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Ari Basher hopped out of a van into a blast of rotor wash at the Thirtieth Street Heliport. He hiked up his jeans and tried to keep the grin from devouring his face as he let himself into the gate through a tall chain-link fence. He loved to fly.
A sleek white corporate Sikorsky S-76 had just touched down, the rotors still spinning overhead. A bored CEO in a business suit stepped out of the aircraft. He cast a grim dry glance right through Ari, who politely held the gate open for him. Ari wanted to ask, “Dude, why so serious? You get to soar over all the bus riders on your daily commute.”
Instead Ari called out, “You’re welcome!” The businessman faltered, dazed by the radiance of Ari’s confident exuberance.
“Thank you.” He cracked back a wan creaky smile of his own, rusty from disuse. Ari knew that he’d won the CEO over as he disappeared into his typical black SUV.
On the other side of the large corporate Sikorsky, Ari found his ride, a smaller Eurocopter, and his team: Don, Charley, and Sal, the pilot.
Charley Foster, a gruff, elfin ex-Navy F-16 mechanic, who had worked on aircraft carriers for years, was threading film into a special aerial camera inside a gray three-foot ball mounted on the nose of the chopper.
Sal Montevale, a compact, bushy-white-haired Vietnam vet, who had been an air cavalry pilot and was now the dean of New York aerial photography, sat in his cockpit waiting. Ari waved. Sal had flown on Ari’s first job in the film business, twenty years prior, in the Hamptons. The star of the picture was supposed to steal a helicopter and buzz a crowd of extras at a lawn party. When the star stepped into the chopper, they had called “Cut” and slapped a curly blond wig on Sal’s head; Sal was the one who’d taken off, buzzing the crowd with low, shaky moves as if he didn’t know how to fly. The result was some great acting as the extras had run for their lives like Viet Cong in a village about to get hit.
Don, the cameraman, sat in the backseat, a monitor and camera control console in his lap. Mellow and unflappable, Don was an Australian surfer who had somehow risen to become the top aerial cameraman in the world. They would all be spending a lot of time together in the coming weeks, so Ari expected that life story to come his way over a beer—or ten—in the hotel bar.
“How we doing, Charley?” Excited to get in the air, Ari walked around to the front of the chopper and peeked over Charley’s shoulder at the camera.
“I said we’d be ready by the time you got here, and we’re ready, so back off.”
“I love you, too, Charley.”
Charley shut the round three-foot SpaceCam housing, then grabbed his fist with his hand, a signal to Don that the camera was ready to fly. Don moved his controls up, down, left, and right. So did the ball on the nose of the chopper—like a giant eye with a tiny pupil. Ari spun his finger in the air as a signal to start the engine, but Sal was already flipping switches and easing the throttle in. The whine of the turbines spooling up and the smell of jet exhaust put the grin back on Ari’s face. He opened the door and stepped up into the right-hand seat beside Don so they both could see the monitor.
“Can you believe they pay us for this?” Ari winked at Don.
“Don’t tell the studios how much we dig it.” Don put his finger to his lips. “Or those greedy buggers might just start charging us to come to work.”
Sal pulled on the collective and the rotors bit into the air, lifting the chopper off the ground. Ari hadn’t been in a chopper in a while, and the first sensation of helicopter flight always startled him a little. As a private pilot, he was used to flying a plane and feeling like he was sitting on top of something. A helicopter always made him feel a different center of gravity, a different weight, like he was hanging from a coat hanger stuck in the back of his jacket. Ari pulled a rough sketch of their flight path out of his pocket.
“Sal, the director wants us to try this. To loop around over the middle of the George Washington Bridge.”
“Sure.” Sal studied the drawing for a second. “Got it.”
Don, too, memorized the pattern and nodded. Then he focused the camera downward, practicing moves: zooming in and out on moving cars below on the West Side Highway.
They flew over tiny little people jogging in the park, biking on the streets, coming and going. Not one of them having as much fun as I am right now, thought Ari. Ain’t my life cool?
“Here’s your bridge,” said Sal. The GWB loomed up in the windshield, an elegant massive structure, its two giant cables strung over pylons rising out of the Hudson River between the Palisades of New Jersey and Washington Heights on the New York side.
“Ready, Don?” asked Ari.
Like a dragonfly in slow motion, the little helicopter flew right over the middle of the bridge, its lowest point, then banked around and came back.
“You get it?” asked Ari.
“I can do better,” said Don. “The shot takes a long time to develop.”
“Can you fly it faster, Sal?”
“As fast as you can. We’re going again.”
Sal repositioned the chopper in the sky. He pushed on the stick and the craft surged forward, nose down. Again they crossed over the dip in the suspension bridge and banked hard left. Ari felt two Gs on his ass, then three as the weight of his body literally tripled in the tight turn. He watched the screen, figuring that he had about six takes in him before he lost his lunch. The chopper leveled out of the turn and crossed back over the bridge, returning to its starting point.
“How was that?” asked Sal over his headset.
“Eh,” said Ari. He wasn’t thrilled. “Let’s try it again.”
The three men did the shot a few more times, but they knew collectively that it wasn’t special, just adequate. They shared one of those rare moments in movie-making when the best plans, the best people, the best equipment just don’t add up. The editor will end up hacking off the front and back of the shot and pick a fairly boring piece of footage, where the audience can see the whole bridge and know what it is. All this for nothing—movie-making was just like that, hours and days of work for seconds in the finished film.
On take six, Ari looked out of the window to fight his nausea. He could taste a little bile on the back of his tongue. Sal and Don seemed fine and ready to go again. Ari looked down at the Palisades: sheer granite cliffs that dropped three or four hundred feet into the Hudson.
“We’ve got to tell a story in every shot,” he said, almost to himself. “Sal, Don, cut. Forget this. We’ve got it as good as it’s going to get, and it’s going to wind up on the cutting room floor anyway.”
Sal and Don looked at Ari like scolded children. The best of the best always internalize failure. Ari pointed down at the Palisades.
“What if we start along the edge of those cliffs, really tight, and we don’t know where the hell we are. We could be in the middle of the Rockies for all the audience knows, then we bank, we find a piece of the bridge, see the river, follow the traffic really close, then descend down underneath the roadway; and, voilà! New York City is revealed as we drop beneath the bridge!”
“Could work,” said Don, starting to visualize the shot in his mind. Sal grunted in agreement. He eased off the stick, banking wide over the river to come right to the edge of the cliff.
They skimmed over the tops of barren winter trees sticking up from the craggy rock ledges, then banked out over the Hudson alongside a massive suspension cable dipping down below the roadways and their flow of traffic, to finally drop and find the distant Empire State Building dead on in the middle of the shot. The entire bridge looked as if it were balancing like a teeter-totter right on the very tip-top of the art deco building’s giant antenna, an optical illusion.
“Yeah!” cried Ari. The three men grinned at each other like demons. They had bagged the big one, caught movie magic in the camera. “We got it!” Ari reached out and slapped his pilot and his cameraman on the shoulder. “We got the shot!”
Copyright © 2016 by Avram Noble Ludwig