The Earth Wins – the film that helos made

The first IMAX film to be shot entirely from the air has hit the giant screen. Helinews Editor Christina Hogarth speaks to Jerry Grayson and Sara Hine from Helifilms about their environmentally charged, 45-minute movie, The Earth Wins.

Helifilms, a production company established in the UK in 1989 by Sara Hine and Jerry Grayson, specialises in aerial filming using the latest high-definition gyro-stabilised camera technologies. In 2002, the company opened an office in Melbourne, Australia, followed by offices in Los Angeles in the US and Cape Town, South Africa.

Their work ranges from feature films to live sporting broadcasts, documentaries, and footage for museums and science centres across the world. Black Hawk Down, the James Bond franchise, District 9, Domino, Déjà Vu, The Island, We Are Marshall, Waist Deep and Transformers are just some of the films that feature their work.

The team consists of experienced aerial crews of directors, film pilots, producers, production coordinators, directors of photography, camera operators, technicians and helicopter engineers. Hine explains, “Cross-hiring helicopters allows us to focus solely on our specialisation in film. The film cameras that we use are almost the same price as a helicopter, but require slightly less maintenance.”

Now both a helicopter pilot and director, Grayson started out flying in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm where he spent eight years and was awarded the prestigious Air Force Cross by Queen Elizabeth II for outstanding gallantry in Search and Rescue.

He left the Navy in 1980 to focus on aerial film work and rapidly earned the accolade of being one of the world’s leading helicopter film pilots.

Grayson’s first exposure to the giant screen was conducting aerial filming for the IMAX concert film Rolling Stones Live at the Max, a film that broke new ground by being the first 90-minute feature and the first concert film for IMAX theatres.

He describes filming for IMAX as a completely different process to filming for the TV or cinema; the main difference being that the giant screen canvas is so huge that you cannot afford to have very much camera movement. It would be too overwhelming. Instead of the fast editing pace used in feature films and music videos, IMAX films require long shots, so that the viewer can take in the image.

“Filming for IMAX requires very gentle camera movements and very gentle helicopter movements because, as with all giant screen films, the action should be taking place within the frame rather than having to move the frame in order to achieve some action,” says Grayson.

Another advantage of aerial filming using the new generation of gyrostabilised cameras, he says, is that they are able to take particularly long lenses. This is especially important when filming animals, as the filming can be carried out without disturbing their natural patterns of behaviour. The shots that you see within The Earth Wins are very measured, very steady, very quiet and enable you to concentrate on the subject that they are illustrating, rather than on how they were shot.

“An awful lot of what you see in this film is actually from quite a static position, but the aerial platform, the helicopter we’ve used, has been a means to get us to a position that you would otherwise find hard or indeed impossible to get to by other means,” says Grayson.

The film’s title, The Earth Wins, came to Grayson while they were filming a documentary on the Australian mining industry. Grayson was awestruck by the vastness of the Australian landscape and the size of the mines he describes as ‘massive scars’ carved into the earth. The sight of a patch of grass inside a mine pit juxtaposed against the vast amounts of surrounding scorched earth caused Grayson to ponder on the relationship between the earth and its inhabitants.

He says, “We take [iron ore] from the earth and the earth gets a hole to collect water and grow things, which in turn allows animals to live there and potentially flourish over time. If there is enough rain, it might become a massive deep-water resource in which aquatic life might flourish. It doesn’t matter what we do, the earth will always win, but we need to take care of it, so it can take care of us.”

A pumping soundtrack featuring music by The Who, New Order, Coldplay, Yothu Yindi and The Temper Trap drives the visuals of The Earth Wins. Grayson was inspired by composer Philip Glass’ Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War).

Grayson says, “The songs’ lyrics are like a narration; they are used to pace the film. They are not just used for their lyrics, but for the overall feel that [they] contribute to the pacing and [they are] interspersed with choral pieces to give the audience time to breathe.”

The film uses text narration as opposed to voiceover. Hine says, “We didn’t want voiceover to disrupt the flow of the songs. We used the text to keep the audience’s eyes moving around the screen by making it appear from unpredictable places.” The text can be translated in different languages and is suitable for all ages. “Although very young children might not be able to read the words or understand it on a philosophical level, they can still enjoy the animals and the music,” says Hine.

The space between the helicopter and the ground, the vastness of the landscape, the widespread destruction and the gigantic size of the screen is what Grayson has used to evoke an emotional reaction in the viewer.

“The use of aerial shots projected onto a giant screen plays a vital part in evoking a sense of the scale of these events. The emotional reaction I want the audience to experience is one of understanding the magnitude of these events and, in doing so, think about the magnitude of their actions toward the planet,” he says.

The Earth Wins was a self-funded project for Grayson and Hine. They had a healthy profit margin from Helifilms’ sporting coverage and chose to put the money back into making the film. Hine had complete faith in their vision and acted upon it.

“There is no funding body, like there is for television, in IMAX. You either have to go out and get sponsorship or go to the private market. Yes, it was a leap of faith, but if you don’t believe in what you do yourself, then how can you persuade anyone else?” she says. Recently, the team received some funding from Film Victoria.

Grayson’s passion has been a driving pulse for the project. “The film needed to be made and needs to be seen. Funding it ourselves has given us complete creative freedom. There will be a return to us over a period of time. IMAX films tend to have a five- to 10-year shelf life and the footage is extremely costly to shoot, about $100,000 a minute for 2D, so we needed to have a market broad enough to appeal to a wide audience,” he says.

It is predicted that 35 to 40 percent of viewers of The Earth Wins will be schoolchildren as the subject matter falls into the science/geography/arts/animal/marine behaviour curriculum. Hine describes what viewers can expect from their cinematic experience. “The giant screen makes you feel like you’re looking through the chin bubble [of a helicopter] and then there’s the six-track surround sound,” she says.

In 2005, when Grayson and Hine picked up their first Cineflex camera in Los Angeles and were trying it out before they brought it back to Australia, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, creating mass devastation. Hine negotiated that Helifilms’ aircraft be one of only two helicopters allowed over New Orleans. “We sent the helicopter down from LA, hired a ground vehicle, set off by road for 2000 kilometres and ended up there for 10 days shooting footage. We knew as we were doing this that this would be the start of the IMAX film,” he says.

From a flying and a filming perspective, Grayson had never experienced anything quite like the scale of disaster that presented itself in New Orleans. “I have never before from 1500 feet smelled the subject that I was shooting, that’s how visceral it all was,” he says.

He explains that some of the footage was too confronting to capture and will not feature in the film: “There were some things we avoided shooting, such as people being eaten in the streets by alligators. To see an entire city about the size of Melbourne, completely underwater except for the middle of the CBD, you’re sort of going through a dual process of filming it and taking it in.”

The sight of Hurricane Katrina filmed from an aerial view and transposed onto a giant screen is what Grayson believes is essential in providing the viewer with an understanding of the magnitude of an event that would otherwise be incomprehensible. “Something on that scale is kind of hard to take in but, being at that altitude, viewing it from above, starts to give you some perspective, view it in a way that you can wrap your head around it,” he says.

The Black Saturday bushfires provided the next footage for the IMAX project. Grayson and Hine decided that this would fit in well with what they had done with Katrina. Despite the catastrophic nature of these events, Grayson insists that this wasn’t his focus.

“The idea of this film is not about disaster, but about the scale of what has happened, how we interact with the earth, how we take gifts from the earth, how she reclaims some of those gifts. That concept built around the negative side of Katrina and Black Saturday, along with the positive aspects of how we interact, became the structure of the film.”

From the edit suite on their boat moored in Melbourne’s Docklands, the Helifilms team discusses how they hope their film’s message will be processed by audiences. Grayson says he has taken the approach of getting the viewer to question: “In what ways do we think the same, rather than, in what ways do we think differently? And this is an underlying aim of the film,” he concludes.

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