Footage of Jetman duo Yves Rossy and Vince Reffet flying like comic-book super heroes in tandem with an Emirates Airbus A380 caught the attention of people around the world late last year.
But the high-adrenaline yet graceful nature of the film, which quickly went viral on YouTube, offered only a small indication of the gruelling preparation that went into the project.
Indeed, to produce the film, the team at film production company Dubai Film worked for almost three months beforehand, planning and choreographing every move in conjunction with Emirates, the Jetman team and action sports centre Dubai X.
Tony Augustinack, who directed and produced the film as part of the team at Dubai Film, said that the most challenging aspect of the project was designing all of the shots from the conception phase to produce an interesting and engaging film.
“We knew what we wanted to achieve, which was sustained flight formation with the A380 but how could we make that really interesting and engaging for a 90-second long video and how do we do it all safely?” Augustinack says.
The team had just under three months to prepare for the two days of filming on October 12-13, which meant that the pressure was on. However, Augustinack and his colleague Joel Schaeffer, a cinematographer at Dubai Film, explained that it was sufficient for the team to secure all of the necessary approvals and plan the entire project in line with all of the safety guidelines.
It also helped that Augustinack and Schaeffer had worked together to film Jetman previously, and so they knew they could work well together and that their skill sets were complementary.
“We had about two and half months to design everything, every single shot we wanted to get,” Schaeffer says. “The big pre-meeting was at Emirates HQ and it was a safety meeting. We’d already put forward the ideas that we wanted in terms of shooting and we were told what we could do and not do: There were some big people in the room – the head of GCCA, head of the Aviation Authority, the head of traffic control, Yves and Vince, two pilots from the A380 and also the head of operations for Emirates. We agreed what we wanted to achieve in terms of the filming, and also what we could and could not do. We were told the safety zones, and so everything was clear.”
In subsequent meetings, Augustinack and Schaeffer worked out the choreography and the plan for the content capture with the pilots of the A380 and the aircraft that would be used for the filming: a Lear Jet operated by Aerovision, a helicopter operated by extreme sports company Dubai X, and of course the Jetmen, Rossy and Reffet.
Obviously, with an aircraft as big as an A380 flying over Dubai, along with two men flying with little more than a wing and a jet attached to their backs, safety was the overriding concern. Senior members of the Emirates team, from pilots to engineers and flight planners, were involved from the start to mitigate risks and ensure the project was a success on the days of the actual flight.
Put in simple terms, the basic plan was for the A380 to fly in a holding pattern along a set “race track” flight path at an altitude of 4,000 ft. Rossy and Reffet were dropped above the A380, which would proceed to fly two circuits of the pre-set track. The camera crew, flying in a Lear Jet and a helicopter would tail the A380 on the outside of the track.
The project certainly had more than its share of complexity from an aviation and a film production perspective. At any one time there were between three and four aircraft in the air, plus Rossy and Reffet. It was critical to have all angles covered from the Lear Jet and a helicopter, as well as more cameras in the A380, as the window of time for capturing the stunt was severely restricted: not surprisingly there were limitations of keeping the A380 and the Jetmen airborne. Another time constraint was caused by the limited amount of smoke that Rossy and Reffet had for leaving trails – an effect that was crucial to the overall look and feel of the stunt.
There were also constraints in terms of the speeds that each of the aircraft and the Jetmen could fly at. The A380 had to fly at the lowest speed possible, about 130-140 knots, while the maximum speed that Rossy and Reffet are able to fly at is about 150-160 knots. The top speed the B-camera crew could fly at in the helicopter was around 110 knots.
On each of the two shooting days, the Jetmen would be in the air for about nine minutes, which meant that every second of footage was valuable.
“We only had about 7 minutes of flight time [by the Jetmen] per flight and there were three flights [over the course of the two days],” Augustinack recalls. “Within each of those flights the Jetman team had only about three and a half minutes of smoke each to turn on the smoke trail, and without that smoke trail it’s really hard to tell that they’re flying because there’s no point of reference, there’s no clouds and we’re so far away from the city. It looks like they’re moving really slowly when actually they’re traveling at 140 knots. It was really important that every camera and every variable was in place when they used that smoke to make sure that we maximised the shooting time for being able to capture the best shots.
“To ensure we were able to obtain the best shots at a 4,000-ft altitude above Dubai, various helicopters used by Dubai Film and X Dubai, as well as another smaller Lear jet, operated by Aerovision, flew close by,” Augustinack adds.
Dubai Film’s A Camera was in the Lear Jet with Augustinack and a two-man camera team from Aerovision. The B camera was in the helicopter with two more cinematographers, Phil Arntz and Joseph Hutson, while the C and D cameras were in the A380 with Schaeffer and two assistants, Richard Forrest and Will John Cel.
The vast majority of the content captured for the film was shot on six RED Dragon cameras in 6K, which was subsequently produced in 4K for the final online film.
The principal camera was on a RED Epic Dragon mounted in a glass bubble in the undercarriage of the Lear Jet. This camera was controlled remotely using a periscope-type set-up from Aerovision. “It’s a periscope system that can rotate 360 degrees and then it comes up in the body of the fuselage of the airplane and then it basically just uses any PL mount,” Schaeffer says. “It has 27 different optical elements and that allows you to look down into a bubble beneath the jet and this is how crews have done all the commercials for jetliners since the ‘80s.”
In addition, Rossi and Reffet had a number of GoPros attached to them: two on each side of the wing, one on their knee and two on their helmet. One of the cameras on each of their helmets was shooting video, and the other photos and some of GoPro video footage was spliced in to the final edit.
The types of lenses were also important, and particularly the zoom capabilities. On the helicopter, the RED used a 30:300mm Canon zoom, while the RED on the Lear Jet was kitted out with a Nikon lens with a zoom of about 50:700mm.
Schaeffer, on board the A380, also used a RED Epic with a 19:90mm Fujinon lens, and another RED with a 70:200mm compact zoom lens from Zeiss to get a more detailed shots of Rossy and Reffet flying.
Once the footage was captured, the post production started immediately, and this also brought some challenges, with more tight deadlines to meet. Augustinack did the principal editing using Adobe Premiere, with assistance from Schaeffer. “It was quite difficult,” Schaeffer recalls. “We would have loved more footage! We had about 20 minutes of video and probably 60-70% of the footage came from one camera.”
Colour grading was carried out by Optix, a post house in Dubai, using DaVinci Resolve. Altogether, the postproduction was wrapped up in about three weeks.
Augustinack hired a composer in Los Angeles to compose a music score for the film, which helped heighten the atmosphere and emotion of the film.
With the footage ‘Emirates: #HelloJetman’ approaching 20 million views on YouTube, Augustinack and Schaeffer are clear about the success behind the project, and professionalism from a large team of people - from pilots to cinematographers, flight planners, and of course Rossy and Reffet, is high on the list.
“The beauty of it was that on the shoot day everybody and been drilled so hard on what was going to happen that everybody had a lot of confidence going into the flight,” Augustinack says. “They knew where everybody was going to be and so if they weren’t there we had contingency plans, so if something were to go wrong we had a plan of action.”
Schaeffer agrees that the trust between all member of the team was a critical element in the success. “The cool thing about working with the Jetmen and the Emirates guys is that when they say they’re going to be in a position somewhere they are there. They are not around about that area, they are on the mark! A lot of the time with live action capture you are adapting to variables that you didn’t perhaps see, and then you have something magical that happens and you get an amazing piece of content.”