UAS Goes To Hollywood
Emmanuel Prévinaire’s dream of a marriage between cinematography and unmanned aircraft technology nearly ended more than three decades ago in a forest in France. Because his dream was eventually realized, the film industry came to know and trust Prévinaire and the capabilities of UAS for capturing memorable aerial scenes that have been immortalized in several globally recognized films.
A Pioneer’s Beginning
While using an early version of what would evolve into the Flying-Cam SARAH (Special Aerial Response Automatic Helicopter) to videotape a music video, his unmanned aircraft system (UAS) experienced seven mechanical failures in a row.
“We had to keep repairing the helicopter,” he recalls. “After one incident, I stopped working and walked alone for 15 minutes in the forest crying, saying ‘It’s never going to work!’”
Prévinaire disassembled the aircraft and discovered that one part—a servo—was failing repeatedly and causing the problem. Once that was solved, he moved on to conquering the next challenges that would ultimately lead to the founding of Flying-Cam in 1988.
The company has won two Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1995, Prévinaire and his team won the technical achievement award for inventing the Flying-Cam technology. In 2014, they won the scientific and engineering award for the Flying-Cam 3.0 SARAH UAS.
“When you receive the award, it’s like all those moments were for something,” he says of the frustrations and disappointments he experienced along the way. “You realize you can grow from them. There’s an energy that comes in and brings you to the next step. It really helps to guide you in a way that says, ‘Yes, what you did was good.’ But it’s never easy.”
As a result of Prévinaire’s pioneering work that began more than 30 years ago, Flying-Cam became the premier provider of UAS cinematography for Hollywood’s top moviemakers. The company’s work can be seen in such movies as “Mission: Impossible,” “Skyfall,” “Transformers,” “Kite Runner,” “Jarhead” and the Harry Potter series.
Growing up in Belgium, Prévinaire’s father―a private pilot and ninth-generation notary―introduced him to aviation and the hobby of flying radio-controlled aircraft. He credits his mother—who painted, sang and played the piano—with sparking his creative interest in moviemaking. Unlike many teenagers during the 1970s, Prévinaire spent his time winning national radio-controlled aircraft flying competitions, reading American Cinematographer Magazine and working toward earning his commercial pilot’s license.
“My father wanted me to make a living out of a professional activity,” Prévinaire remembers. “I told him I would pass the test to get my commercial pilot’s license.’ As soon as I got the license, my father said, ‘Now you can do something else.’”
Prévinaire chose to attend a film school—the Institut des Arts de Diffusion—in Belgium where he wrote his master’s thesis on the Flying-Cam concept. While he recognized that mounting a film camera on a drone would give moviemakers a new and valuable tool to help them tell the grand stories movies best convey, overcoming the technical challenges involved years of refining and testing new designs.
“You have those two parts—arts and sciences—and it’s actually one of the most challenging situations when science needs to serve the arts,” Previnaire notes. “The director does not have the sense of limits. In imagination, there are no limits. So you have to serve somebody who has no limits in his mind. That brings the technology to a challenge to meet the requirements.”
Early on, Prévinaire relied on his knowledge of aviation to select a standard helicopter design as the best platform to carry video and film cameras for television and movie productions.
“The helicopter gives you freedom in the air. I always looked for that in the design of the Flying-Cam system,” he says. “I looked for the maximum potential out of the platform.”
Today, although the basic design might appear similar, the capabilities of Flying-Cam’s 3.0 SARAH have changed considerably. It now carries an RED Epic digital cinema camera for up to an hour of flight time, flying at speeds and with a precision that Prévinaire says multirotor designs can’t match.
“The single rotor—due to the Law of physics—is a better solution, one single rotor is more efficient then multiple small one” he explains. “It flies faster and higher with collective pitch control.”
SARAH can carry a 3D laser scanner, hyperspectral and multispectral sensors, synthetic aperture radar—any device weighing up to 22 pounds that requires high-precision air maneuvers. Flying-Cam has recently branched into other commercial services, including infrastructure inspection, mapping and surveying, emergency operations, and government and defense applications.
Prévinaire notes that Flying-Cam developed and owns all the intellectual property associated with its UAS, including the platform itself, its autopilot, the ground control station and the graphical user interface for its software. The company provides field operation services and sells turn-key systems. It has offices in Oupeye, Belgium; Santa Monica, California; and Hong Kong.
In its early years, Flying-Cam had to overcome the idea that drones were playthings for hobbyists, not useful tools for moviemakers.
“We first had to bring the technology to a professional level and then explain to our clients that we were working at a different stage than the hobby. There was no perception of this activity as being professional,” he relates.
Slowly but surely, professionals in the entertainment industry began to see the advantages of Flying-Cam’s UAS union with film and video. In a music video shot for a French singer, Prévinaire flew his unmanned helicopter through the window of a house and out again. Eyes began to open to new possibilities.
“This first shot was a revelation. Everybody who saw it said, ‘How did they do that?’ At that time, there were no computer graphic images,” he says. “I realized that something was happening here. This technology would go somewhere.”
The fledgling company got its first big break in 1989 when noted production designer Jean-Claude Goude asked Flying-Cam to capture a shot for a documentary on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. He wanted the drone to fly a 1.5-mile route in Paris starting at the Luxor Obelisk, going down the Champs-Elysees Avenue and ending at the famed Arc de Triomphe.
However, neither the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, nor its police were willing to allow the flight to occur because it involved shutting down a busy section of the city. As fate would have it, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, came to Paris for a ceremony marking the revolution at the Arc de Triomphe with French President Francois Mitterrand. This meant the very route along which Goude wanted Prévinaire’s drone to fly would be closed to traffic.
When the mayor refused to alter his decision, Goude appealed directly to Mitterand on the morning of the ceremony. Fortunately, the president liked the idea and gave his permission. The police gave Flying-Cam’s team a 10-minute window of opportunity to get the shot and provided the company’s drone chase car with an escort.
“I got goose bumps flying the machine all the way down the Champs-Elysees and through the Arc de Triomphe,” Prévinaire recalls. “From a pilot’s standpoint, it was amazing.”
Goude was so impressed with the results that he used the scene as the introduction to the documentary.
A few days after the shoot while Prévinaire was in Canada on another job, he saw a newspaper photo of Flying-Cam’s UAS making its historic flight through Paris. Unfortunately, the journalists who witnessed the event believed the red drone was part of Gorbachev’s security detail.
“No! No! It was not that!” he remembers shouting while reading the account.
Bringing UAS To Hollywood
In 1993, Flying-Cam broke into Hollywood moviemaking on an action film called “Striking Distance” featuring Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker. The company was hired to film a car chase and a scene with a boat jumping over a waterfall. Although the movie wasn’t a commercial success, the amount of money and resources Hollywood dedicated to moviemaking left a lasting impression on Prévinaire and his colleagues.
“It was mind-blowing to us,” he says. “We realized, man, this is an industry. This is huge!”
And Flying-Cam had also made an impression on Hollywood.
“They called us ‘the Belgian waffles,’ Prévinaire laughs. “After they saw our footage, we became ‘the Belgian flying waffles.’”
More and more Hollywood moviemakers began to recognize the value that Flying-Cam’s aerial cinematography added to their films.
“Motion pictures are where you tell the big story,” Prévinaire says. “You not only do the ‘Wow!’ shot, but your shot also needs to be part of the storytelling. You have to respect what the director wants and make sure it’s one piece in the puzzle. And that piece must fit into the big picture of what the movie’s about.”
Getting the “money shot” became Flying-Cam’s stock in trade.
“The most rewarding situation is when we see our shots in the trailer because the trailer is what the producer and director are using to catch peoples’ attention and encourage them to see the movie,” Prévinaire explains.
Flying-Cam’s success has allowed Prévinaire and the Flying-Cam team to travel the world and work with some of the biggest names in the movie industry—some of them actors well-known by fans and others well-known within the industry.
“We worked several times with Tom Cruise. He’s a very nice person on the set—very casual, very open to talk with,” Prévinaire says of the “Mission: Impossible” star.
He calls Allen Daviau—who lists such films as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple” and “Van Helsing” among his credits—a genius and an “old school director of photography.” Prévinaire recalls a time on a movie set when Daviau sent him a hand-written note apologizing for the weather that grounded Flying-Cam’s drone.
When asked what he considers Fly-Cam’s signature moments in cinematography, Prévinaire refers to the opening scene in the James Bond movie “Skyfall,” in which motorcycles chase across the rooftops of Istanbul in Turkey.
“I’m very proud of those shots because we were chosen after the multirotors were tested and they weren’t capable of the agility and speed needed,” he says. “Those bikes really ran fast—close to 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph). We were the only platform that could chase them at that speed. It was really challenging for both the pilot and me, the cameraman. We got some really amazing shots.”
Prévinaire says “Kite Runner”—an award-winning 2007 movie directed by Marc Forster—was memorable both for the images Flying-Cam recorded and the conditions under which it was filmed in the remote location of Kashgar, China. The crew slept in a yurth at altitudes above 12,000 feet and worked in temperatures near zero. SARAH was used to capture scenes simulating a kite’s point of view.
When Prévinaire started Flying-Cam, his father disapproved and told him: “Stop playing with that.” At the film school he attended, the professors who graded his thesis didn’t recognize the potential of UAS technology in moviemaking. It wasn’t until 1995 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Flying-Cam’s accomplishments with an Oscar that Prévinaire turned the doubters into believers.
“When you receive a letter with a gold stamp on it, that’s the day you realize that 16 years of hard work paid off. It’s really a big moment,” he says. “It was quite obvious that we were going to get it, but we didn’t know when.”
Although improvements in computer-generated imagery (CGI) are beginning to limit opportunities for UAS in the movie industry, Prévinaire believes they will continue to have a place in moviemaking because of the need for interaction between actors, directors and UAS operators. As he points out, not everything can be programmed.
“This is a lifetime of work; it’s never ending,” he says. “The technology is moving so fast that it’s not going to stop tomorrow. You can’t say today the product is so good we can finish it here. It’s a continuous flow of innovation.”
It’s the drive to innovate that continues to push Prévinaire to improve the unmanned aircraft technology that took Flying-Cam to the top of the movie industry.
“Innovation is often connected to the mixing of two existing technologies,” he stresses. “Nothing comes out of nothing. You have to create something new.”
Flying-Cam’s innovations and accomplishments are what’s made Prévinaire a true pioneer in the realm of UAS cinematography.