An Interview with Doug Holgate, Aerial Cinematographer

 

There are times when a well orchestrated shot with a certain vehicle or a particular actor is just what you need to make your production hit the mark. But a one-day shoot with just the equipment and a pilot, director and camera operator can easily run upwards of $30-40,000, and not every production budget has room for such a big expense.

To give you an example, our recent East Coast shoot including cities like Boston, New York and Washington DC ran well over a quarter-million dollars. Artbeats prides itself on offering an affordable alternative – the stock footage aerial. We do the planning and permitting, use the best equipment for the job, hire the most qualified and talented camera operators and pilots, do all the processing and take all the risks. Then we bring you incredible, quality footage as low as $299, a fraction of the cost of an aerial shoot.

Console

Recently, I spoke with Doug Holgate, a renowned Aerial Director of Photography with a long list of credits including Thor, Soul Surfer, Lost and Survivor. We’ve had the privilege of working with Doug on numerous occasions, taking advantage of his experience, expertise and enthusiasm to pull off successful shoots to provide our customers the very best in aerial footage. Here’s what Doug had to say.

Filming runs in your family – your dad, Frank Holgate, is credited as Aerial DP on an impressive list of films. When did you discover that aerial photography was what you wanted to do?

My father gave me my first job 28 years ago as a film loader on the film Iron Eagle. It was shot in the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas. I got to fly to location in a Cessna Aerobat with Art Scholl, a famous aerobatic stunt pilot who later died during the filming of Top Gun. We worked for two weeks shooting from helicopters and airplanes and I was hooked.

Tyler mount

Using the Tyler mount while filming Lost

After that first enticing experience, how did you work into the industry?

I began by assisting my dad. He specialized in using the Tyler Mount, a mount that required you to remove the helicopter door and sit with your legs dangling out the side of the helo, physically looking through the camera viewfinder, holding the camera like a machine gun.

I gained experience by assisting other guys. While working on Colors, the film starring Sean Penn, we were shooting in Watts and the DP was Haskell Wexler. I had a lot of down time so I started helping Haskell’s assistant, Scott Sakamoto. One day he asked me if I would like to take over as his second assistant. I jumped at the opportunity and ended up working on three features with them. It was a pleasure to work with Haskell. He is a brilliant, Oscar-winning cameraman and just a wonderful human being.

I then decided to become a Steadicam operator and took one of Garrett Brown’s early workshops in Philadelphia. I bought a used rig and operated it a bit. At that point in time a lot of guys were jumping in as Steadicam operators so I steered back toward aerials and started shooting when my dad retired.

We’re glad you did.

Spacecam

Spacecam

Tyler mount

Tyler mount

Gyron

Gyron

What major innovations have been made in mounts since you started?

I cut my teeth shooting the Tyler Mount back when the gyro stabilized mounts were first being used.
I got a chance to work with the Wescam, the first gyro stabilized system, and then began using the Spacecam.

The biggest innovation is in gyro stabilization. The new gyros depend on fiber optics, not mass. These are lighter and the stabilization is much, much better. Newer cameras, the Red and Alexa for example, allow use of these gyros on systems like the Pictorvision eclipse, the Gyron, Cineflex and Shotover. There are some fantastic systems out there that contain amazing technology, each with its own features, and that makes my job incredibly fun and interesting.

Gyron

Gyron, ready for takeoff

eclipse

Following closely with the eclipse

Wescam

Hovering with a Wescam

Note from Artbeats: Many people don’t realize the value and importance of stabilization. Below is a comparison of raw, hand-held vs. gyro-stabilized footage, both captured on the U.S. East coast.

What’s it like working with different types of DPs?

Each project has its own set of challenges and probably the biggest is getting inside the mind of the Director or DP so that I can deliver his vision through my skills and experience. I have to figure out, often times through a discussion, hopefully accompanied by a story board, what exactly is needed for this person’s project.

What’s your favorite project?

Whatever one I am lucky enough to be working on! I like working on everything. I think one of the greatest joys of my profession is the diversity of projects I get to be involved with. I can finish a feature film, do aerials for the World Series, go search for meteorites in a blimp filled with JPL scientists, then film the launch of the Space Shuttle. I just never know where my next project will take me, and I like that.

Thor

Doug shoots a scene from Thor

Radar system

Radar system test for the Mars Lander

What was the most dangerous flight you made?

Probably in Alaska. We had been flying all day through inclement, freezing weather. Stopping in the middle of nowhere, the pilot would walk down the road and disappear for half an hour, only to reappear driving an old truck with a fifty gallon drum in the bed filled with jet fuel. We would pump some fuel into the helo and get on our way. It was getting late when we began crossing a frozen bay filled with icebergs. About half way across, I asked him where the life vests were. The pilot sort of looked over out of the corner of his eye and replied, “It’d only prolong the agony.”

What do you like best about your job? Are there certain aspects you especially enjoy?

I really, really enjoy the creative process that goes into bringing a shot to fruition. Every step of the process is exciting in its own way, and this goes for features, TV, commercials or stock footage. The initial phone call, lining up my pilot, camera system and technician, talking with the director, showing up to help with the system install, traveling to location, waiting for all the elements to get prepped and into position, working through the steps to make the shot work, making adjustments – every step has its own challenges and satisfaction.

Looking over the charts

Looking over the charts with pilot Rob Marshall before heading from New Jersey to Boston

Prepping with technician

Prepping with technician Eric before shooting Washington, D.C.

Flying low

Flying low to capture the Pentagon

What part of the process is the most frustrating?

Because each aerial camera system has its own nuances, there is an appropriate tool for every job. I think the most frustrating thing is being forced to use a camera system that is not optimum for the shot you are trying to achieve. This happens at times because the production company has booked a system without consulting me. I can always seem to make it work, but the frustrating part is knowing how well the shot could have worked if I had been able to use the correct equipment.

Checking lenses

Checking the lenses with Phil Bates before shooting 3D aerials in L.A.

Arri Alura

Arri’s Alura, ready to go

Note from Artbeats: A perfect example happened during our East Coast shoot. While Arri’s Alura 18-80 was perfect for shooting NY, Philadelphia, and Boston, we needed a little more reach for our time in Washington DC. We switched to an Optimo Angenieux for that leg of the shoot. Doug and Phil were happy with that decision, and the results speak for themselves.

If you could shoot anywhere/anything and money wasn’t an object, where/what would it be?

I would love to shoot Machu Picchu. I have visited it and think I would enjoy seeing and shooting it from the air.

How is shooting for stock different from a scene for a feature?

When shooting stock you are grabbing moments as they present themselves. You plan for them the best you can, but a large portion of it is opportunity and instinct. Shooting for a feature, on the other hand, is more orchestrated, depending on the specifics of the scene. Most of the time it is controlled. You are holding traffic, shooting a specific subject in a planned sequence, and the variable is whether the subject is a person, vehicle or aircraft. Also, shooting a scene for a feature you hopefully get more than one take. This gives you a chance between takes to tweak things and adjust timing to improve the shot. Timing is usually the most critical element, especially when working with multiple vehicles or aircraft. It is like an orchestra with everyone – the pilot, myself, the stunt drivers or pilots working together. It is an exciting feeling when it all comes together during a shot! There are times that these moments happen during stock footage shoots; although not controlled, elements come together to create beautiful pieces of film. The light angle is just right on a certain building or cliff edge, things just line up right and you are at the right altitude and heading. When shooting stock, you rely more on light and angles to create images that are pleasing. It is a collaboration among the pilot, myself and often times a director. It is vital that we are all on the same page. We need to adapt to different situations and adjust things very quickly as some of these magic opportunities happen only one time. If you miss them, by the time you get the helicopter turned around and back in position the light has changed and the magic is gone.

Is it somewhat satisfying to be producing some of your own content?

Shooting stock footage has been a process learned through spending a lot of flying hours with Phil Bates and Artbeats shooting cities, highways, the southwest, the Hawaiian Islands, lakes, rivers, swamps – you name it, we have shot it together. I learned from him what works and what doesn’t for stock footage. Taking that knowledge and going out and shooting with the confidence that it will be useful for someone’s project is very rewarding, and I hope that the footage I offer through Artbeats meets a need.

What do you see as the biggest advantage of aerial stock footage?

Often it is cost prohibitive for a filmmaker to fund an aerial shoot for their film, but the other side is that aerials really open up a film, adding immense production value. Stock footage provides filmmakers with a very cost effective way to add huge value to their project.

Slippers

Good luck charm

I know that flying day after day confined in a helicopter can be grueling, but I’ve heard you have a little routine that makes it a bit “cozier.” Care to share your secret?

Slippers. They’re great! I call them my “shooting slippers” and wear them all the time. They are comfy and keep my feet toasty! They are sort of a good luck charm as a lot of my best shots have been done wearing them.