As a specialist in aerial photography, Ron Chapple knows a lot about bad weather and dangerous conditions, having shot footage in typhoons, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires for The Discovery Channel's Raging Planet series. Yet, Aerial Filmworks' president and aerial director of photography is reporting relatively little turbulence from the economic maelstrom that has been buffeting the TV production sector. "It is amazing how much work we have," he said. "If this is a recession, I want more of it."
Their experience illustrates how some companies have been able to thrive in a tough economic climate by finding low-cost ways of producing high-quality HD footage.
Aerial Filmworks specializes in aerial photography, using the Cineflex V14HD camera system from Axsys Technologies. The system has a stabilization system that was originally developed for the military that allows them to shoot extremely high-quality HD images, Chapple said. Yet it is relatively lightweight and can be easily mounted on helicopters and operated by a single camera person, thus reducing the cost of high-definition aerial photography.
Aerial Filmworks owns three of these camera systems, which it also rents out to qualified operators. It has worked on shoots for such clients as Pioneer Productions (which is producing the Raging Planet series), Disney Kids, ESPN, PBS, the Maui Chopper series on TruTV and has done work for the snowboarding film That's It That's All.
The Cineflex V14HD camera system uses a Sony HDC-1500 high-def camera that is mounted inside a round ball. An operator inside the helicopter controls the camera with a joy stick.
Typically, Chapple shoots in 1080p at 29.97 frames per second and records the footage on Sony CineAlta SRW-1 HDCAM SR decks.
The camera has a five-axis stabilization system, that Chapple said produces clear steady pictures even in severe weather.
While in Taiwan shooting sequences in the Taroko Gorge for Raging Planet, Chapple noted that "regardless of the wind conditions you can continue to shoot because of the stabilization. The winds will come from one direction and then half a mile later you'll get hit with winds from another direction. But the camera just stays rock-solid the whole time."
On a number of shoots, the camera system also allowed them to get high-quality HD pictures from a considerable distance. "When we were shooting the California wildfires, you really don't want to be hovering directly over the flames that can be 100 feet high or more," Chapple noted. "But we were able to sit at a safe distance about a quarter of a mile away and zoom in on the flames."
The camera is also lighter and easier to install than other aerial photographic systems on the market, Chapple said.
Typically, they lease a helicopter near the location and send only one operator on a shoot, which reduces costs. "We just show up with four or five cases and within an hour the operator can rig it up and we're ready to fly," Chapple said. "Being able to go out with just one person and work on a variety of helicopters really helps keep production costs down and that has kept us very busy."
Jeff Nestel-Patt, director of corporate marketing at Axsys Technologies, adds that the system's ability to produce high-quality HD images with lower production costs has kept it in high demand among documentary film makers.
He noted, however, that the economy has hurt demand in the broadcast news sector. "We haven't seen a lot of growth on the ENG [electronic newsgathering] side in the last few years," he said. However, they have seen increased interest from broadcasters and government agencies for their thermal imaging systems, which work at night or in low light conditions.