Practicing with an 85 pound mockup IMAX camera over Perris California. Photo by Craig O’Brien

When MacGillivray Freeman Films contacted me to film skysurfing with Troy Hartman in IMAX, I assured them I could do the job.  After all, their company was the first to haul an IMAX camera to the summit of Mt. Everest, and BJ Worth had shown the world that skydiving with large format cameras could be done.  How hard could it be?  I pictured myself with this huge box strapped to my helmet and then pulling my parachute only to have the camera, helmet, and my head continue to free fall.
The film is called Adventures In Wild California, and it features extreme sports athletes and professionals with extreme jobs working throughout California.  Among other things, it features workers who maintain the Golden Gate Bridge, environmentalists who climb and study the Giant Sequoias, the largest and oldest trees in the world, big wave surfers at Mavericks, and a sky surfing team, flying over Mission Bay, close to San Diego.

Skydiving with an 85 pound IMAX camera strapped to my chest felt like steering a truck through the air while trying to maintain a smooth and well framed shot.  With my parachute equipment and IMAX camera, I weighed close to 300 pounds.  It would be a challenge to learn how to fly, so the producers gave me a wooden mockup camera to train with.  We loaded it up to weigh 85 pounds and I made close to 30 skydives.  You can see in the photo above that I used a small video camera to practice framing.  You can also see that my belly to earth body position is pretty slanted just to fall straight down.  Eventually, though, I started to feel comfortable with it.

Filming over Mission Bay was spectacular. The shoreline is carved into a tangle of inland waterways and our drop zone was a small island with palm trees and green grass surrounded by water and bridges. An A-Star helicopter took us to 12,500 feet above the park where we could see north to Laguna Beach, and South well into Mexico. The camera was different than the mockup with additional wires and attachments, but overall it flew well and we came down with nice images.

skydive_landing_imax_camera1BJ Worth flew the IMAX camera to film Troy and me flying together as a team.  He had his own system for carrying the camera, but the camera didn’t fit, and the system itself was heavy, so I think BJ weighed close to 350 pounds!  Ultimately, we set him up with my system and he adjusted quickly to it and came down with great footage.

Overall, I felt pretty comfortable with the camera, but it was 85 pounds, and you can see clearly in the photo below, that it was secured to me by a number of straps that would have been practically impossible to release if I had a water landing.  It was also crowded on my chest, so there really wasn’t room to attach floatation devices.  So the reality was, if I landed in the water, I’d immediately sink.  So Harry O’Connor, our coordinator and a former Navy Seal, put three Zodiac boats manned with water safety teams at three locations around our small island.  It felt good to see the boats in motion below, tracking me anywhere I went.  When I got to know the guys a little better, I actually screwed with them a little bit by steering my parachute over the water and watching them zoom to stay under me.  I don’t think they minded, but I had to remind myself not to become complacent.  Even with the best water safety team, being underwater with an 85 pound camera strapped to me wouldn’t have been a good thing.

Long story short, it was a great adventure and the movie was terrific.  At the premier, my five year old son looked up to me and said “Dad, we’re flying!”


Harry O’Connor (left) – Aerial Coordinator