On The Helicopter Shadow in

The Shining

By Jeff Blyth

In an exclusive for The Kubrick Site, the helicopter camera operator who shot the spectatular opening footage of 'The Shining' for MacGillivray-Freeman Films recalls working for Kubrick on the film (as well as the circumstances behind filming the infamous shot where the helicopter shadow can be glimpsed). © 2012, Jeff Blyth, reprinted with permission of the author.

I only recently came across the Kubrick FAQ website and noticed the #1 question that comes up about the helicopter shadow in "The Shining." Perhaps I can contribute a little bit of insight into the answer. I was the helicopter cameraman on the shoot, working for MacGillivray-Freeman Films at the time.

We had been contacted by Hawk Films to do some helicopter second unit work in Glacier National Park and had been told at the time that a British unit was doing all the ground work, such as pass-bys of the yellow Volkswagen. Additionally, another helicopter unit was working at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon to do the scenes of the arrival of the VW. We also learned that Kubrick had assigned a cameraman to live at the Timberline for several months to film the hotel from fixed camera positions in a variety of light and weather conditions so that Kubrick could have that footage as a resource, should there be a need during post-production to have an establishing shot under particular conditions.

We put together a small crew that drove up to Glacier National Park and set up our base at St. Mary's Lodge. We actually went through all the stages of shutting down a hotel for the winter that was central to the book. We were there for the better part of a month, September into October. When we arrived the trees had not yet started to turn but we began shooting helicopter shots very quickly to try to find out what Kubrick wanted. Our arrangement was that we would send undeveloped film direct to England so we never saw any of our dailies except for the very small black and white video monitor that I had in my lap while I was lining up shots. At the time we started shooting, we had been told we could do anything we wanted to show the VW headed up into the mountains with no specific directions about what it should look like. It is with great amusement that I have read online reports that Kubrick somehow accomplished these shots by some sort of radio remote control while still in England. We'd talked with him by phone before setting out and I can assure you there were no specifics needed other than a yellow VW with Colorado plates. The one thing that had been discussed however was that the VW makes two trips, as in the book. The first involved Jack Torrance going up to the Overlook for his job interview and that was what we were to shoot. His second trip was to be with his family and the VW would be hauling a small two-wheel trailer with their personal effects. This part of it wasn't our concern as our helicopter shots were intended only for the opening sequence. The British second unit was supposed to be handling the second trip scenes and they would all be ground-based. They were also shooting background plates for the interior car scenes.

For the next month I worked out a variety of shots and locations within the park. We were not allowed to ever land within the park and that made for some awkward moments to hover a few feet off the ground while Greg MacGillivray would hop out of the VW (he was driving) to clean off the camera's lenses. We scooped up lots of bugs at that time of year so we had to do this frequently. We had a bunch of these locations and routines that we could film depending on the time of day and the weather conditions. Good afternoon light would send us deeper into the park where we had rehearsed and rehearsed various shots, for example. Good calm morning air meant we could try our shots on the lower reaches of the Going To The Sun Road or over St. Mary's Lake. It was at this time that the helicopter pilot and I came up with the idea of following the car from right off it's rear bumper and then have the car go one way and we fly straight on. We had to pull off these shots without benefit of traffic control so we would try them when we could see other vehicles weren't around. We did not want to suddenly scare some other vehicle off the road or into an accident. During these shots, the helicopter rotor blades extended well out over the roof of the VW. Because we attempted these shots based mainly on weather conditions (especially calm air), it was somewhat hit and miss with regards to light and shadow. When flying that close to a car, I had my hands full guiding the helicopter pilot in closer and closer based on the little black and white monitor (which the pilot could not see). I can assure you, shadows were the least of our concerns, even if they could have been visible on that monitor (which they weren't). Needless to say, since we shipped footage out unseen, we relied on the editorial team to sort out which takes they liked. We were shooting full aperture but I had scribe lines on my monitor for the 1:1.85 cropping that we knew would be used in the theater. One of the main reasons for shooting full aperture is that it gives the editor the possibility of re-framing up and down a bit while putting together the title sequence. We were shooting with very wide angle lenses, which tend to help smooth out the motion of the helicopter but they also mean you have to get that much closer to your subject to fill the frame. These were in the days long before gyro-stabilized mounts. If a gust of wind caused our helicopter to briefly yaw, that was a ruined take and we'd have to start over.

Towards the end of our shoot we were suddenly blessed with some lovely fall colors as well as very calm air in the mornings. We rushed out and shot the same scenes we had rehearsed over and over and much of that footage is what made the final cut. It was not until we saw the finished film at a Warner Brothers screening that we realized Kubrick threw out the whole notion of the VW pulling a trailer for the second trip. Instead, he chose to use a few more of our helicopter shots of the VW minus trailer. The scene of the arrival at the Overlook Hotel, the one with helicopter rotor blades clearly visible, was not filmed by our unit.

MacGillivray-Freeman Films also shot Halloran's plane landing in the snow (that really is Denver Airport). We also filmed some background plates from a hidden camera position in the baggage area to be used for the U.K. green screen shoot of Halloran getting his bags. I'm not sure if that is what was used for the shot of him making a phone call. Additionally we shot some car to car footage of him driving in the snow at night. We were stuck with finding a very odd matching car, a dark AMC Matador, because when Kubrick filmed his scenes in England he had a very limited choice of American automobiles available at local car rentals. I recall at one point we were driving around Denver looking for cars that would match, flagging people down to see if they'd let us film them.

One final point about the production of "The Shining" that might be of some interest. Some commentaries talk about the moment Halloran "receives" the message from Danny. MacGillivray-Freeman Films were asked to shoot an elaborate stunt sequence of that same AMC Matador driving down Pacific Coast Highway, suddenly drifting over the center line and nearly running into a semi truck coming the other way.  Since there were a few of us precariously hanging off the front of a camera car heading straight for that semi, we were a little disappointed that the final cut of the film eliminated all of that and it was replaced with a very simple shot of Halloran responding to the message in his apartment. Scatman did a nice job of the moment, though.

So the bottom line on any shadows left in the finished film? I think Kubrick just liked those particular shots and didn't worry about the shadows. I have to say I was personally horrified to see the shadows on the first video release, since they'd never showed in the theatrical release, as we'd intended.

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