Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Faking Flight Shots While The Plane Sits On The Ground


Hey all,

Gearing up for a (color) 16mm/Super 16mm short this summer that would involve shots of some WWII aircraft in flight with the main protagonist.

Already secured some in-flight and/or airshow deals, but to keep costs a little low I was looking into sticking the camera in the bottom of the cockpit looking up at the main character as he "flies" (or from the outside looking in but with just the sky behind it) to be intercut with the real stuff.

Other than possibly having smoke machines and fans blowing "clouds" over the plane, does anyone have any additional suggestions to help make such a situation more believable?


Erik Weber
Seton 5 Vandalisms
The Jersey Shore


What always sells this for me is the light moving around the plane. You
could see this as either a bonus (something you can do to sell the illusion) or a problem (something you have to simulate.) It really depends how much the thing is supposed to be dodging around the sky.

Plane in a hangar, big light on a jimmy jib?

Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit

What sort of plane is it? Open cockpit with or without canopy? Bomber?

Not surprisingly, the better the view from the cockpit, the more of a problem
it's going to be.

Scott Dorsey
Kludge Audio
Williamsburg, VA.

Your biggest asset to realistic fighter/open cockpit poor man's process is a veteran fighter pilot or aerobatic pilot. If they are camera savvy, that's even better. That is my particular dual background, so on occasion in my career I have actually been able to utilized the two backgrounds. As you might expect I also do Wescam/Spacecam, Tyler and other aerial work.

Jim Brolin and I have a mutual friend who told Jim of my background in military aviation when they were prepping the second season of his syndicated series, Pensacola Wings of Gold. I joined them as the operator for that season. Almost every episode we had poor man's cockpit work to do. Phil is right that the more aggressive the maneuvering is to appear, the more the "sun" has to move, which is not easy or inexpensive. If the maneuvering is reasonable (or you can sell it is a cloudy day and flight is under the cloud ceiling), you can make an extraordinarily realistic look with a combination of lighting, camera work, and coaching of the actor's movements...even on a budget. We had a cockpit mock-up trainer that was on platform with wheels, and we would position it in the lot where we had a view of the sky. Shot in the San Diego area, the sky was most often sunny. To eliminate the chance of seeing the horizon, tree line, power lines, etc, we just raised the back of the mock-up about two feet, and set the camera lower. But that's only the beginning.

The results are extraordinarily realistic, but the techniques and process to execute are very detailed, and might even seem complicated at first glance. But if done properly, it is just killer realistic even to aviation veterans. I will be happy to continue with those if anyone is interested.

Randal Feemster, soc
LA-based Operator and DP

> I was looking into sticking the camera in the bottom of the cockpit >looking up at the main character as he "flies" (or from the outside >looking in but with just the sky behind it) to be intercut with the real stuff.

Sounds like a job for an A-Minima and a very wide angle prime lens 6 - 8mm.

You'll be surprised at how tight the cockpits are in fighter aircraft of any era. There's barely enough room for the pilot's legs.

Jorge Diaz-Amador
Designer / Technician
CinemaTechnic, Inc.
Miami, FL USA

Randal Feemster wrote:

>you can make an extraordinarily realistic look with a combination of >lighting, camera work, and coaching of the actor's movements...even on >a budget.”

One trick I noticed in LA was mounting a light (that would be used to replicate the sun) on a small (10 foot) jib arm outside the window of the plane. The movement of the light on the end of the jib (which, of course, remains out-of-frame) would simulate the re-positioning of the sun’s light in the sky relative to the plane it was supposedly going through various maneuvers. The “sun’s” light would change direction in a realistic manner as it reflected from the people and the interior of the plane. In this example, it was done convincingly on a passenger plane, in the seating area (where the small windows are), but there ought to be a good way to make it work for your situation as well.

Years ago I had designed specialized optics to enhance the video projection used for military flight-simulator trainers. Setting up a suitable front projection screen (rear might work for you as well) you may be able to use even a modest output projector to create background sky and cloud details using pre-recorded imagery. Slightly out of focus, it could be very realistic if choreographed according to the plane’s movement, along with the lighting as above.

And as Randal added, I have seen other instances where involving someone familiar with the real-life action being simulated can make all the difference.

Ira Tiffen
Basking Ridge, NJ


I shot a lot of fake flying on The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne in 98-99
and I would say that a moving light as recommended by others is almost
essential. I remember we had a home crane that could get a 10k-20k from about 4-5 feet up to 18-20 feet. Moving the base of the crane, booming up and down left and right certainly made it look very credible.

As a still somewhat active commercial pilot (somewaht active in flying that is ) if using actual planes, I would also be prepared for extremely tight quarters even in larger aircrafts cockpits. Is an Innovison probe, Revolution, T-Rex or other similar device a possibility to get the lens in  tight spots??? An open mock-up as mentioned by Randall would ease the space concern somewhat.

Good luck, have fun, beware of propellers!!!

Daniel Villeneuve, c.s.c.
Directeur-Photo / Director of Photography
Montréal, Canada

If the plane is WWII vintage, it probably has conventional landing gear (two big wheels in front, and a tiny one in back). You could probably put the tailwheel on a dolly or a low, flatbed trailer and have the tail pulled around in a circle or back and forth, to get the sun and clouds moving. A couple of grips grabbing the wingtips and rocking the plane as if it were flying in slightly rough air might complete the illusion, not only with respect to the sky, but also the pilot's body-ballistics.

Good acting (and of course a good sound mix) will round out the finished product. Make sure an experienced pilot gives the actor some training in how the pilot would normally handle the controls of that type of aircraft, and how he would react to the plane's movements. Otherwise it will look as flaky as a musically clueless actor faking a violin or piano performance.


Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

Don't forget that there is another 16mm camera smaller than the A-Minima - the A-Cam.

Have fun!

Anna Carrington

Daniel Villeneuve wrote:

> As a still somewhat active commercial pilot (somewaht active in flying >that is) if using actual planes, I would also be prepared for extremely >tight quarters even in larger aircrafts cockpits.

Tight quarters is right.

There are specialized camera and lens systems designed for filming pilots in flight in military aircraft both for training and testing purposes. Since using a system like this would closely replicate the footage we see from actual test flights, it might help you to sell the illusion.

These systems are designed to fit in the control panel usually in place of some instrument not needed for that particular flight, e.g., clock, radar altimeter, etc. Also since the camera would be further away from the pilot, longer focal lengths are possible whichwould help minimize the amount of extraneous background sky in the shot.

Most flight instruments are easily removed from the pilot side of the panel and are modular in size, so positioning the camera is not difficult. Also most older planes usually have several empty instrument slots.

I can't remember all the details of the cameras, but one was the Photosonics 16-1VN which is considerably small than a GSAP.Automatic exposure control is also available for certain lenses.

In any case, they are very cool cameras.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

>Other than possibly having smoke machines and fans blowing "clouds" >over the plane, does anyone have any additional suggestions to help >make such a situation more believable?

What I would add to the good advice you've already received is that if you are shooting an airplane that is part of a museum installation, it is very unlikely that you will be able to move the plane to suit your shots- like, there may be a fence in the background or tress or something like that. I ran into this problem very recently on a documentary about an air crash where we were shooting the cockpit scenes on a vintage plane. They were quite adamant about us not moving it even a few meters. We had to go with a greenscreen outside the cockpit for a number of shots because of this.

Also, I'm not sure if anyone has mentioned this or if you have thought about it, but you will probably be able to get better shots of the pilot if you
are able to shoot through the glass (or can remove it). But the windows on these old planes can be rather small and the "right" angle for your shot may include a support beam or something, so get ready to compromise.

Shooting inside the cockpit will be very cramped- so yes, the idea of a small camera will help you there. The A-Minima is a good idea but also there is a Swedish Camera that is even smaller that might get you into some tighter corners, but it has its limitations. It's called the "A-Cam":

Check out

Last bit of advice is on the shaking of your camera which I don't think anyone has mentioned. On our show about the air crash, we went with the poor man's process of shaking the camera by hand for the "out of control crashing plane" shots where a grip actually shook the camera with his hands and a gobo arm. I was quite disappointed with the results of this, since it didn't look random enough for me- it's like the nodal point of the lens didn't vary enough or something, and it looked wrong I think. I was shooting B camera and I did the shaking myself (just made my knees really wobbly) and I think that it turned out slightly better. There are contraptions to help you achieve a realistic shaking effect that attach to the camera and I would highly recommend that you research that possibility.


Toby Birney
DP, based in Lithuania

Toby brings up some good points.

"But the windows on these old planes can be rather small and the "right" angle for your shot may include a support beam or something,"

It's pretty much the same way on a modern fighter. Shooting through the front windscreen, through and around the HUD with somewhat longer lenses works quite well. The camera technique I have not mentioned yet is a bungee rig. This is the single best tool for my cockpit poor man's work. With this I can "fly" the plane myself and introduce a low-amplitude, random vibration and bumps, as well as the appropriate (realistic) rates of roll,, etc. (But as a former fighter pilot, that is easy for me to say, and maybe a tough technique to impart here.) The bungee rig also allows lateral movement to clear the HUD, and even a "push in" if desired, albeit a wrestling match with the bungee; a bit of a work out. The one thing you cannot do is a complete roll. For that specific effect, I have used either a remote head with 360 roll capability, or the gadget at Panavision that mounts the camera in a rotating ring.

Sometimes companies get carried away with exotic rolling cockpit gimbals and the like, which actually don't impart much realism. Since "down" with respect to G is always toward the floor of the plane in controlled flight, these gimbals that roll are only good to impart some initial movement energy, and are best used sparingly. "Flying" the bungee rig is far more realistic for controlled flight. The best use of one of the fancy gimbals would be for an out of control flight situation such as a departure from controlled flight, spin or shoot down.

Another thing that DPs and gaffers who have not been in the actual environment overlook sometimes is some very unique light that occurs in flight. We often see smoke clouds blowing by the cockpit, but rarely do we see this used as a lighting tool. Depending on the proximity and size of clouds, there is some beautiful, interesting, even fast changing light that occurs in flight. We all see this when we fly on airliners. In fighters or open cockpits, it is just a bigger effect. My favorite to do that looks the most realistic and is easy is to have a smoker and fan on each side of the cockpit (and/or over it). On the sun side, that creates fast flashes (or extended) of diffuse moving cloud shadows. On the fill side I have the same thing, only with a strong source to bounce off the random blasts of smoke. One is a shadow-maker/diffuser, the other a bounced light source. The smoke is often caught in reflections on the canopy or windscreen which enhances realism. Of course a very large overall overhead fill to be the sky light is a must. This, along with good bungee camera operating, coordinated moving of the "sun," and coordinated performance by the actor results in excellent poor man's cockpit work. I usually do this outside on a lot, but it can be done on a stage of course.


Randal Feemster, soc
LA-based Operator and DP

I failed to mention (but maybe it is obvious) that the bungee rig only works for cockpit mock-ups at ground level, rather than the real aircraft or a full-scale model. That radome and height would make it pretty tough to do the bungee, huh? The set-up I described also has the advantage of being a manable scale. A full-size plane would complicate things greatly.

Randal Feemster, soc
LA-based Operator and DP

Spell check: what a concept. "The set-up I described also has the advantage of being a manable (manageable) scale."

Randal Feemster, soc
LA-based Operator and DP

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