Posted 19 days ago ago by Admin
In the last James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, No Time to Die, Chris Sharpe with Black Wolf Helicopters was tapped to body double as a secret agent while rappelling from a helicopter in a tuxedo. “I’m British, so it was natural,” Sharpe said. The global movie release had a premier in Guatemala. He was asked to rappel twice at a pre-showing and at the premiere to deliver a cake in a box to a VIP. Following the cake delivery, the party, dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns, went to the movie premiere.
Sharpe is a chief aircrewman and medic with Black Wolf Helicopters in Guatemala City, Guatemala. They provide services like search and rescue, helicopter emergency management, and training for other helicopter operators, but in their spare time, they dally in film crew support.
Movies, television shows, actors, film crews, and make-up people are a matter of course for Sharpe and his work with Black Wolf Helicopters in Guatemala. Crews need helicopter support for point-to-point transportation, for shooting B-roll footage, and for on-camera consultation. Getting through the jungle and flying over volcanoes and terrain is typical in the region.
Sharpe and team are masters of helicopter logistics. He relishes in planning multiple transportation methods from commercial airplanes to helicopters to canoeing down a river to other modes.
They’ve worked with Disney’s National Geographic to film the show Lost Cities with Albert Lin. In one episode, “Megacity of the Maya Warrior King,” they show The Lost City of Tikal to determine why the civilization failed. Flying over the Guatemalan jungle via helicopter in a Bell 206-L4 LongRanger, they filmed over the dense tree cover using lidar to view the city under the trees. Sharpe says the show was three years in the making.
Black Wolf does much more than simply transport actors and film crews. Sharpe says that their day starts with a review of call sheets, which list all participants in the shoot for that day. They then conduct a risk assessment and do safety planning. They also develop a plan for transporting everyone and everything and how many trips it might take. Sharpe said it is all “weights and balances” in the helicopter. He also said they must be able to make the call of when and where they are flying and what will be carried.
“You get a full production crew, with a producer, deputy producer, and helpers to carry things. For health and safety, eight to 10 people is an average, (we have) the ability to move the 10 people, and we decide in what order.” He asks questions like, “Do you want to send the camera crews first?” Sharpe said they generally work with camera crews who have been to the region before, “Production has done the role before, so they know how to backfill that discussion. Who is going where? We aren’t messing around,” Sharpe says. He added that once the flights start, the fees begin.
Welcome to Earth
In addition to Daniel Craig’s James Bond movie, in 2022 another film crew came to Guatemala with A-list actor Will Smith. Sharpe said that the assignment started on Christmas Eve. He said they didn’t know who was coming in, just that it was an A-list celebrity.
The production crew asked for aviation logistics for this assignment. They said, “We want to fly a celebrity. They will land in Guatemala in their jet,” and they will need helicopter transportation.
Usually, there is a support crew with the actor(s), and in this case, they wanted a larger helicopter – an Agusta 109 twin-engine, but with a twin pilot. Sharpe had to line up the helicopter. He found one owned by a private citizen, but it wasn’t a charter aircraft. So, Sharpe negotiated to use the helicopter. Then the real work began to ensure they had pilots and insurance. “I am now learning about helicopter insurance,” he says.
They ended up going to Antigua, where Smith was staying. They were filming the Disney+/National Geographic streaming show, Welcome to Earth, which premiered in December 2022. Sharpe said that with this production, there were three production companies involved. There’s the film crew and then the helicopter crew.
Their team must be prepared to transport, rescue, and provide medical assistance. They also need to map where the helicopter is flying and where drones are flying, which are a part of production. The helicopter crew may also be on-location filming, which means not talking for an entire day to be “quiet on the set.”
Focus on Safety, Not on Stars
Sharpe isn’t star-struck, luckily. With the comprehensive nature of his role, he is constantly scanning the environment to find out where local hospitals are, where to land, and do whether anti-venom is available if there is a snake bite. He did cite that when appearing on camera, as he did with the National Geographic production, he must wear the same clothes on filming days for continuity. He also shares that he is coached to respond more enthusiastically when on camera. They often have multiple takes to get the necessary shot.
Carlos González is an aircrewman (NRCM) who works directly with Sharpe. He has been with Black Wolf Helicopters for three and a half years. He serves in several roles but has only been involved with one production: Welcome to Earth.
‘I was the helicopter rear crewman assigned to the support helicopter for HLS Safety, PAX loads, and I made the pilots coffee. I was also part of the helicopter rescue plan due to the remote location,” he said.
He enjoys the work and likes “the opportunity to meet new people and, most importantly, flying.”
He said that with film and TV work, it comes down to safety and preventing paparazzi from “going into the tail rotor,” which, whether tongue-in-cheek or not, sounds serious!
He said that he is not star-stuck doing this work, “No, I like meeting new people and learning new things. No matter the background, keep the good things and discard the bad ones. Even Will Smith was normal, and everyone was doing their job.”
Finally, on the Disney side of things, Jimmy McSparron, director of health and safety, film production EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) - Walt Disney Studios, said he has worked with Black Wolf Helicopters for five or six years. He’s been involved with many productions, saying, “Too many to count! Everything from Star Wars to bush-whacking documentaries in the middle of the Amazon.”
When filming, he said that everyone plays multiple roles, “With small TV teams, we often double up and wear many hats, medic, safety, fixer, locations, etc. With big films, I have either managed health and safety on an individual film or overseen the health and safety across EMEA .”
McSparron likes the fast-paced, team-oriented environment in film work. But he said that show business egos can be a challenge in his safety work.
Like Sharpe and González, McSparron also is not star-struck, “Not at all, the running joke at Disney is that I do not watch the products I make. I have met many cast members; mostly, they are just normal people.”
One memorable production for McSparron was in working with actor Sam Rockwell. “I have had some very special moments with the cast as we have often gotten quite close during filming, but I want to respect their privacy. I did enjoy working with Sam Rockwell, he was everything you expected him to be.”
Another person on the team is Captain Edras Barrera, senior pilot and head of operations at Helicopteros de Guatemala, who has worked with Black Wolf Helicopters since 2017. Sharpe said they use Helicopteros de Guatemala (HDGC) exclusively because of their safety credentials. Barrera has worked on three National Geographic film segments with Sharpe. He liked flying on these filming missions and said, “While a lot is ‘routine’ flying, the interesting part as a pilot is that we get the opportunity (based on experience, SOPs, and aircraft limitations) to fly outside the parameters of what may be considered normal flying. So as a PIC, it allows us to thoroughly enjoy the production while knowing that all the due diligence and safety procedures have been formalized prior to engine start.”
Barrera said he is not star-struck, “Not at all. The TV people I have met are professionals and respect the job the helicopter crew provides. Without the helicopter and aircrew…the presenter cannot do their job, so they respect that. The only problems I encounter are from production crews and egotistical types…fortunately, we tend to work with the same production crews, so we all have mutual respect now. As aircrew, we ultimately endeavor to provide what the producer and camera operator need.”
Sharpe said that using helicopters for filming is the best approach. He said that drones are gaining momentum for filming in the jungle, “drones are massive… they’ve taken over a lot for cost; but they can’t do the same thing; they can’t move the people. When used correctly, the jungle environment is flexible with the use of the helicopter. Especially like the Mayan stuff in the jungle, the drone doesn’t give you a sense of distance. A drone doesn’t have the same perspective as a helicopter.”
Regarding drones vs. cameras mounted on helicopters, Barrera said, “Through careful and selective training, both HDGC and Black Wolf are now able to provide the highest standard of training, equipment, and procedures that can fulfill a producer’s vision – so ultimately, we can either fly support (e.g., external load cargo) to deliver equipment/ production crews to a remote location for them to maximize their filming time, or we can be actively involved in the production on camera. Plus, we can work with drones more closely than is normally accepted so that the production achieves what they need.”
Providing helicopter services for film and TV projects is exciting and challenging for Chris Sharpe and the team. Those who work in this realm or do so with a mission-based focus. Their goals are to keep their eyes on safety and logistics and not on Hollywood's bright stars.
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