VideoFort, founded by Steve Gatena and Alan Purwin, is one of Hollywood’s largest and most successful producers of HD and 4K royalty-free footage. We’re thrilled to announce that they recently made their collection available via Shutterstock. Having produced for numerous blockbuster movies, award-winning TV shows, and broadcast commercials, VideoFort’s mission is to provide the highest quality nature, aerial, city, and time-lapse videos possible. We spent some time engaging with the team to find out what makes them tick.
How did you get started in videography, and particularly aerial footage?
Steve Gatena: While playing football in college for the USC Trojans, one of my teachers gave me an opportunity to produce a video for a homework assignment. I had so much fun doing it that I chose to focus my Master’s thesis and entrepreneurship efforts on video marketing. With my professor’s guidance and coaching, I was able to build the foundation for what would become a global production company.
For my final thesis, I created a viral video that received over one million organic views and helped generate millions of dollars of gross revenue for my client. That video was the most viewed video of its kind on the Internet. It was partially filmed by Alan Purwin and JT Alpaugh, who kindly helped me with what — at the time — was my final school project. After my career as a film and video maker took off and I was working with Chris Carter, I decided to create VideoFort with Alan as a way to give other creatives quality content and creative freedom. Since then, Alan and I, along with my vice president Chris Carter and Alan’s vice president JT Alpaugh, have been working hard to create content that VideoFort can distribute on Shutterstock.
Alan Purwin: My dad influenced me to start learning how to fly when I was 16. By age 18, I began working as a helicopter crop duster in Greenfield, Indiana, where I worked 12-hour days. The ink was still wet on my helicopter certificate when I headed out there. It was the perfect opportunity to accumulate flying hours. After Indiana, I came back to Los Angeles and worked for a helicopter company that took aerial footage of the 1984 Summer Olympics, and from that point on, I was committed to living out my dream as a Hollywood pilot.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve dedicated my life to creating the best quality aerial content, revolutionizing the entertainment industry with camera systems like the ShotOver, and helping donate my skills and services to charities like Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. When Steve approached me with the concept of VideoFort and told me that he and his business partner were working to provide film and video makers with quality content, my vice president JT Alpaugh and I decided we would help build VideoFort and give filmmakers the creative freedom to use more aerials — hence our mission: “Quality Content, Creative Freedom.”
How did you guys first start working together?
Alan: I first met Steve when he was in college playing football for the University of Southern California. He was working on a homework assignment and he needed my help with some aerial footage. JT Alpaugh and I decided to contribute to his student thesis project ,and the video went viral, getting millions of views from people around the world. After that, Steve became an executive producer and began filming TV commercials and branded entertainment with Chris Carter for corporations like Marriott Hotels and Coldwell Banker, as well as sports teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As Steve’s producing career took off, we decided to start VideoFort as a way to give other students and young filmmakers a chance to obtain quality content, so that they too could have the creative freedom needed to produce work like the kind that launched Steve’s career. I’ve spent a lifetime mastering my craft and working to advance the aerial cinematography field. I think its great that we have the opportunity to inspire young film and video makers to pursue their dreams by making our work available to them.
What unexpected challenges did you come across on your first aerial shoot?
JT Alpaugh: My first aerial production job came in early 1989, when I was 19 years old. I was tasked with shooting handheld aerials, hanging out of the open door of a Hughes 500 helicopter for the NHRA “Winternational” drag races in Pomona California. The biggest challenge for me was overcoming the nerves associated with my lack of production experience and blowing the shot. The fear of shooting and handing off something completely different than what the director envisioned was pretty daunting. I had to take a deep breath and rely on the limited airborne news-gathering skills I had acquired and put myself in a mindset of just getting it done. During that process, I asked myself a question: If I were watching this production, what aerials would I want to see to best complement the shots on the ground? This is an exercise I still practice to this day, removing yourself from “yourself” and looking at the big picture as the viewer and what they want to experience.
The shoot went well, and we got some pretty cool aerial images of the venue and the races. Unfortunately, during the flight, some loose flight log pages within a binder in the back seat blew out of the helicopter, and I spent the next three hours rummaging through a public storage lot on the ground trying to recover them. I found most of them and learned a very valuable lesson. By the way, that nervousness I felt before that very first job still is present in every job I’ve done since. I welcome and embrace it; it keeps me honest, focused and driven. It makes me question and scrutinize every shot I compose, which I believe is a good thing.
What kind of equipment or techniques do you need to create stabilized aerial footage?
Steve: Working with Alan and JT is a dream come true. They’ve worked with the biggest directors in Hollywood. People like Michael Bay, Ben Stiller, and Steven Spielberg. If you’re able to attain big budgets, Alan Purwin and his group of guys running ShotOver camera systems will capture the best aerial footage in the world. The ShotOver K1 camera system has reinvented aerial cinematography. It’s six-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal platform holds two Ultra HD cameras. For the first time ever, Hollywood directors can create 6K 3D aerial footage. We’ve captured some breathtaking images over the last six months. I’ve seen some remarkable stuff that guys like David Nowell, Fred North, and JT Alpaugh are able to create with the ShotOver. As an expert pilot, Alan flies a variety of aircraft, including the Sikorsky 76A++, Augusta A109E, Eurocopter TwinStar, Bell JetRanger, Eurocopter AStar, Bell LongRanger, and others.
As a pilot, how much thought are you able to put into the cinematography while also operating a helicopter?
Alan: Being an aerial coordinator and production pilot involves an extremely unique skill set. Flying the aircraft becomes almost involuntary. This comes from thousands of hours of experience flying non-camera platform missions. You become a part of the machine, willing it to safely do what ever you need it to do to get the shot. This enables you to focus not only on the safe operation of the aircraft, but also the creative process of putting that platform exactly where it needs to be, at the exact moment it needs to be there.
Understanding the visual aspect of what that shot needs to look like wills that skill set into action. The aerial platform virtually becomes an airborne crane. Unlike a crane, it has very few limitations. Successfully managing all of the angles and dimensions that can only be created with an aerial platform is born from tons of experience. Not only does it take every ounce of piloting skill sets available, but also a thorough understanding of every aspect and visual expectation of an aerial cinematographer. The very best production pilots not only think like safe pilots, but also embrace being great cinematographers.
How do you think aerial photography has changed over the past ten years?
JT: Without question, it’s the technology. Everything from the advanced creation of the newest aerial-platform gimbaled systems with sixth-axis capability, such as the Shotover system, to the newest digital cinema cameras with sensor resolutions that are reaching unheard of quality and performance.
You’ve coordinated aerial shots for some big Hollywood movies. What are the main differences between shooting for a big budget and big director as opposed to shooting your own footage?
Alan: When working major motion-picture productions, there’s a lot of time and planning involved. The aerial coordinator’s job is to develop the visual concept with the director. This normally is storyboarded and meticulously planned, blocked out and shot to detailed specifications. Keep in mind that there is always the ability for the pilot and cinematographer to add or change these shots based on their artistic interpretation. When shooting aerials for stock, it becomes more of a generic type experience. You try to keep your shots specifically generic. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it is a very unique skill set to be able to beautifully capture a location that can be used for telling several different stories.
What is the key to finding and editing solid clips from lengthy takes?
Chris Carter: Every director wants something different and every shoot varies. News and editorial-style events happen on the fly. There is no rehearsal, there are no second takes; the pilot has to work hand-in-hand with the camera operator and there’s a bit of luck involved. On the other hand, big Hollywood movies have added luxuries that others don’t have. When filming a movie, cast and crew members receive pre-visualizations or animatics detailing exactly what needs to be covered. Producers have the ability to obtain permits, work with local law enforcement, and shut down entire city streets. Most importantly, significant due diligence can be done to ensure the safety of all crew members. With these extra measures in place, directors have the ability to exercise their creative genius and the cast and crew use their talent to make the magic we see on screen. It’s a special process that requires preparation, skill, and creativity.
What are the challenges of working as a team on an aerial shoot?
JT: As an aerial cinematographer, it’s so important to be on the same page with the pilot you’re working with. If you’re not in sync, the end result never reaches its full potential. Before all shoots — in this example, a non-scripted shoot — you always have a pre-flight sit-down and bounce ideas of each other to get a general idea of what you want to achieve. The fun part for me is how that can manifest itself in the air. When you’re up there, that becomes fluid and changes. It turns out to be a dance where you’re following the pilot, and then it can transition to where the pilot is following you. Some of the best shots I’ve ever composed have been on the fly. Spontaneous ideas that are quickly discussed and blocked out between the pilot and myself and executed within seconds. That can only happen when you have trust and rapport with your partner to create this magic.
Steve, you trained with the US air force earlier in your career. What first sparked your interest in flying?
I joined the United States Air Force when I was 18 years old. It was always a dream of mine to serve my country, and I had a cousin who was a fighter pilot in the first Gulf War. When I was in the Air Force, I didn’t know that aerial cinematographers even existed. Not growing up around anyone in the entertainment industry left me a bit naive. When I met Alan and found out what he did and how he built his first company, I was inspired and motivated. Although I was playing football at the time, I knew that one day I would be involved in video and broadcast media. To be able to build a business like VideoFort with someone you respect and admire so much has been a blessing.
What have been your favorite animals to shoot and why?
Steve: I love shooting crocodiles and alligators. My favorite part about shooting them is that you typically have to go out into the swamps and search hard to find them. They’re elusive creatures and they’re scary looking. Once you find the animals, you can get as close as you want and, sometimes, if you’re careful enough, you can even pick them up. As a big animal lover, having the opportunity to get out into nature and capture amazing wildlife imagery is exhilarating. I’ve filmed crocodiles and alligators in places like Louisiana, Costa Rica, and Florida. One time, near the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, a 12-foot crocodile actually lunged at me and tried to take a bite out of my camera. We got it on film — I think she thought we were getting a little too close to her. When filming wildlife, it’s always important to remember that these beautiful creatures can be dangerous. You’re encroaching upon their environment, and it’s important to remain safe and respectful. Fortunately, we’ve never had any accidents when dealing with animals and we always treat these beautiful creatures with love and respect.
What do you find most exciting about being able to share your clips royalty-free with Shutterstock?
Steve: VideoFort’s exclusive footage collection is getting great exposure through Shutterstock’s large platform. Shutterstock is doing so much to help VideoFort accomplish its mission. Alan and I are excited to continue creating and distributing remarkable imagery through Shutterstock, as well as providing tutorials through Skillfeed. Over the last year, Shutterstock has worked hard to promote its contributors, and, with the launch of Skillfeed, they’re pushing to help film and video makers keep their creative skills current. We believe Shutterstock’s global initiatives are outstanding for the creative community and they go hand-in-hand with VideoFort’s mission.
What advice would you give to filmmakers who want to start shooting aerials?
Alan: I would encourage them to consult with professionals who understand the aerial-cinematography world. There’s always that temptation for new filmmakers to make the mistake of believing that it’s the same as shooting from the ground. Unfortunately, more times than not, they make an extremely expensive mistake and wind up not getting what they were originally visualizing. Working with experienced aerial coordinators and cinematographers ensures that it will be done safely and you’ll get exactly what you need.
What has been the most rewarding place you’ve seen your work used?
Chris: I would have to say Times Square. Seeing our work online, on TV, or in a movie is cool; being mentioned in credits feels good too; but walking through New York City and seeing your work on the most watched video billboard in the world was such a cool feeling. I remember the first time Steve and I were in New York and we had a commercial running that Alan and JT had filmed the aerials for. It was running on the ABC Supersign just over Good Morning America. Watching it play was such an amazing feeling. I actually watched as hundreds of people looked up as they walked by, and I could see their response and their facial expressions. You could feel the engagement. We were just sitting there in the crosswalk, and no one knew that we were the ones who made it. I would have to say I definitely felt pretty cool in that moment.
The questions for this interview were provided by Shutterstock’s Jorja Hudson.