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Case Studies

Helicopter String Quartet

Composer Karlheinz Stockhauseniss widely acknowledged by his critics as being one of the most important but controversial composers of the 20th and early 21st century. He is known for his groundbreaking work in electronic music and music spatialisation. One of his more well-known works is the huge opera licht, or The Seven Days of the Week, which consists of 29 hours of music. The opera is essentially 7 individual operas, each named after a day of the week.

The opera Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light) was the 6th opera to be composed, and the last to be staged, with its first ever full performance being played in Birmingham in August 2012. The third scene from this opera is the slightly notorious Helikopter-Streichquartett. This involves four musicians of a string quartet playing a synchronised, polyphonic composition whilst each is carried in the air by a helicopter. The sound of the helicopter rotor blades is an important and significant part of the composition. The performance is played live, with video images and sound being relayed to the ground and displayed in the auditorium where the rest of the opera is performed.

Eclipse were approached to source and supply the cameras, lights and mounts for the internal helicopter footage. Initially we carried out tests using a miniature camera and c-mount lens. While the results were reasonable, the quality and field of view of the c-mount lens left a little to be desired, so we started looking for another solution.

Our film production colleagues had recently purchased two Panasonic AF101 professional camcorders, and had been singing its' praises regarding the superb image quality it's capable of. A little research revealed that an ultra-wide lens, 7-14mm in focal length, or roughly equivalent to 14-28mm in 35mm format, was available for this camera. The field of view was more than enough to adequately capture a Cellist or Violinist from within the confines of a relatively small aircraft.

Of course, the musicians needed to be adequately illuminated as, while the shoot was to take place in daylight, the interior of the helicopters was significantly darker than the external environment. The snag with a helicopter is that there's a limited amount of power capability available for powering ancillary equipment. After some deliberation, and field testing, we settled on a PAG LED lamp, with filters and barn doors. Light output was the equivalent to a 50W Halogen spot, but at only 7 watts power consumption, well within the Helicopter's limits.

Even with the supplementary lighting, the images from outside of the aircraft were too bright in relation to the inside, so additional Neutral Density filters were added to the side windows by the musicians.

The final hurdle to overcome was that of supplying power to the cameras; whilst they could conceivably use their own batteries, this was considered a little risky, as any failure of a battery would result in no images from that aircraft. The cameras require around 7 volts, while the Helicopter power supply gives out 12 volts, meaning we had a little problem. However, nothing that was beyond the wit of our electronics team, who designed and built individual power supplies that converted the 12 volts down to the correct level for the cameras.

All of the equipment was mounted on lightweight Manfrotto stills camera tripods, with the lamps being clamped alongside using the ubiquitous 'Magic Arms'. The whole rig was strapped to the inside of the helicopter using ratchet straps.

Photographs were taken by our resident photographer James, while the short accompanying documentary was shot and produced by our talented production team.

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