never thank the cameramen that I assisted enough for their patience, their inspiration, and the example of their commitment to the craft of filmmaking. This is a craft. If the medium is to survive, these skills need to be shared with young people like I was in 1972. I assisted, and later operated for cameramen like Graeme Ferguson, Lazlo George, Miklos Lente, and Gaine Rescher, shooting when I could, doing large format and 35mm features thru the end of the 1970s. We did films like "Snow Job", "Silent Sky" and "Nomads of the Deep" for Ontario. Place , and Living Planet for the new NASM theater in Washington. Working with Francis Thompson and Dennis Moore on Living Planet, was a warm experience That I'll never forget.

BMZ: Your latest Big Movie, "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action," is set to premiere on September 18th. What inspired this film and how did you become involved with it?

DD: The genesis of the film I think came from the Smithsonian's recognition that helicopter aviation was due for more attention and recognition than it was recieving. The National Air & Space Museum held a competition and invited submissions from many of the usual suspects in the large format industry. Di Roberts and I teamed up with Jonathon Barker and SK Films and we were selected to move forward with the project Under the guidance of museum curatorial staff, we began to develop their project (called Up,Up & Away) After significant elapsed time and the tragic death of Air & Space Museum Director Don Engen, the concept proved unfundable. A whole different approach was proposed under the new Museum Director; General Jack Dailey. Working with Museum producer Patti Woodside, Jonathon managed to pull together a broad coalition of important players, mostly in the helicopter industry, to fund this "high action" approach.

BMZ: As the title suggests, the film centers on helicopters. What are some examples of the types of helicopter activities or professions profiled in the film, and why were they chosen? How are these tied into a cohesive story or theme? (what is that message?)

DD: The variety of applications for helicopters in the world is surprising even to aviation veterans. The excersise for us in scripting involved finding a balance between civil and military operations, between missions of local concern, and of far flung emergencies. And as always , the hunt for backgrounds that lend vitality to the film experience.

The snowy mountain avalanche rescue story of the opening sequence sets our audience firmly in the present where our "expectation " of helicopter rescue is voiced for all of us by the small boy who is airlifted to a Swiss hospital. This sets us up for the sequence that lets us learn how such things are now possible.

After learning where helicopters came from, and a brief lesson in how to control them, we're off on a series of startling missions where the engaging people who drive these complex machines guide us onward.

Arcs of lightning flash as PPL's half million volt live transmission lines are serviced from helicopters.

Black Rhino's spin and charge as heliborne dartguns tranquilize them for conservation work.

Teetering below a Boeing 234 heavey-lifter, we ride on a huge log suspended on long line 300 ft. under the craft.

These and all the other remarkable aviation feats in Straight Up, happen somewhere every day. I think the most exciting aviation happening in the world is helicopter aviation.

The theme of the film is summed up in the last sequence where a Coast Guard search & rescue pilot says " it's a privledge to fly a helo, it's a chance to make a difference in someones life." We depend on these machines and the great people who ride in them.

BMZ: You obviously logged some considerable hours flying in helicopters had you done this before, and how does it compare to flying in an airplane? Is it harder to film from a helicopter than an airplane? How did you solve the "bouncing" problem?

DD: I think that I'm at around 2000 hrs. in helicopters over the last thirty years of large format filmmaking. Helicopters are far more interesting platforms for photography because they can stop and even back up. They typically work close to the ground in photo missions, and that adds excitement and pace to the shots, but their ability to hover in one place is the great difference that makes them uniquely important to photography and filmmaking. Much is made of the vibration issues in helicopter photography, with good reason. The fact remains though that not every shot, and not every experience is enhanced by being perfectly stabilized. Fortunately, this subject allowed us to present the experience of riding in a helicopter, working from a helicopter, and that freed us from the fanatical pursuit of stabilization at any cost . We don't bounce the camera around, but we don't let heavey stabilizers get between our subject and the camera's eye.

BMZ: How did you try to ensure that viewers, many of who might never want to fly in a helicopter, would get the sense that they were up there in the helicopter?

DD: The hard work of transporting the audience into the air is done by the miraculous resolution of 15perf negative , and the remarkable quality of the large format theaters. The succession of stories in Straight Up, take the audience on human journeys that make the physical relocation of the audience into the sky, only a first step in their aviation experience.

BMZ: Helicopters and people using them appear to be involved in some pretty risky activities did you have any dangerous situations or close calls during the production? If not, what were the most challenging sequences? Greatest triumphs?

DD: Helicopters are as safe as the pilots who fly them. You don't work out of helicopters for thirty years by chasing risk. The challenge is to quickly find safe ways to do things that may appear risky. Knowing the difference between risk, and precise technique in a given situation is experience worth having. On this project, one of the most exhillerating experiences was gathering our camera package together (IW5-A) and running like hell for an A-Star , before a thoroughly angry Black Rhino wakes up and comes after us. (the antidote works in 90 seconds, and the antidote injection was the shot)

BMZ: Would you call this a "science film" or a "thrill ride?" Will it play mainly at Air & Space museums, or will it be achieve broader distribution?

DD: The theaters that choose Straight Up will find that the expectation of science film, or thrill ride will both be present but the context of dramatic narrative overpowers both of these labels.

BMZ: I understand you've worked on some of the Space IMAX films. what comparisons can you make between these two types of "flight" Big Movies?

DD: The experience of working on the IMAX Space Team for Hail Columbia, Dream is Alive, Blue Planet, Destiny in Space, Mission to Mir, and Space Station 3d did a great deal to prepare me for Straight Up. Mission driven crews in aircraft or spacecraft are presented with similar challenges of space, weight, mission planning and getting pictures of acceptable quality with very limited time. The key difference, I guess, is in the training of astronauts to be filmmakers, whereas in the helicopter sequences, a limited camera crew was permitted to ride or in several cases, the re-creation of events was staged in training excercises. We determined early on that our presence could not be made compatible with aircraft missions such as real time, real world drug busts, or real life night search and rescue. Likewise , many highly desireable filmic events in space missions happen when no-one is available to record them. In the end , both venues present more than enough engaging views to tell stories and amaze people with the resourcefulness and courage of their fellow human beings.

BMZ: As a true veteran of the format, what do you think of the current state of Big Movie filmmaking, as well as its future prospects/direction?

DD: The state of filmmaking in large format seems to be promising for the filmmakers but challenging for the audiences. The rush of new material flooding into the marketplace (a lot of it not too great) is pushing the model of multiple titles into common use by the theaters. This offers them the opportunity to attract the same audience back to their theater more frequently, and relieves the marketing pressure to drive a single title outward into the marketplace. In the past, theaters chose a good film and stuck with it; the film had a chance to find it's audience. Theaters still don't have a lot of money for promotion, so nothing is as important as return business. That's the business that I remember. Audiences knew they would find a film presentation of striking quality and so they came back with friends and family, or planned to bring visitors. That was an audience that steadily grew outward into the city. The task of getting your friends or family to a show that plays just one or two slots a day for just a few months , is so much harder.

The choice of really good documentaries is now better than ever. I can't figure out why everybody is trying to turn the large format into a Hollywood style feature venue, when most of the highest grossing independent features of any kind, are large format documentarys.

There's lots of smoke in the air right now, but I believe that good work , well presented will find it's way through.

BMZ: What do you like best about Large Format filmmaking, and what's the greatest challenge?

DD: As a filmmaker, no medium can compare to 15 perf 70mm film. Say what you want about digital,( I think digital tools have made many new possibilities real for the big film cameras) The reality of the image quality speaks for itself. The reliability of film technology is very hard to approach. The long term stability of film images when compared to digital also argues for at least another decade of film dominance. So for me, the large format digital pitch has had the ring of the late night food processor salesman. Just another float in a parade of media that repeatedly make the point that some people will settle for a less convincing experience when they have nothing to compare it with. 15 perf camera neg is still the place to be .

BMZ: What are your plans for future films?

DD: I am working on scripts for wildlife, aviation, sports and natural history projects, and hope to continue working as a cinematographer for other directors when not so engaged on my own projects.

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