How did you get that shot? … the one where you’re interviewing the pilots in the cockpit?

The only humanitarian flight, that really exists,” says Laurent Saillard “is PACTEC.” He should know, since he in head of ECHO, the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. He is referring to the humanitarian air service, that is the only NGO, that flies into about half of the 35 airports, that they service in and around Afghanistan. So not surprisingly I spend a lot of times in airplanes, which comes with filming a documentary film about an air service in Central Asia.

If you know anything about flying, you know that take off and landing are the most intensive times in a flight and they require a sterile cockpit, which means that nothing is in there that shouldn’t be – like a nosy filmmaker for example. However, especially on long flights, when the plane is cruising along on auto pilot, I used that time to interview the pilots. I feel that having the conversations in flight adds authenticity to the shots and is a wise use of the limited time I had in country.

Iwan Interview
However there are some very unique challenges to filming inside an aircraft that is in flight. First of all propeller planes are not the quietest environments I’ve worked in. So recording the voice of the pilot proved to be a challenge. Then there is the fact that the interior of the aircraft is much darker in relationship to the sunlit skies, that always exist at their cruising altitude of 25,000 feet. If I want to see anything of the outside, I’ll have just a silhouetted captain to interview. Lastly there is not a lot of room to do anything – the widest spot inside a King Air Super 200 is 4 feet 4 inches (1.62 m) wide.

Interview setup in King Cockpit horz

Let me walk you through, how I solved each of these problems, one at a time:

  • Sound. Using any kind of mic would pick up the noise that the engines make, just listen to Vince speak during his interview. He’s miked with a lav mic, but you can hear how loud he is talking to cut through the noise of the props. That works for a sentence or two, but not for a whole story. Fortunately the pilots communicate with each other using the headsets that you see in the footage. So I jacked my Tascam DR 100 recorder into the planes comm system (Listen to what that sounds like), which gave me good audio. I should have fed that feed back into the camera to have a scratch track for sync, but I didn’t – so it took a long time to find a word among all the noise to sync to, but it’s possible (It’s really hard to hear, but you can listen to it here).
  • Lighting. I can’t set up a light inside a small cabin, that can overpower the sun. There’s not enough room, there’s not enough power to do that. I had taken one light, an Ikan ID 400, with me, that can be powered by a 6V battery. This got set up for the tight interview shots and gave me a nice light source for the close up shots during filming.
  • Rigging. Stretch out your arms. Well you can not do that inside the cabin, nor can you stand up straight, it’s under 5 feet (1.5m) high. Filming with a HDDSLR gives you a small footprint, so my Sachtler tripod straddles the narrow isle, the light is in the seat row on a very small light stand and I cram into the seat to. All this needs to get set up after takeoff (remember the sterile cockpit) and taken down well before landing. Then there’s the issue of not being behind the camera to see what your recording. One of the best pieces of kit I had with me was the Zacuto EVF. This little monitor can be positioned where ever it’s needed to see your framing. It turned out to be invaluable (BTW it gives you a lot more information about exposure, focus, … as well).

But this setup works and seeing the mountains gliding by behind Mark in the Kodiak or the sun move across the instrument pannel, while the King Air turns, makes this all worthwhile.

And that’s how I got the shot.