Shooting "Filming" on Planes

5 minute read

by Jon

October 27, 2015

I was recently approached by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Southwest Airlines, and Kohl’s, to shoot a mini travel documentary about their Destination Innovation program. We covered the event as it happened in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Milpitas over three days. The most exciting part of the project was documenting the competition on board a Southwest Airlines commercial flight between MKE and SFO. Working at 35,000 feet is something I’d never done before. Needing to be highly mobile, as well as TSA-compliant, meant I spent a lot of time choosing and trimming my camera kit.

The client originally proposed shooting the documentary video on two Canon 5D mark IIIs. Since that camera is now more than three years old, I made the suggestion that we look at some other options. Eventually we decided on dual Panasonic GH4s, with Metabones speedboosters and Canon lenses. This brought the size and weight of the camera kits down quite a bit, and allowed us to acquire in 4K. Although the deliverable was 1080p, I really prefer acquiring in 4k whenever possible, especially on 4:2:0 cameras like the GH4.

I had hoped to use Panasonic’s new V-log update, but since it was just released that week, I was only able to install it on one camera. I ended up shooting virtually everything in Cine-D, with contrast turned down. For most work, as long as you’re precise with exposure, Cine-D is a very good choice.

Choosing lenses was a little more challenging. I needed a kit with a lot of versatility, that wouldn’t leave me feeling cramped on the plane, while also giving me some speed for interiors. I settled on a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, a Canon 17-55 f/2.8 IS, a Canon 35mm f/2.0 IS, and a Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro IS, spread between both cameras. Since the Panasonic GH4 is a micro four-thirds (MFT) mount, the speedbooster can work with both full frame and EF-S lenses. There are some quirks, though. There is a rubber “bumper” on the back of the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS that needs to be removed before it can be attached to a speedbooster. Also, in modes other than 4K, you need to be conscious of possible vignetting.

The rest of the kit was pretty straightforward. A Tiffen 77mm 1.2 ND and 72mm circular polarizer came along to help on exteriors, and I brought step up rings for the smaller lenses. Since the GH4 batteries last for hours at a time, we only needed 6 of them for both cameras. One of the cameras had a Rode VideoMic Pro shotgun for B-roll and natural sound, and the other was fitted with a wireless receiver provided by the sound mixer Cory Kaseman. I also brought along a Gorillapod, the smallest “tripod” I could carry in the space I had left. I fit everything in a large carryon backpack. I decided against bringing a proper tripod or monopod, and this ended up being the right call. The stabilization on Canon’s 17-55 f/2.8 and 100mm macro f/2.8L are really well-suited to documentary video work.

Southwest airliner on the tarmac.

Southwest provided fantastic access to the tarmac, although the weather wasn’t as cooperative.

I was excited when I found out we weren’t subject to any restrictions on RF transmissions while in the air. Being able to sync sound without timecode or a slate was basically a requirement for this video production.

Since we were shooting documentary style video, and didn’t have releases on most of the passengers onboard, I ended up using more long lenses than I expected. The 100mm in particular was critical in getting some closeups while I walked the aisle.

100mm macro

A sample still from the 100mm f/2.8L IS macro, on a Metabones Speedbooster, on the Panasonic GH4. The long stabilized lens gave some intimacy on the packed flight.

The rest of the trip was a much more standard documentary video shoot. We followed the students on their bus ride and on a tour of the Kohl’s west coast IT office in Milpitas, California.

Do you have any experiences with creating videos in flight? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!