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SKYDIVING with IMAX by Adrian Warren

How we set out to design and successfully skydive, for the first time ever, with the IMAX giant screen camera system

Patrick de Gayardon performs in free fall for Norman Kent and the IMAX rig, at 10,000 feet over Florida
Patrick de Gayardon performs in free fall for Norman Kent and the IMAX rig, at 10,000 feet over Florida
Patrick de Gayardon performs in free fall for Norman Kent and the IMAX rig, at 10,000 feet over Florida
Patrick de Gayardon performs in free fall for Norman Kent and the IMAX rig, at 10,000 feet over Florida
Norman Kent and the IMAX rig in stable flight
Norman Kent and the IMAX rig in stable flight

Giant Screen Theatre Audiences have been thrilled by the experience of watching IMAX films since the early 1970's, but until the mid 1990's, the largest and highest quality film format in the world was saddled with camera equipment so heavy and cumbersome that many subjects were in the realm of the impossible. The camera, bulky and awkward to carry, weighed well over 100 pounds (50 Kgs.).

I always thought that Skydiving, like any kind of flight, is everything to which the huge IMAX format is suited; with a screen that fills the peripheral vision and a superb high quality image, it offers an unparalleled sense of realism. If an IMAX camera could follow skydivers out of an aircraft into free-fall, it would offer a theatre audience a thrill of a lifetime.

Skydiving and IMAX, however, experienced an unfortunate first meeting. In early recognition of the extraordinary visual possibilities of putting skydiving on the IMAX screen, an attempt was made back in the seventies to film in free-fall using one of the first IMAX cameras. Due to the weight of the assembled camera package, which was well in excess of fifty kilograms, it was not possible at that time for a skydiver to fly with it attached to his harness "tandem-style". So, for the first attempt at filming with an IMAX camera in free fall, a spherical shaped housing was made for the camera with its own independent parachute, but unfortunately it proved difficult to control during the descent, and, for one reason or another, the parachute malfunctioned and the camera was destroyed on impact. Back in the 1970's, it was not a good beginning, and the concept of filming IMAX under such extreme conditions was shelved.

The 1970's were early days however; tandem parachute systems had not yet evolved, round parachutes were still in use, giving hard openings, and the possibilities for carrying heavy packages were limited by bulky parachute rigs. Expertise and manoeuvrability in free-fall were also limited in those days; nobody had dreamt, for example, of jumping from a plane on a snow-board, or of hundreds of skydivers joining hands in a giant free fall formation!

By the 1990's, however, all this was possible; parachute technology had advanced, and free fall skills had reached a high level of expertise. Square "ram air" parachutes allowed for softer openings, good directional control, and softer landings. The development of efficient aerofoil sections, and large canopies now even allowed for two people, attached in a single harness, to safely skydive from high altitudes. The new developments allowed us to think seriously about bringing the world of Skydiving to the IMAX screen.

Between the 20th. and the 27th. June 1995, following several months of thought and planning, I assembled a small but enthusiastic group of people together in DeLand, Florida, to prove that it would be possible to fly an IMAX camera in free-fall, to film with a good range of camera movement and control, and to land it safely and softly. My hosts were The Relative Workshop, a highly talented Company led by Bill Booth, who designed the popular Vector parachute rig and invented several radical new ideas including the 3-ring Circus emergency cutaway system. Helping me in this endeavour were Bobby Overbey, from the Relative Workshop; Norman Kent, one of the most experienced free fall cameramen in the world; Patrick de Gayardon, world champion skydiver; and Gus Wing, on free fall video and stills. The IMAX community had told us it would be impossible, but given our combined experience in not only the stringent safety requirements and new techniques of skydiving, but also the technical limitations for filming in the IMAX giant screen format, we believed we could prove everybody to be wrong.

Norman Kent and the IMAX rig in a steep dive
Norman Kent and the IMAX rig in a steep dive

The key to the success of this project was not only the high level of experience of the team, but the design of a harness system that mounts the IMAX camera on to the skydiving cameraman's chest, snugly enough to give him control of it during free-fall by flying it with his body, and mounted far enough forward to eliminate him from the frame even when using the super wide 30mm. lens. In free-fall, although the weight increases the rate of fall, the huge camera becomes effectively weightless, but on deployment of the parachute, it was critical that the design of the system allowed for the weight to be transferred to the parachute harness, removing any strain on his body. During the transition from free fall to flying under the parachute canopy, snatch forces up to five times gravity can be experienced, so the 85 pounds (40 Kg) camera could suddenly increase to 425 pounds (200 Kg); more than enough to infict fatal injuries. Our design worked well, deployments were safe, and landings were soft, in the stand-up position characteristic of square parachutes.

The tests were carried out with a wooden mock-up of an IMAX - IW5 camera with lead weights correctly distributed, to allow for the camera, plus battery, video feed, and protective camera housing with harness. Mounted in the lens port was a Hi-8 video camera with a super wide angle attachment. Each jump was recorded both from the IMAX camera point of view, and also from a secondary video and stills camera, carried by another skydiver. The first jump was made with only a small amount of weight but, between each dive, the weight was increased and modifications were made to develop the system to a point where we felt comfortable to move on to the next stage.

Modifications even included changing the design of Norman's flying suit to reduce drag in the flared leg area. With the camera mounted so far forward, Norman found he was flying "head-down", reducing his body control and increasing free fall velocity. By reducing the profile of the flying suit in the leg area, however, the problem was eliminated. Even then, the free fall velocity was high, but Patrick, who was sky surfing on his modified snowboard, was able to equalise the fast descent rate. The jumps were carried out without using a drogue 'chute, which would have reduced velocity, but may have caused unwanted vibration. Some instability experienced by Norman when reaching to deploy his main parachute were corrected by ensuring all harnesses were super tight, and by Norman adjusting to the aerodynamic characteristics of the rig.

Our week of research and development in Florida, which included eight test jumps from fourteen thousand feet, proved for the first time ever that providing IMAX audiences with a free-fall experience is most certainly obtainable. My thanks go to Bobby Overbey at The Relative Workshop for his help in building the harness system and carrying out necessary modifications during our week of flight testing; to Norman Kent for jumping eight times with the IMAX test package attached to his body; to Gus Wing for jumping with us and acting as second camera; and to Patrick de Gayardon who was killed a few years later while skydiving in Hawaii.

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