Aerial Cinematography with the director Eric Magnan

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Hello guys!
Today we are honored to interview Eric Magnan, one of the leading figures in aerial cinematography. He is certainly one of the most experienced directors in this field, having filmed various aerial subjects: warbirds, fighter jets, airliners, business jets, gliders, parachutists, aerobatic planes, and airships.

His work has garnered global recognition and featured in films, advertisements, and projects for renowned brands, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and cinema. He recently participated in the latest two “Mission Impossible” movies,  ‘Dead Reckoning Part 1 & 2,’ as well as ‘Master of the Air’ for Apple TV.”

As the co-founder of Airborne Films, he has accumulated over 1000 hours of Air-to-Air filming, including more than 250 hours on supersonic fighter aircraft. Beyond his expertise behind the camera, he is also a skilled pilot and parachutist.

Eric Magnan - Aerial Cinematography
From sx: Alec and Eric Magnan

Hi Eric, first of all, congratulations on your outstanding work! We have a crazy amount of good vibes every time we watch or play with your images. Your experience in this field is highly unique. When did the idea of working in aerial cinematography come about?

As far back as I can remember, I have always been passionate about airplanes. My father had a small plane, and I think I flew before I could walk. I obtained my pilot’s license at 17 as soon as it was possible.

My second passion is cinema. I acted as a child actor in several films in France and in “Le Petit Prince” at the theater. On one of these films, I missed school for a month to shoot on an airfield near Paris where there are about a hundred vintage planes in flying condition.

The fairies of cinema and aeronautics looked kindly upon me from an early age. After working as an assistant director, I directed my first short films, in which I naturally included airplanes and parachutists. This is how I shot my first aerial images at the age of 20.

However, my first encounter with complex imagery occurred during the production of a movie I directed in 70 mm IMAX format featuring fighter jets. For this movie, I used an IMAX MKII camera mounted on an aircraft, which had previously been in space and was later donated to the Smithsonian Museum in 2011.

Due to the size of the cockpit, the “small”  film magazine could only hold 60 seconds of film. As it turned out, briefing, debriefing, and setting up for maneuvers with the 8 jets took several hours for just a few shots, sometimes only a few seconds long.

That’s when I began envisioning my ‘technical storyboards’ to ensure precision during flight. I later refined this technique while working on the film ‘Sky Fighter,’ for which I shot all the aerial images. And it’s this preparation method that I still use today.

We remember you did a few works for Air France and recently you shot a new one for them.

I have directed 6 brand films for Air France, produced by Francois-Olivier Robin, co-founder of Airborne Films. This one is for their 90th anniversary. It turns out that the planes of the « Patrouille de France », (the French Air Force display), celebrated their 70th anniversary in 2023, and this year the French Air Force celebrates its 90th anniversary.

As it is the national airline, we envisioned this film where the flagship of their fleet, the Airbus A350, would fly in formation with the Patrouille de France. I decided to use our aircraft camera system for this, a modified TBM 700, allowing us to mount a Shotover F1 equipped with a Sony Venice 2 and a 30-300 Canon T2.95-3.7 lens under the wing.

Could you share more details about this specific project, including the challenges you encountered and how you overcame them?

The challenge with this type of aerial scene is manifold. Flying 11 aircraft in formation with maneuvers is something that requires thorough preparation. Especially since there are 3 types of aircraft with very different performance and maneuvering characteristics, yet they must work together seamlessly.

Eric Magnan - Aerial Cinematography

There are three distinct parts to a shoot like this: artistic creation, flight preparation, and flight execution.
For the artistic part, my aeronautical experience helps me envision what we can achieve with aircraft in flight. However, I first spend a significant amount of time using 3D software to visualize the planes from all angles and with different focal lengths.
This helps me determine the most beautiful angles, spectacular effects, and how the light plays on the fuselages.

Then, I create a storyboard. I collaborate with the client, and once we agree, I move on to preparation.

It seems there was extensive preparation before the shoot started.

I prepare simultaneously with the pilots and my director of photography in this project Alec Magnan. To work with the pilots, I create a technical storyboard showing the position of the planes from the front, side, and top views. I outline the invisible camera field for them and define the ideal position of the sun.

Eric Magnan - Aerial Cinematography

So, during the flight, when I ask for « SHOT N° 4 », everyone knows where to be. Then I give feedback to my pilot and the operator of the gyro-stabilized system. There is a lot of radio communication between the aircraft and air traffic control. Because when the shot is perfectly composed and I say “Nobody moves anymore,” we’re all flying at 200 knots! So, airspace management is crucial.

There were about ten calls with all the pilots and my team for preparation, and the final technical storyboard was version 12. For this project, Air France chose a Mission Leader, a captain, Eric Prevot, with whom I had already worked on previous films with them.
The particularity of this flight was also that for logistical reasons, the Air France Airbus took off from one airport, the 9 fighter jets from an air base, and the camera aircraft from a third airport.

We were all about 500 km apart. We had a rendezvous point at a specific time in the air. Our film pilot is a former fighter pilot and current test pilot, highly competent.
The playtime we had was very short, which added to the difficulty. Only 40 minutes of playtime, which is very short for capturing this type of footage.

Eric Magnan - Aerial Cinematography

From large film productions to small productions. How do you manage your work in both cases? How many are you in the team and who is it composed of?

When I shoot aerial images with our camera plane or a helicopter, whether it’s a small film or the biggest Hollywood production, the crew on board remains the same.

In cases where I shoot a sequence for a cinema film, sometimes the director is on board. What changes in big films is that we have more time, and that’s the real luxury.

Showreel Airborne Films

You’ve done aerial filming everywhere, from deserts to remote jungles, Arctic climates, underwater and military operations, challenging navigation conditions, and high-altitude mountains. How do you prepare for filming in extreme conditions? 

We need to prepare for various challenges we may encounter, such as flying over desert terrain where visual effects, if not properly accounted for, can pose risks when flying at low altitudes, for example. The shoot that posed the most questions during preparation occurred last year during a month-long shoot for a major American production in Spitsbergen, within the Arctic Circle.

Eric Magnan - Aerial Cinematography

The weather forecast predicted temperatures of -35°C, and there was no hangar available for the plane. In the flight manual, there’s a specified procedure for turning on the aircraft when the temperature falls below -20°C. We had to preheat the turbine air inlet and the cabin, which we did successfully without encountering any issues. The same applies to the filming equipment; everything functioned perfectly. Once again, preparation proves to be crucial in our line of work.

You’ve also been involved in some fantastic movies, such as Mission Impossible. How did you coordinate with the entire team? How challenging is it to work in such scenarios with major studios, prominent actors, stunts, rehearsals, and so on?

I am very impressed by the logistics of the huge American films I have been involved in. I feel very comfortable with them because everything is perfectly prepared, and their aerial coordinators are extremely professional and efficient. There is a particular pressure linked to the stakes, but generally, it does not change my way of working.

Do you have a specific episode from these movies to share regarding any technical or logistical challenges you encountered?

I recently took part in the aerial scenes of a major American production that I’m unable to disclose at the moment. All the aerial scenes had been storyboarded, and the previz (previsualization) had been completed. Many shots required us to fly very closely to each other, particularly those using very short focal lengths.

The directors wanted us to adhere closely to the previsualization, presenting a significant challenge. In some instances, we flew in extremely tight formations, which our pilots were certainly capable of handling. However, it was a mission involving highly technical flights, and there were nights when falling asleep proved to be no trouble for two months!

Have you ever been apprehensive about failing to deliver as agreed, not achieving the desired result, or simply not being fully satisfied with your work?

We prepare things so thoroughly that I’m confident in delivering what is expected. However, the machines we use, airplanes, helicopters, and camera systems, are complex. There’s always the apprehension of a breakdown, of one of the elements, especially when filming very old warplanes. And we also need a bit of luck with the weather.

The more I fly, the more experience I gain, and with more experience, I would handle past productions a bit differently, so I always want to do better and therefore never fully satisfied.

What is the equipment you mainly use for your aerial shoots?

It depends on what I need to film, but generally, between 0 and 100 knots, we use a helicopter with a gyro-stabilized mount. From 100 knots to 300 knots, we use a camera plane equipped with a gyro mount. For certain missions, we have to fly faster. 

On “Skyfighter,” for example, we had some shots around  450-500 knots. So we have developed a mission-specific system, a camera pod that could be mounted on a fighter jet, a Mirage 2000-B. The pod was an additional 2000-liter tank that we modified with the aircraft manufacturer, Dassault Aviation. We were able to use and control 4 Arri cinema cameras simultaneously. 

Airborne Films, in partnership with aircraft manufacturer Daher, has developed an advanced aerial cinematography system capable of shooting in 8K at high speeds. Could you provide us with more details about it?

The TBM is an extraordinary aircraft. It is fast, and it’s a turboprop so very reliable. It has a very long range for this type of aircraft size, 1750 Nm. We have already taken it to the other side of the world. The mount is placed under the wing, quite far from the fuselage, which allows filming both forward and backward on the same flight.

We can also shoot in a low-angle shot towards the front or the back. In short, it’s a fantastic platform for filming. We can also film for several hours. The aircraft has 6 seats and can land on very short runways. With this aircraft, we can accomplish 80% of what needs to be done in high-speed aerial cinematography.

And last but not least: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career like yours?

Being extremely passionate! Learning to fly is a plus. Always work with pilots who know how to fly in formation. Whether they are former military pilots or true “film pilots” who have dedicated their lives to this type of flying.

Never fly in formation with pilots for whom it is not their profession. 90% of the success of an Air to Air flight is achieved on the ground before the flight. So prepare, prepare, prepare!

Thank you so much Eric for sharing your experience and these valuable insights with the community!

If you wanna learn more about Eric Magnan, go check his official website and, as usual, we are cooking a new piece fam…

Stay tuned for the next and in the meantime, if you missed our latest article, go check it out.
Much love!
FilmmakersWorld Team

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