Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 4 April 2014
A bird’s eye view offers a unique perspective. Yet no humans had that vantage point until two and half centuries ago.
That changed when two Frenchmen — brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier — developed the hot air balloon. One day in late 1783, they achieved a successful manned flight over Paris.
As Frenchmen also pioneered photography in the decades that followed, it was just a matter of time before the two innovations were combined. The world’s first aerial photos (from a camera not supported by a ground-based structure) were taken by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1858. Again, over Paris.
A French company was involved in the world’s first use of a motion picture camera mounted on an aircraft too. That was on 24 April 1909 – this time over Rome – while making a silent short film titled Wilbur Wright und seine Flugmaschine.
Continuing this heritage today is Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a noted French photographer, journalist and environmentalist. For over 20 years, he has specialised in photographing our complex and troubled world from the air – and sharing the results widely.
His efforts have led to popular photo exhibitions, books, TV series and, most recently, a feature-length (120 min) documentary film called HOME.
Released in June 2009, HOME is almost entirely made of aerial footage shot over various places on our home planet. Filmed for 18 months in over 50 countries, it shows the diversity of ecosystems and life on Earth and how one species is threatening its ecological balance.
Watch the full film on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqxENMKaeCU
Last month, I introduced this remarkable film at a public screening organised by the Digital Film Academy of the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF) in Colombo.
In discussions afterwards, we agreed that HOME isn’t a typical natural history or environmental film. Its scope is vast (story of our planet and human civilisation), and its viewpoint, extraordinary.
HOME projects a strong message of anthropocentrism – that human beings are the central or most significant species on the planet (at least in terms of impact). This is now a dominant view among scientists who study the planet (hence the new name for our times, Anthropocene).
Sri Lanka wasn’t among the many countries featured in HOME (Bangladesh, India and Maldives were). It reminded me of a more modest local effort along the same lines.
Various local and foreign film/TV crews have filmed our island from the air, and some of that footage has been included in finished products. But the first visual creation that was entirely based on aerial filming over Sri Lanka was made in 2007. That story is not widely known.
That year, an Indian advertising agency presented an extraordinary challenge to Video Image (Pvt) Limited, one of Sri Lanka’s leading video production companies. They wanted to capture Sri Lanka’s many and varied tourist attractions from the air — and distil all of it into a TV commercial of one minute duration!
Sixty seconds may seem short, but it’s a lot of airtime on TV. In fact, the challenge was to pick the best and package it well. The production proved challenging at all levels – creative, technical and logistical.
At the time, the Lankan war was still on and domestic civil aviation was highly restricted. But weeks of planning, many layers of permission, tech improvisation and brainstorming paid off. Video Image gathered never-seen-before views of our island – both its natural and cultural heritage, and the people.
It was filmed and produced by experienced videographer Suren de Silva, who heads Video Image. The commercial was commissioned by the Sri Lanka Tourism Cluster project and funded by USAID.
The client initially wanted filming done from a hot air balloon but Suren opted for a helicopter instead as the latter offered much more control.
As Suren looks back: “But how do you shoot from a helicopter? You can’t open the doors and hang out because you don’t get the perspective you need. So we decided to mount the camera on the underbelly of the helicopter.”
The company’s technicians, headed by Brian Ratnasekera, browsed the web, spoke to an engineer in Singapore and improvised a rig for this purpose. What would have cost over USD 300,000 to purchase was adequately substituted with a local contraption that took three days to make and cost around LKR 40,000.
Suren had done some flying in his younger days, which helped with the planning. He and team first travelled overland and marked out the places and the route using GPS. These details were then fed into the helicopter.
“We had many challenges to deal with – we couldn’t carry too much fuel, so that meant just one hour of flying per takeoff; we were shooting on cine film which gives you just four mins of running time per reel. So we had to make frequent stops to change the reel or to refuel,” Suren recalls.
Suren had to gauge wind and light conditions and determine what altitude the helicopter had to fly in and which turns to make.
“After the initial fly over, I could tell the pilot exactly what to do, which direction to come from, and what altitude to fly in. It was complicated, but super exciting,” Suren says. “When you see the final product, you almost feel like you’re in a hot air balloon because of the smoothness of our (improvised) rig.” (Full interview with BT Options magazine is at: http://tiny.cc/SdeS)
The finest highlights were edited into a scintillating commercial which was part of a marketing campaign branded as ‘Small Island, Big Trip’ aimed at the Indian tourist market. See it online: http://tiny.cc/SIBT
Video Image later edited a 10-minute version using more footage. This was featured on National Geographic TV, Discovery Travel & Living and other global channels. It has also been seen over a million times on YouTube: http://tiny.cc/SIBT10
This remains one of the best tourism promotion efforts for Sri Lanka. But seven years on, there has been no other comparable effort. With both tourism and civil aviation picking up post-war, who might surpass the benchmark set by Video Image?
There haven’t been too many systematic attempts to view our island from the air. In 2004, a coffee table book titled ‘A Day Above Sri Lanka’ was authored by airline pilot and balloonist Capt Anil Jayasinghe together with John J Nowell.
The island of Lanka has plenty of sights and phenomena to engage many more photographers and videographers. The tropical skies and island of Lanka are beckoning.
Where are our own Yann Arthus-Bertrands?