Cameras in flight

Niall Bouzon

Put a DSLR camera inside a small, remote-control heli, then wait for the magic to happen.

Wilson, Wyoming-based Luke and Crissy Waters are self-described remote-control nerds. Luke has a commercial pilot's license but his aircraft of choice is a 15-pound, four-foot-long remote-controlled helicopter. His wife, Crissy, controls the helicopter's stabilized mount, which houses a Canon DSLR camera that shoots high-definition video. Together, they're trying to change the way action sports are filmed. This winter, they shot aerial footage of skiers at Jackson Hole and in the past, they've shot everything from mountain biking to President Obama's first Christmas tree.

They're not the first filmers to use remote-control helicams -- others have used this technology to shoot skiers for Matchstick Productions and Powderwhore Productions and it's also cropped up in surf and snowboard films -- but for the last two years, the Waters have been using it to help companies get high-quality footage for an affordable price. "The RC heli is the poor man's heli," says Sam Pope, from Jackson's KGB Productions. "No longer do you need a huge budget to get super high production value shots. It really opens a lot of doors for smaller production companies." We spoke to Luke Waters about how the heli operates.

That heli looks dangerous. How fast do those blades spin?
The rotor spins at about 2,000 revolutions per minute. That means the tip speed is approaching 300 miles per hour on the blades. The blades are carbon fiber and are weighted at the tip so that we can make an emergency landing with a motor failure. So think of it as weighted carbon fiber samurai swords coming at you at like a ceiling fan on crack.

So do you wear a hockey helmet? You know, the ones with the face cage.

What exactly makes you qualified to operate this flying food processor?
Well, I'm the 2001 national champion flying 2-meter sail planes. And I have a commercial pilot's license so I can fly private jets. And I have insurance.

Besides the cost, what makes your setup better than a real heli?
Versatility and mobility. Our RC heli has a 1,200-foot range and can fly at elevations up to 16,000 feet. While full size helis require special permits to fly below 500 feet, we can fly ours inside a hotel or down a crowded city street. And we can get it anywhere -- our heli is totally portable. We can check it on a plane or strap it to the side of a donkey. Yes, we've traveled by donkey before.

What kind of projects do you guys work on?
We can shoot anything. Winter action sports are the most obvious shoots for us because we can shoot a variety of them right here in Jackson. Our rig can replace not just commercial helis, but can also replace boom crews and cine-sliders. There isn't much you couldn't do with just us and a good tripod.

So what's the future for this kind of filming?
The technology for streaming high-definition video wirelessly already exists but it is still pretty expensive. The future could be a lot of event coverage, maybe NFL or NBA.

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