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Documenting Aviation History

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Fri Feb 25, 2005 11:18 pm
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Via hobbyspace.com: By Nancy Eaton apple.com: When SpaceShip One rocketed into suborbital space and safely touched down on a Mojave desert airstrip last October 4, it met all the criteria to snag the coveted $10 million X Prize for its creator, Burt Rutan. Intrigued by this eccentric genius and his technological achievements, people all over the world clamored to find out more about Rutan and what he would do next.

Which is why California photographers Jim Sugar and Brian Lawler are sitting on such hot property. Sugar, a freelance photographer with extensive experience shooting for National Geographic, and Lawler, a photographer and graphic communications teacher at California Polytechnic State University, have been collaborating on a one-hour documentary on Rutan that they hope will air on network or cable TV very soon.

Rutan’s Next Big Thing
Several years ago, Rutan gave Lawler and Sugar the go-ahead to shoot video of him and his staff at his Mojave, California, company, Scaled Composites, as they worked to develop some of the most innovative and unusual aircraft in the world. Rutan gave them unlimited behind-the-scenes access to what will be his next big project: the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer. “We have the entire history of that airplane from the moment it was in Burt Rutan’s computer,” says Sugar.

In early 2005, adventurer Steve Fossett will take Global Flyer into the stratosphere and attempt to fly solo around the world on a single tank of gas. Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson, who is sponsoring the upcoming mission, believes this flight will become the next great aviation record — an achievement comparable to Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. But it won’t be easy: Lindbergh started hallucinating after staying awake for 30 hours straight. Fossett will be aloft for 80 — not to mention his one-tank-of-gas limit restricting him from landing and refueling.

“The Story Is the Guy”
Even though Sugar and Lawler show and tell the creation of Global Flyer from conception to flight, both men stress that the real story is about Rutan. “What we’ve done over the last three years is to photograph Global Flyer as a sort of a theme that runs underneath our story about Burt,” says Lawler. “The airplane is merely the spine or the structure. The story is the guy,” adds Sugar.

It just happens to be a guy Sugar knows rather well. Sugar has been shooting still images of Rutan and his aircraft for more than 20 years. “When you walk into Scaled Composites, you’ll see literally hundreds of magazine covers and still photos framed on the walls,” says Lawler. “About 60 percent of it is stuff that Jim shot, and now there are a couple of photos that I’ve shot.”

Sugar and Rutan first met when National Geographic assigned the photographer a story called “Aviation Advances.” “When I got the assignment, I went out there knowing very little,” Sugar says. “I was a pilot and knew of him by reputation but not much more. I got there the day after the first flight of his second airplane. Burt was a very young man at that point and he was just getting started. We became fast friends. He’s also the smartest guy I’ve ever met.”

About four years ago, Rutan asked Sugar to start shooting video of the planes to complement the still images he’d been taking. “They can learn a lot by seeing their aircraft in flight,” say Sugar. “He wanted video as good as the stills.”

From Conception to Flight

The idea for a Rutan documentary came to Sugar soon afterward. “I really knew nothing about video as a business or a process,” Sugar says. “At some point, I got it in my head that there was a film to be done on Burt, because this is something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I’d talked to Brian about it and talked him into taking a workshop at Apple on digital video and Final Cut Pro software for working still photographers.”

Former White House news photographer Dirck Halstead ran the workshop. Halstead believed that still photographers — particularly photojournalists — were especially suited to documentaries because of their technical backgrounds and storytelling abilities. “Ten to fifteen people were in the workshop. We spent five days at Apple in Cupertino, and it was a week that changed my life. it was that profound,” says Sugar.

After the workshop, Sugar and Lawler started committing footage to tape. And now, several years later, they’ve amassed and cataloged a collection of interviews — not only with Rutan, but with his brother, Dick (who flew Rutan’s Voyager around the world with Jeanne Yeager in 1986), with pilots Mike Melville and Steve Fossett, with Scaled Composite engineers and with people who knew Rutan as a child. They have scenes of in-progress working sessions and test flights and landings of aircraft, shot both air-to-air and from the ground. And a staggering 11,000 time-lapse frames capture Global Flyer as it’s being built — one image shot every 27 minutes for 15 months. “It starts from a beam going across the room and it ends with the airplane going out of the hangar,” says Lawler.

Take Me to the Pilot

Lawler and Sugar work in Sony DVCAM format. “The cameras are nice and the quality of the image we record is excellent,” says Lawler. Sugar shoots with a Sony PD150, while Lawler prefers to use a broadcast-size Sony DSR500W. “We have this routine we go through,” says Lawler. “We shoot, then we duplicate our tapes so that there are two copies. We have a FileMaker database where we keep a text record of the tape number and a brief description of everything that’s on the tape. And that way, if we’re looking for a certain scene or a certain subject we just search the FileMaker database. We have 76 tapes so far cataloged, and that’s all in the hands of our producer.”

The pair are working with Academy Award-nominee and DGA award-winning producer Chuck Braverman, who is helping to pitch the pilot to the networks. Once they line up an interested party, Braverman will edit the documentary using Final Cut Pro. “He’s an all-Mac shop,” says Lawler. “In fact, there are at least two Avid systems that are pushed into the corner.”

For their eight minute pilot, Lawler and Sugar used Final Cut Pro and created a DVD presentation using DVD Studio Pro. To include still images of Rutan’s historic planes, Lawler used Final Cut Pro to import the Photoshop files without modification. For the pilot’s soundtrack, Lawler chose Sonic Fire. “It has these wonderful libraries,” he says. They’re very clever. You can choose, for example, an introduction, an interlude and a conclusion, and you can make it 16 minutes, four frames, or four seconds and three frames long, and it will cut it to exactly the right length.”

Lawler also recommends using iTunes to keep track of soundtrack pieces. “iTunes files are completely compatible with Final Cut Pro, which is a tremendous thing if you’re moving music in and out of [the application],” says Lawler. “You can take it directly from your iTunes library.”

One Deal, One Agreement Away
The filmmakers realize that they’re at the toughest yet most important part of the process, which is getting a green light from one of the networks. But with so much already in the digital “can” on one of the most intriguing geniuses of our time, it’s difficult to imagine how this wouldn’t happen.

”We’re one deal away, one agreement away from having something that we think and hope is going to be pretty special,” says Sugar. “But we’re not there yet. What we do have is all this wonderful film on Rutan, but we haven’t taken it to the next step, which is to have a commitment for a one-hour TV show. This is what Brian and I want.”

It’s what anyone else interested in aviation history wants, too.

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