“He’s one of the best helicopter pilots in the world, if not the best,” says photographer Marian Chytka. “He knows exactly how to fly, how and where to place the helicopter, he can give you the best shots when you’re on board, but also when you take pictures of him from the ground. Fred is just Fred. He’s the best “When you’re like me on a track and you see a machine flying sideways, a few meters above a car or a motorcycle, you don’t know where to start. Or if you have to jump something hand or lie straight. When you’re a professional photographer, you just have to pull the shutter. “These are extremely grateful shots, people appreciate it,” says Chytka.
What if he’s scared of North on the machine? “Not at all, I know he has it in his hand.” “I first heard the helicopter behind the dune, I just heard it. And when I saw it flying and the rear wheel of the motorcycle had just thrown all that sand, it was clear to me if she couldn’t suck the engine in and not fall off. But the instinct is to pull the trigger.”
Fred North is currently not only the most wanted pilot in Hollywood, but also a hugely celebrated celebrity here in Dakar. “When we were shooting the opening scene for the third installment of Mizerova’s film series, it took about two months of work, most of which involved preparations,” he said at the press conference. North. “But here in Saudi Arabia, you’re constantly improvising. You have no idea where the competitor will go, but you don’t know how fast, from what angle or if they don’t hit them. You constantly have to check it out, the surroundings and the helicopter itself, but also think about what the shot will be like.”
“It’s amazing how Fred dances with a helicopter,” said American producer and director Michael Bay, who is behind Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and the entire Transformers series. “He knows where to put the camera, he knows exactly what I’m looking for and the pictures he brings me are just right the first time.”
Whether you read about Fred North in purely professional aviation magazines and servers, or he’s mentioned in articles about the movie, the ease with which he manages a helicopter between buildings, under bridges and narrow collars is emphasized everywhere. Some of his actions seem risky, but in reality they are carefully thought out and prepared, experts point out how he has planned everything in advance and how he tries to minimize the risks. And they all appreciate not only his driving skills, but also his discerning eye and his passion for photography and cinema.
“It’s one thing to have a great pilot, but if he doesn’t understand cinema, that’s a problem”, explains Michael Bay. “He may be able to fly low, fast or as much as he wants, but if he doesn’t understand what the plan should look like, there’s no point.” For North, his shooting instinct is based on his long-term interest. At the movie theater. “I’ve always loved movies and always wondered how the shots were made. But it took me many years to figure out how to cram the story into three, four or five seconds. Some directors say exactly what they want, but sometimes I deal with them and sometimes I do it my way.”
North was originally a professional soldier in the French army, but then went to test the helicopter and fly for over a thousand hours as a civilian pilot. He then became a rescue helicopter pilot in the French Alps, where he acquired the feeling and experience necessary to fly in extremely demanding conditions. “After a few years you will find that you are not flying by regulations and recommendations, but by emotion. Instincts decide and you decide in an instant.”
Then North arrived in Dakar and it was supposed to be the best preparation for filming for him. An open door, in which a cameraman or photographer standing on a rail, a low flyover, and a single attempt. There is no room for repetition, let alone error.
He is often asked if he is afraid that he and his colleagues will eventually replace the drones. “Certainly not here in Dakar for a long time. I don’t mind that. Drones are good for simple story shots that used to be filmed from helicopters because there was no cost-effective alternative. But drones cameras have limited endurance and depth of field, and ground-based drone operators lack the complex situational awareness required for the most dynamic action shots,” says North.
“The real charm of the helicopter is its ability to get a cameraman or photographer off the ground, right in the middle of the scene. If you have someone on the joystick down, they’re not up there, they can’t see it, it can’t feel it directly. The helicopter camera can do so much more. And that’s the magic of helicopter flight in movies.”
North, like his colleagues, flies an Airbus H-125 and says it’s not only the best movie helicopter, but also something like a Formula 1 helicopter. “It’s like that helicopter, I don’t think that there is a helicopter between me and the camera. I feel completely fused with it.”
I only met North briefly during a press center briefing, and unfortunately it’s clear to me that as a normal journalist I have no chance of joining him by helicopter. I am sorry. I saw a Le Mans, a Formula 1 helicopter and a rally in Sardinia. But that’s a whole other level. After all, see for yourself…
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