Shooting Air-to-Air with Clay Lacy

Before retiring I shot a lot of airline commercials with Clay Lacy, out the side window, the lower door of the Lear Jet and with Astrovision. Clay pioneered shooting out of the Lear Jet. He still does most of the aerial work seen on TV and in movies. He understands all the variables, procedures and communication problems that facilitate a smooth shoot. There are many decisions that have to be made in the air as to weather and course clearances. As conditions change, compromises have to be made. These notes are to help the communication process between agency, director and operator.

It is often difficult to get all the interested parties together much before a shoot. The first meeting might happen the night before a morning shoot or during the day of an evening shoot. Usually the ideal weather is clouds, but not complete cover at higher altitudes resulting in flat light. For airline work, Clay likes to work over the cloud tops, but at lower elevations, 5 to 20,000 ft., for increased maneuverability. He always checks with many different weather sources before a group decision is made on where to go. There is a lot to interpreting what weather forecasts mean photographically. The North West and South West are often a good areas for clouds. Afternoon puffy clouds in the South West that build during the day often dissipate later in the afternoon.

There are some limitations. Shots that look great on paper may not be possible. It is an advantage for Clay or his other pilots, to go over the story board to explain what is feasible. It doesn't mean that some new shot are not possible, but during the limited time available, the best necessary footage should be shot first. Attempts at something new should be done only after the tried and true shots in the best light and backgrounds are accomplished. Looking at existing footage will help communications about what is possible. A clean picture plane is necessary as some light shows every defect.

In the air communications are difficult. There is an intercom in the Lear that allows everyone to communicate with Clay and each other. But Clay is often talking to the picture plane or air traffic control and can not talk with people the Lear at the same time. This takes a fair amount of the time because he has to keep the picture plane informed about what headings to request clearances for and what the Lear will be doing and what the picture plane will be doing on cue. After a shot, while Clay is repositioning for another take is when the people in the Lear can make comments about how to make the shot better. Faster move, plane enter later, higher, lower etc. Remember, once a move is started, the Lear doesn't then just stop and hold position very easily. If the shots are discussed before hand, Clay will explain the parameters. Any communication between the Lear and the picture plane goes through the pilots. People who ride in the picture plane can often hear what's going on over the intercom, but they won't know much about what the Lear is shooting.

Lighting and Clearance procedures: The picture plane will request clearances and Clay will fly in formation with those clearances. If the take off is not from the same airport, a rendezvous location is decided. A frequency and back-up frequency is decided upon before take off. Some air space controllers are more reluctant to co-operate with the job needs. An advantage Clay has is his reputation and knowing many air traffic controllers.

For the picture plane to look its best, there are desired headings that may not coincide with air traffic control requirements and the general direction that the planes may be traveling for desired weather. Usually every turn and elevation change needs clearance change. This is frustrating and time consuming. Anxious clients in the Lear are often wondering what's happening.

Take off times. The Lear carries about 3 hours fuel at lower elevations. Usually it is desirable to shoot until a little after sunset and to be up in the air before sunrise in the desired area. If the desired area is hours away, take off must be earlier. A refuel may even be wise. If possible, another mid morning flight or mid afternoon flight may be possible, but the best sunrise/sunset conditions should not be compromised. Getting the Lear down for fuel for the sunset flight might be necessary. If the sun comes out at sunrise or sunset, the picture plane looks good even without clouds. Once the sun is higher (30 min. to an hour after sunrise), clouds and/or interesting ground below help a lot. The worst conditions are haze with no clouds or solid high cloud cover.

Maneuvering. Many of the shots involve only the Lear maneuvering around the picture plane. Some shots call for a power cut or acceleration or a peel away by the picture plane on Clay's cue. Large peel-aways take much more time to get back into position for another shot. During any travel toward a desired area or changes of headings, the Lear can do many different shots around the picture plane with no course corrections. Many of the moves are from the rear of the picture plane and are blind to the picture plane crew until Clay comes into view of the cockpit. Clay keeps the picture plane informed just where he is and what he will do.

Some Basic Shots:

Fly through. Lear starts ahead of picture plane along side. Lear pulls back on power and Picture Plane flies through shot. There are a lot of camera variations to this shot.

Fly over. The Lear flies over the top of the picture plane (PP) and appears to overtake the PP. When the film is reversed the shot shows the PP flying under camera and out ahead. You have to be high enough above the clouds so they don't appear to move backwards when the film is reversed.

Around the nose. The Lear starts along side and flies and arc around the nose. The PP is blind to the Lear except on video assist from the camera.

Around the tail. Same but around the tail. Lear is not blind. Lear must avoid disturbance from PP jet wash. Lear is mostly blind to PP cockpit.

Peal-away. Like fly through, but PP does a peal away on Clays' cue.

Parallel take offs, landings and touch and goes or both landing on parallel runways.

I cannot stress more the value of having an experienced air-to-air director aboard. (There aren't many.) While spending so much money per hour, not hiring a director is false economy. The communications process is improved as the director can work on his knees just aft of the cockpit and see what the operator cannot see and plan shots with the pilot.

Hiring the best operator is also wise. I operated Astrovision once and got the needed shots, but always used Dave Nowell after that. He rarely misses a shot.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.