I Get Paid For This

Éric Magnan

Through air-to-air filming, Éric Magnan has flown everything from a blimp to a supersonic fighter jet. 

How did you get into flying? 

Already as a child, I knew I wanted to both be a pilot and work in the movie business. In 1986, I went to study at UCLA (California), where I learned to fly.

Tell us about your job?

I’m the director of Airborne Films, which specialises in aerial cinematography. Based in France, we film and direct movies, commercials and documentaries all over the world. To shoot air-to-air at high speed, we have a TBM 700 equipped with a Shotover F1, a 6-axis gyro stabilised camera mount.

About 90% of my job is preparation, the in-flight part is only 10%. I spend hours and hours on the ground. Everything is planned and everyone is briefed so there are no big surprises once we’re up in the air. The only unexpected part can be the weather. Sometimes beautiful clouds make your planned shot even better, and if the weather isn’t good, we’ll fly to a different place and shoot there.

With the camera, the aircraft you’re shooting from, and the aircraft you’re filming moving, it’s a lot of movements to keep track of. If a shoot wasn’t very well briefed, it’d soon get chaotic. Lots of planning is needed to create a beautiful image. Naturally, extensive preparation is also essential for safety – you’re flying formation at high speed with wingtips often just a few metres apart.

“We did some mind-blowing flying… it was like Star Wars

On a shoot, I’m always in the air so I have an overview of the choreography and can keep an eye on everything. Being a pilot myself really helps when talking to the pilots. Apart from flying and cinematography knowledge, to do this work you also have to feel well in the air. To get the right shot, you might be doing 360s for two hours!

I’ve had the chance to fly with high-level pilots in fighters, airliners, blimps, helicopters – you name it, I’ve flown it. Generally, when working in aviation, you only experience one type of aircraft. For me, apart from going into space, I’ve done everything.

What training did you have?

After UCLA, I got into the cinema world by working as an assistant director and continued flying alongside. I started off directing smaller parts and once I got to direct my own movie, I put an aircraft in it. It all evolved from there.

There’s no air-to-air directing school. At Airborne Films we have some very experienced cameramen and although I’ve trained them, this is something you learn by doing. The more experience, the better you are. Spend lots of time in the air filming aeroplanes and you’ll eventually get a sense of how to catch the good light and where to best position the aircraft.

What’s been your favourite flight?

Filming the movie Skyfighter in 2004. For this, we spent one month in Djibouti, a stunning place, flying the Mirage 2000 supersonic fighter jet. We did some amazing low and fast flying which was absolutely mind-blowing… I felt like I was in Star Wars!

And your favourite airfield?

Mojave. I directed many films over there, so this airport holds good memories. I love the two huge runways, the beautiful landscape and the fact it has good weather 340 days a year. Also, Mojave is where all the space stuff happens, it’s got the big aircraft boneyard, and its proximity to LA means all the cinema tools are nearby.

Do you get to fly much outside of work?

It all depends on work, but when I’ve got time, I love taking a Piper J3 for a spin from Saint Cyr. It’s a grass airstrip with amazing views of Château de Versailles, the closest you can get to private flying in Paris.

What’s your most valuable career advice?

Only attempt aerial filming with people who fly formation professionally! Don’t try it with inexperienced private pilots on your local airfield, find experienced military pilots instead. When filming, if you miss your shot, that’s OK, just do it again. But flying, that’s serious business.

Flying CV

Co-founder of Airborne Films. He has directed everything from Hollywood blockbusters to campaigns for Breitling and Boeing.

Started current job 2009
Now flying Warbirds, fighter jets, airliners and small GA aircraft
Favourite aircraft P-51 Mustang. 
Hours at job start Approx. 1,000 flight hrs in air-to-air shoots. Approx. 200 as PIC 
Hours now Approx. 1,700 flight hrs in air-to-air shoots / Approx. 400 as PIC
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