Prime Video’s “On a Wing and a Prayer” Shot With URSA Mini Pro 12K
Fremont, CA, USA – Tuesday, April 18, 2023 – In this extraordinary true story of faith and survival from Prime Video, “On a Wing and a Prayer” follows a family’s harrowing journey to land a plane safely after their pilot unexpectedly dies mid flight. With no experience flying the King Air twin engine aircraft, Doug White (Dennis Quaid) struggles to save his entire family from seemingly certain tragedy. With the help of a far flung group of determined “angels,” who join forces in a race against time and weather, the Whites learn a great deal about themselves, each other and the miracles that simple faith can achieve. The film was directed by Sean McNamara, and stars Quaid and Heather Graham.
We sat down with cinematographer Christian Sebaldt, ASC to discuss his work on the film, and how he designed his unique approach to shooting in a practical airplane set.
Can you talk about how you started on the show?
Sean and I have been friends for years and have worked on numerous features together. We were working on the film “Reagan” when he asked me if I wanted to shoot his next movie with Dennis (Quaid). That was “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a film set largely inside a small private plane. It was a great challenge and one I eagerly accepted. Not to mention I truly enjoy working with Sean.
What were the challenges you faced early on with regards to your camera choices?
About six months before the scheduled prep date, Sean and I flew to Las Vegas where Scroggins Aviation had a King Air 200 in their workshop which they bought for us, essentially the “main character” in the film. They had already chopped off the wings, the tail and the engines so we asked to also make the cockpit and (separately) the windshield removable as well.
I realized then that there were literally only ten inches between the cabin seats, and that only one person could move at a time inside the plane. You couldn’t stand up straight either (the cabin height was only 4’10”), and the cockpit was really hard to get into, even without a camera. It was no question that this film had to be shot with multiple cameras. The other consideration was the concern of having Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham stuck sitting in a super tight cockpit for numerous days. We knew we had to collect as many simultaneous angles as possible to lessen the pain for them.
Considering how small everything was, how did you end up shooting inside the main cabin of the plane?
As part of our setup we used three Blackmagic Design cameras: an URSA Mini Pro 12K and two Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pros. My fantastic first assistant camera Ryan Pilon figured out that the Mini Libra remote head on a 30’ Technocrane under slung would just fit through the cockpit (windshield out) and could travel all the way into the back of the plane to achieve the other passengers’ closeups. It was very cool but difficult to manage. Those were some of the super dynamic shots we were hoping to accomplish early on, and we did.
After some testing we ended up putting one of our cameras on a ceiling track that could travel from the back of the plane all the way to close up shots of the actors in the cockpit. It wasn’t easy to operate in such a tight space, but it was quite dynamic and very engaging as people moved about the plane. The ceiling track couldn’t be framed out with the necessary wide lenses and so was erased in post production.
One of the benefits of the URSA Mini Pro12K on this production was that we could use it operated or just planted somewhere in the plane and shoot at a very high resolution. We could then later push in for a secondary size of the same angle.
We had an additional URSA 12K action unit for two full days at one of the Georgia airports, standing in for Marco Island Airport (in Naples, FL) to shoot, for example, sequences of the airport fire department sliding down the pole, jumping in their trucks and rushing toward the landing site, anticipating a potential crash. Also placing the 12K unmanned very close to the runway gave us the flexibility to reframe depending on where our (real) King Air 200 touched down or taxied past the camera.
Another shot I am very proud of and after working in there for a week never thought was possible, was an URSA Mini Pro 12K on a low profile fluid head with the fantastic ARRI Ultra Prime 8R lens on the floor in the back of the cabin. As the mom and her two daughters are praying in desperation, hoping for some ‘divine intervention,’ I wanted to do a 360° super low angle shot of their teary faces holding hands. With the help of my first AC Ryan, who was laying on the floor and slowly and continuously spinning the camera we got a very emotional and dramatic shot and it’s in the movie.
Did you discuss a certain cinematic style to the film with the director?
Yes, absolutely. Imagine a film where your main characters are pretty much immobilized inside a tin can for a large portion of the story. To make it palatable for the audience, we needed to keep the shots as dynamic as possible. Before I had even gotten involved, Sean already had ideas to fly from wide exterior shots of the plane way up in the air to the inside of the plane, landing close up with our family. We began to plan Technocrane moves on a track on stage, taking us from 30 feet away (with a visual effects augmented digital King Air fuselage, wings and running engines) to closeups of our heroes inside the plane. Especially with the tight spaces making it really challenging for us, we needed the film to feel dynamic and engaging.
What were some of the other unique rigs you used for the film?
Due to the very compact size of the Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro, we built a rig that could control remote focus and remote aperture, which allowed us to go handheld in those super tight spaces, especially in the back of the narrow luggage compartment where some of the action takes place. We also could take the cockpit cover off and stick the Pocket 6Ks inside the mechanics of the yoke, close and low to the throttle and the rudder pedals. It was important for me to see Dennis’ face at the same time as he is trying to master the complex controls to save his family’s lives. These were definitely some of the hardest shots of the film!
To get super close and dramatic shots of the instrument panels telling us what the plane was actually doing, we used an Innovision Probe II Plus, a fantastic tool and one of my favorite lenses. This was mounted on the URSA Mini Pro 12K, which gave me some amazing angles. We also used the Pocket cameras all over our airport tower set to cover air traffic control characters.
With such a tight set and limited lighting, were you concerned about the image quality of the various cameras?
Never. Blackmagic RAW is quite amazing. The cameras have a fantastic dynamic capture range and sophisticated color processing. The images are indistinguishable from other high quality cameras in the final cut, and the camera’s color science gives me plenty of dynamic range in color correction.
With such a unique film with regards to cinematography, did you learn any new lessons on how to shoot future films from this experience?
At first the many challenges in prepping a feature film like this can be mind boggling, but with the help of all our great collaborators everything always gets figured out. Solutions come from many departments and often unexpected places. That is one of the absolutely magical truths about working in this fabulous industry. If life always finds a way, so do we on any movie set. We visually tell a story we are excited about and we always hope the audience is willing to go on a ride with us and our characters and experience something they won’t forget.
“On a Wing and a Prayer” premieres this week on Amazon Prime.
Product photos of Blackmagic Design products are available at www.blackmagicdesign.com/media/images.
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