PHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Aerial Director/coordinator
Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionPHYSICAL AND VISUAL EFFECTS - Job Title: Stunt Coordinator, Job Title: Aerial Director/coordinator, Job Title: Visual Effects Supervisor
JOB TITLE: AERIAL DIRECTOR/COORDINATOR
The aerial director is responsible for all functions of airplanes and helicopters as they pertain to motion pictures, television, and commercials.
Expanded Job Description
“I take it from inception to wrap,” explains aerial coordinator Steven Wright. The aerial director begins by reading the script to determine what aircraft are required on camera (picture ship or story helicopter) and/or are needed to film certain shots. “I start working on a budget for how many days we're going to need them and any extra costs: if an aircraft needs to be painted, we need to put search lights on them, or guns or rockets, or whatever some writer and/or director has dreamed up. I'll contract the aircraft, source out suppliers and do the contracts on behalf of the production company, and handle insurance. I usually handpick the crew, as well. It depends on what the production manager wants me to handle from an administrative point of view.”
“From a flying point of view, I put a camera on a helicopter and I fly around and chase things. That's what you do as a function of a camera pilot. That's part of the whole package—if you're chasing cars down the street, helicopters, boats, or trains. I've chased commercial jets and military jets. You name it, I've chased it.”
The other function of an aerial coordinator and his crew is to fly the aircraft that appear on camera. “I'll do the wardrobe thing and double whomever. I just finished doubling for Morgan Freeman in Dreamcatcher. I played Morgan flying a helicopter.”
When multiple aircraft are used, Wright may remain on the ground. Standing next to the director and first AD, he directs the aircraft by telling the pilots how he wants them to maneuver. “I kind of translate from filmology to helicopter-ese.” The aerial director must be able to envision what effect the director wants to achieve and translate that to the pilots.
The aerial director may also be charged with a second unit. “They'll hand me the storyboards and say, ‘Here's what we want—go get it.’ So I'll jump in with a cameraman and we'll thunder off into the skies or the mountains and shoot it.”
In addition to being an expert pilot, Wright says, “Being a good listener really helps. Having passion for your work. Everybody says you have to love what you do because then it's not like work—you just love it and do it.”
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
Once a pilot has earned an aviation license, one way to break into film, television, or commercial work is to land a job with an existing company that does a lot of film work. Then you can gain experience and make contacts for future jobs. “You have to learn about the different camera mount systems and what their capabilities are, what they can do and their limitations,” says Wright. “The limitations of your aircraft are critical … There are so many guys, especially the young ones, that get their licenses and have visions of Air Wolf dancing in their heads.”
Professional Profile: Steven J. Wright, Aerial Director/Coordinator
Steven J. Wright discovered his love for flying while serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). One winter, some hunters were missing in central British Columbia and a helicopter was brought in to assist the Mounties in the search. Chosen to go up in the helicopter, Wright jumped in behind the pilot and the two set off. “We flew around for about 45 minutes or an hour. When we landed, he landed in the exact skid marks in the snow—he put it down in the exact same spot.”
Always mechanically inclined—“I started riding motorcycles when I was eight years old and I drag raced when I was a teenager. I've always been good with motor vehicles, boats, and cars“—Wright was instantly fascinated with helicopters and began visiting the local hanger whenever he could. An RCMP transfer took him to Vancouver, where he put himself through a commercial helicopter school. He completed his training in Calgary and worked as a pilot in northern Canada for a couple of seasons to build up flying hours.
Returning to Vancouver, he formed Wright Brothers Aviation (later changed to Vancouver Helicopters, Inc.), purchasing his first helicopter in 1981. Wright quickly built up his business by committing to stay in the city during the summer months when others left to fight forest fires or to pick up charter work. His clients responded by awarding him the winter contracts that his competitors were vying for. His early jobs included traffic reporting for a Vancouver radio station, and he formed Calgary Helicopters to cover that market as well. Over time, he picked up work with the local police department, television stations, and some video work, expanding into feature films as production companies began coming to Vancouver to shoot.
“I cut my teeth working in television, doing news. From there I started working with a lot of the local cameramen and was recommended by the news guys. A lot of ex-news camera guys become film cameramen. I started on little local films, then commercials, and went right into film.”
What do you like least about your job?
“What I like least is the ego. Film is full of ego. You have to deal with it, understand it. Your own ego, as well.”—Steven Wright
What do you love most about your job?
“I love being given the freedom to go out and shoot. That's when my creativity comes out and I can put my input into it, design shots and go and execute them. Come back the next day and in dailies they go ‘Oooo … aaahhhh …’ That's the most rewarding.”—Steven Wright
One of the early feature films in Wright's career was Narrow Margin. “We blew up a Jet Ranger on that show. There were a lot of shots with guys crawling all over the train, while going through canyons. It was great working with Peter Hyams because I learned a lot from him about light, color of light, temperatures, and things like that. It was great working with some of the L.A. stunt guys.” Another highlight was the feature film Alaska.
In the late 1990s, Wright began selling off his various company holdings and relocated to Palm Springs, California. “It can get really crazy when you've got three or four different jobs on the go and you're scrambling here and there. At one point, I remember we had eight films on the go simultaneously. Each film required about a thousand phone calls, so our phones never stopped ringing. In the film industry they change everything—so you have to nail them down. For every hour of flying, we maybe had to put in an hour and half of telephone work.”
Wright purposefully took a year and a half off from film work, but was eventually drawn back into the business by offers he could not refuse. He accepted work on the television series Atomic Train, and feature films Lake Placid and Reindeer Games. “I don't really chase work. I keep my ear to the railroad track a little, but I look for the more interesting jobs and work with people that I've worked with before.”
* “As with anything in life, its a ‘be-do-have’ kind of thing. You've got to ‘be’ committed to ‘do’ what it takes to ‘have’ what you want. If this is really what you want to do, then you have to get out there and knock it out.”—Steven Wright
* “Any successful businessperson will tell you that there aren't any big secrets to being successful. It just takes a lot of hard work—a lot of hard work and a couple of good breaks.”—Steven Wright
* “Stay out of trees.”—Steven Wright
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