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

 April 16, 2013

By  Pascal Depuhl

The only humanitarian flight, that really exists,” says Laurent Saillard “is PACTEC.” He should know since he is the head of ECHO, the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. He is referring to the humanitarian air service, which is the only NGO, that flies into about half of the 35 airports, that the service in and around Afghanistan. So not surprisingly I spend a lot of time 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 autopilot, 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 relation to the sunlit skies, which 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, which gave me good audio. I should have fed that feedback 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.
  • 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 an HD-DSLR gives you a small footprint, so my Sachtler tripod straddles the narrow aisle, the light is in the seat row on a very small light stand and I cram it 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 panel, while the King Air turns, makes this all worthwhile.

And that’s how I got the shot.

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    Pascal Depuhl

    Miami product photographer, video producer, cinematographer and chief mindchanger at Photography by Depuhl I love to share the knowledge I've gained over the past two decades. Catching light in motion.