Henry Behel directs ‘Dear Pilots’ for Central Coast Airfest.
Directed by a pilot, this piece is a love letter to the risk takers, thrill seekers, and adrenaline junkies.
Filmed in Santa Maria, CA.
Words from Henry below.
Henry, this feels like a specialist piece of filmmaking, can you describe your directing background and connection to aviation?
My philosophy has been to do every shot for real, no matter how hard it is. The audience can always feel it.
I grew up around aviation because it was my dad’s thing — he was first a military pilot and later a race pilot at the Reno Air Races, which if you haven’t heard of it, imagine NASCAR at 400mph, 50 feet off the ground. On the other hand, I was a theater kid, so was busy doing theater kid things like reciting Shakespeare, making crocodile sounds, and rolling around on the floor of the Vassar theater department. I learned to fly because I thought I’d never have a relationship with my dad if I didn’t, but I quickly fell in love with aviation. Then I went from theater to film and it didn’t take long to start coming up with hare-brained ways to put the camera in the sky.
Actually this film feels very full circle for me — early in my career I shot a video for this same airshow, which was a true baptism by fire and really made me fall in love with shooting things that go fast. I wanted to revisit it because I felt like I still had more to say about these madmen of the skies. Honestly I’m still scratching the surface. Hit me up if Joseph Kosinski bails on ‘Top Gun 3’.
Pretty much since then my philosophy has been to do every shot for real, no matter how hard it is. The audience can always feel it.
You can hear production saying “get a little closer” on the radio at the beginning of the film, are you able to share some of the safety steps and golden rules for this kind of aerial photography?
We actually added that line in post — and Sammy Mason, the pilot, didn’t want us to because he said he could get much closer! We added a few lines in the edit (shoutout to editor prodigy Talia Pasqua) because there’s so much passion that went into the making of this, it felt right to celebrate the act of filming it as an element in the film itself. It’s my voice over the radio, and I flew the camera ship just off Sammy’s wing for that shot.
Because there’s so much passion that went into the making of this, it felt right to celebrate the act of filming it as an element in the film itself.
People ask me about safety a lot. It goes without saying it’s absolutely critical with flying, where the consequences of a mistake can be so high. The short answer is — if it feels like a risk, don’t do it. I don’t want anything I do on my set to be more dangerous than driving down the freeway. I wouldn’t do this with just any pilot.
These are some of the best pilots in the world and we work closely with the FAA, the airboss, the airport, and of course, the pilots themselves to pull it off. Everything is briefed and deconflicted on the ground, and I make sure everyone can speak up if they’re not comfortable with something. It’s a slow process (and should be) and I often feel like I’m more of an aerial coordinator than a director when I switch into this mode.
Did he really turn his engine off?
Yes! Ladies and gentlemen, the man, the legend, Eric Tucker. He takes what to most pilots would be the nightmare scenario — an engine failure — and turns it into a meditation. You could say an airplane is just a glider with an engine on it, so it flies just fine without power. However, as you can imagine, this stays academic for most pilots. I’m fascinated by Eric’s idea of flying as a way to connect deeply with the earth, the elements, even his true self. I’m working on a longer doc with Eric to try to capture this philosophy. Stay tuned.
The hardest part was getting the FAA on board — they’ve never approved anything like this before.
To me, FPV feels like the best way to experience the sensation of flight through film, so I knew early on it was going to be my big swing on this project. The hardest part was getting the FAA on board — they’ve never approved anything like this before.
As far as the shots themselves, every airplane has different speeds, maneuvers, and altitudes, so you have to address each shot individually. We had breakout briefings between myself, the pilot of the airplane, and Nikolay Anishchenko, our amazing drone pilot. We dirt danced each maneuver, zooming our hands around like six year olds pretending to be fighter pilots. These briefings are about getting a great shot, but also about making sure the drone’s energy vectors are never directed toward the airplane or the crowd, so even if the drone lost signal or power, no one gets hurt. Once we were shooting, I coordinated over the radio while the pilots worked their magic. It only took a few takes thanks to Niko’s wizardry on the sticks. A ton of preparation to make it all feel effortless–typical filmmaking!
What are you reading at the moment?
This second I’m working my way through Gene Wolfe’s incredible ‘The Book of the New Sun’, which is like a sci-fi ‘Infinite Jest’, dense but strangely mesmerizing. So basically the nerdiest thing ever. I just read ‘Warrior Soul’, the memoir of a Navy SEAL, and several other special ops books to prepare for an upcoming job I probably shouldn’t talk about. Before that, I was on a Kazuo Ishiguro tear and devoured ‘Klara and the Sun’, ‘Remains of the Day’, and ‘Never Let Me Go’.
- Jennifer Pearl
- Director of Photography
- Jack Holloway