TV Commercial Production Aerial

TV Commercial Production can be fun especially when helicopters are involved. A highly truncated excerpt from Circumstances Beyond My Control.

In April [1981] Ken Licata got another Brooklyn Gum package. This time, with the support of Iris Films, it was an entirely different experience than the first one primarily because we had Ellen Rappaport, a real producer. The first shoot day was set for Monday 11 May 1981. This was way more lead time than usual with commercials so Ellen was able to book our first choices in every crew category.

Producer Ellen Rappaport

Producer Ellen Rappaport

Most chopper shots in those days were done with a Tyler door mount. The passenger side door was removed, the mount (to keep the camera stable) installed and the camera operator sat in the window and shot from there. We were using something fairly new, a nose mount. The camera, with a fixed focal length (in our case a slight wide-angle, maybe 35 mm) lens was attached below the nose of the helicopter and operated remotely from the cockpit, the operator using a video monitor. This technique allowed some dramatic, straight on shots that could not be achieved with a door mount. The other cool thing about this rig was that, unlike shooting with a door mount, I could ride along.

Key grip, Joe Babas and assistant cameraman Jimmy Cannata (known as “JC-AC”) mounted the camera while Ken, Al [Cerullo, pilot] and I looked with dismay into the sky. This was it. No money for a weather day. Helicopters were rented by the day or half day and the price was large. And we were looking at heavy gray cloud cover. By now it was around 6:30 and the sun would set about 8:00. I suggested that since we were paying for the bird anyhow we should go up and have a look at the western sky which, from the East River heliport was obscured by the tall buildings. Once we got up above the buildings things didn’t look a hell of a lot better but there did appear to be a lighter look to the clouds over Jersey. We cruised around for a few minutes and landed.

As I remember it Ken was flustered and upset and leaning toward calling it a day. Ever the optimist, I argued for waiting and trying again in half an hour or so. I told Jimmy to mount a [film] magazine on the camera just in case. A little after 7:30 we went up again this time with a camera ready to shoot.

As we cleared the skyscrapers a small crack appeared in the western clouds and bit of pink color gradually began to appear. The crack in the clouds was growing and as we approached the Statue of Liberty a bright orange ball appeared on the horizon. Ken shot two or three 400’ rolls of the most spectacular Manhattan sunset footage I have ever seen.

This was the last day of the two week shoot and the wrap party was at my house. All the crew plus Morty and some of the Iris staff were there waiting for us. When we got the last shot Al said, “Where’s this famous penthouse?” and we headed up the Hudson.

I was amazed at how hard it was to find my place from the air. Finally I spotted the Paris Hotel which was a block southeast from my building then I was able to see my house on top of the structure.

My Penthouse from the Air (tall building, bottom right)

Al flew quite low and the revelers inside heard the chopper and came running out onto the terrace jumping up and down and waving. He said he could lose his license for flying so low and I quickly pointed out that I’d not requested him to do so. I did ask if he could land on the roof and drop us off but he, not surprisingly, balked at that idea.

We landed back at the heliport and drove to my place. Both the party and the shoot were resounding successes.

The odd little details one remembers: when Joe Babas and I arrived in my neighborhood we had trouble finding a parking spot. Finally I parked with about six inches of the car in a fire plug zone. I was concerned. Joe got out, looked and said, “A cop would have to be in a pretty bad mood to give you a ticket.” I stayed in the spot. Babas was right; no ticket.

This was the best commercial shoot I ever ran and it was largely due to Ken Licata’s efficiency as both a director and a DP. There was no wasted motion, no excessive takes or changing the concept in the middle of the job as often occurred with some directors. The excellence and attitude of the crew, the unfailing support of our producer and the brilliance and tirelessness of my production crew – Betsy Reid, Ken Junior, Mike Garvey and Peter Repplier – were also critical to the success of the job. I have often described the emotional aspect of this shoot as akin to surfing. Once we got on the wave, the excitement of staying there and the adjustments we made to do so were exhilarating to me.

The next week Ken Licata did something generous and surprising. For the only time in my career I was awarded a bonus of one day’s pay. He may be a goy but he’s still a mensch!

More high flying tales from TV commercial production will be found when you click here and get Circumstances Beyond My Control.





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