In April, 2009, I boarded an Alaska Airlines jet with a strange looking package bound in holiday wrap. It was extremely fragile, and a large, odd shape that would not fit well in the overhead compartment…”How is this going to work”, I wondered? I need to get this package with me to Vancouver, BC. The solution to getting my unusual bundle on the plane was to ask to put it in the forward closet of the aircraft, and away we flew.
My first stop was Seattle, where the bundle was carefully unwrapped and the contents assembled with dozens of smaller parts. The item was actually a small airplane: the Mynah Bird. It was an RC photo aircraft with a forward looking HD view, and it was enroute to the set of Elizabeth Allen’s latest theatrical feature; Ramona and Beezus with the mission of grabbing some aerial video and background plates for a special effects sequence for the movie. I had spent the last week designing and building the airplane and equiping it with an expensive new camera. The mission wasn’t an official part of the studio production, but an experiment, and an opportunity to do something completely amazing and maybe even historic.
The prospect of building an airplane to get shots for a movie was not something that happened overnight. I have had the opportunity to know Elizabeth Allen since her years as a film student at USC Cinema, where I assisted her on a handful of student productions. It was a completely fortunate event for me to meet and get to know Liz, because she was an extremely ambitious and visionary student with a lot of already well established mentors. I was just a guy from Minnesota with a lot of free time and aspirations to work in film as well, so we made a good team in the moment. After my stay, I returned to Minnesota to work and save money for what I hoped would be my eventual return to Los Angeles.
Even after returning to Minnesota, I ventured back to L.A. several times to help Liz on a couple of movies, and at times just to catch up. Liz was always such a gracious host. On my next return trip, I worked on her first 35mm short film where I experienced the thrill of learning how to load a Panavision film magazine from one of the camera assistants. Being on-set is great, but I think it was the work leading up to production that is so interesting to be a part of; driving around Hollywood with Liz to do important things like pick up the film “short ends” (leftover film rolls from studio productions), tech scouting locations and meeting important people on the crew like the Director of Photography, etc. But it seemed like Liz always had important people around her, experienced talent that already had professional movie credits, and casts that included real stars and people that we all recognize from film and television.
The next production I worked on with Liz was the adventure of a lifetime. Her grad thesis film Eyeball Eddie was a monumental undertaking in many ways. During the pre production of Eyeball Eddie I got to stay with Liz, and so it was usually a long day as we would be first to arrive on set and last to leave. We worked out of office space generously available through Stu Billet and directly overlooking the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. After a rigorous week of preproduction, Kelly MacManus arrived from New York to work on the film, and so I had to make space for the ladies and moved in with producer Alex Kasper for the week of production.
Film production at this scale is a dizzying marathon of activity…I spent a lot of time running around on set, booming a lot of the time, getting my all-access photos, chipping in to help the lighting crew here and there, and watching Liz weave an amazing and charming story within a confining sea of lights and camera equipment. Booming the microphone was best of all, you literally have one of the best vantage points on set. You are right there between the actors and the camera, dipping a microphone as close to the actor’s face as you can get, while avoiding the frame line that you have to imagine, not dropping a shadow into the shot, and praying the muscles in your arm hold out until the end of the take!
We had a lot of great times on that movie, especially our last night of filming, the party sequence, which was at the Downtowner Motel in the heart of Los Angeles. We had to wrap the film that night because the hotel was slated for demolition the next morning! I don’t know how Liz endured our exhausting production schedule, sipping on Diet Coke as she led us from shot to shot. I know as day broke that final morning and we packed up to leave I could barely keep my eyes open. I also remember a quiet moment in one of the condemned rooms with one of the film’s stars: he was an actor hoping for a modest future, and, little did he know, Michael Rosenbaum was on his way to big success, just as Liz was too.
The next time I saw Liz, she was showing me a rough cut of the movie that was being cut in the Amblin post production bungalow on the Universal Backlot. The amazement just never ended working with Liz! Here I was with her in Steven Spielberg’s own editing room on the Universal Studios backlot. Beside us was the editing equipment where Michael Kahn edited Schindler’s List! I have a lot of great memories with Liz, but that night I shared an event with her that to me seemed a christening moment for the great career she had ahead of her…
A few years later, Liz got the chance to direct her first studio feature and went to Australia to shoot Aquamarine. On an overseas production, you have to hire your crew locally so there was no chance for me to chip in this time, but just to root for Liz and be amazed by her brilliant success. Aquamarine has trademark Liz all throughout. From the way she uses sentimental visuals, the personal moments, and one of my favorite ideas in the movie: her talking starfish earrings! So completely clever and wonderful.
I reconnected with Liz last year after she had filmed an episode of Gossip Girl and had somehow discovered me on Facebook. That’s how I learned about Ramona and Beezus. A week before I was to leave for Vancouver, Liz suggested the idea of the plane…and I went straight to work on it, because the equipment I was flying with at that time was no where suited for the challenge. It took a few days to decide on the concept, the expensive camera was ordered, and the design and build was underway. The project came down to the wire, and just as test flights would have begun, a major snowstorm moved in on Minnesota, making flight testing impossible.
Myself and the package had made it to the northwest coast…and I spent a few days in Seattle with my brother prior to us driving up to Vancouver, but there had been no suitable time or place to test the plane there either. When we finally arrived in Vancouver on a sunny Saturday morning, we drove straight to the house where the location shots for the movie would be filmed. From there we went to a park I scouted which was a couple blocks away. Interestingly, I had done my location “tech scout” from Minnesota via GoogleEarth and had already planned out the options for doing the flight. The park was perfectly suitable to get the shot from the airplane, but far too populated with strollers at that time to do a test flight. My brother and I scoured Vancouver for a field to test from, and interestingly as Liz told me later, the place I chose was outside of the school where more scenes for the movie were to be filmed.
I was apprehensive for the first test flight. The plane was extremely heavy, but all of the math, measurements and calculations said it would fly. I had, after all, flown my last photo aircraft this heavy before with no problem. My biggest concern was actually the power of the new battery. The plane had a lot of thrust and if I gave it too much throttle on takeoff and didn’t immediately kick the elevons up, I was worried I could nose into the ground. That was my main concern. My next concern was the lack of wind in Vancouver. I usually had a 10mph breeze in Mn to take off into…here in Vancouver, maybe 4mph. The absence of wind would be great for getting a steady frame in the air, but it also had the potential to make takeoff more difficult.
After a half dozen practise runs, it was time for a launch attempt. The airplane got a solid toss into the air, throttle, leveled out, and up elevator….but the Mynah Bird went straight for the ground. I was a bit shocked. There was damage but it could be repaired. I insisted that in spite of the fact that the plane felt like a brick, weight wasn’t the issue. It was possible that it was slightly nose heavy, so I reduced the dummy weight that was the stand-in for the camera and gave it another go. This time it leveled off nicely and it’s drop slowed considerably as it gained speed, but unfortunately not enough speed to achieve flight. A third attempt brought the same result but the plane was sustaining too much damage to risk further tests that day.
A short time later, my brother David and I met up with Liz at the house in Vancouver where we would be staying, and I broke the news to her. It was a little embarrassing and a major disappointment. All of the math and my experience said the plane would fly. Now I had to make the decision to spend my time in Vancouver fixing the plane and trying to solve the problem, or spend it shadowing Liz. The choice seemed obvious, so I sent the plane back to Seattle and spent an incredible weekend with a front row seat to Liz who was on the brink of another great journey: the directing of her second feature film.
Sunday afternoon, I had the amazing privilege of spending much of the day with Liz, some of it just driving together like in the old days, to where she needed to be. Can you imagine being there as she picked up the phone to give Beverly Cleary a call? We needed to get Ramona’s house number for the prop department, just another detail to match the books. The rest of the afternoon went to storyboarding with the amazing Adrien Van Viersen, trying to solve a montage sequence for the film, and then the drive home.
During the drive as we discussed the art of montage, the phone rang and Liz let me pick up, it was Joey King having just arrived in Vancouver.
We all went to the beach that night so Joey could see her first beautiful Vancouver sunset. The energetic and amazing Joey King spent the evening entertaining us with her songs and stories, and showered Elizabeth with a wonderful array of gifts since it was her birthday the next day.
The next morning we went to the production office at the studio with Liz and her assistants wearing their famous orange birthday headbands. In a building filled with a sea of busy people, and their dogs roaming freely about the space, my final moments were seeing Liz get swamped with work as our minutes together in Vancouver were quickly ticking away. When Joey King arrived at the office sporting her freshly colored hair, I knew it was time to head out. There was a lot of important work ahead of her, so I gave Liz a hug, and began to make my way back home.
As I was leaving, I was amazed to hear some of the effects riggers in conversation talking about how difficult it was going to be to get the background plates for the aerial sequence I had came out to try to get. They had researched the possibilities, but couldn’t fly a helicopter that low over the neighborhood. Instead, they would probably have to get a crane and suspend someone with a still camera. “Wow”, I was thinking, my plane totally was the way to go if it had worked. I missed my shot at a little movie history that weekend. It was pretty disappointing, but I’m glad I was able to have another amazing experience so close up to Liz watching her work for a couple of days during pre production for the film.
On the set. Photo courtesy Fox 2000 Pictures.
I returned to Minnesota.
It took a month of tests and flight attempts to finally get the Mynah Bird airborn back home in St.Cloud. The perplexing problem of why it wouldn’t fly lay in working from the point where the plane’s center of gravity should have been, but mysteriously, that point was a 1/2 inch off from where it was supposed to be. That issue solved, the plane flew like a rocket, and after many tests flights, finally took the new cam up for an amazing forward looking HD flight perspective.
Liz is a big inspiration to Flight Flash and really pushed it to the next level with the new airplanes and HD camera which have been blazing a path through the sky with a safe return for over a year now.
Screening at USC. Photo by Tom Sorensen
At the moment I’m writing this, Elizabeth Allen is in Los Angeles on the campus of USC for her advance screening of Ramona and Beezus which (opened nationwide in theaters last Friday). As always my best wishes to her and continued success in her amazing career, and thanks for the incredible opportunity, and all of the memories and moments she was gracious to share!
UPDATE: As of late August, director Elizabeth Allen is currently on the set of Life Unexpected, directing a new episode for the WB in Vancouver. Best wishes Liz! This amazing photo is courtesy of Michael Dahan.