Fred North isn’t your everyday kind of pilot. He doesn’t stroll through brightly lit terminal buildings, pilot cap under his arm or announce your destination local time and wishes to see you back onboard another flight soon
No, he flies, but for other reasons. You won’t hear him telling you your cruising altitude either, but you may very well see his work on the in-flight entertainment.
Fred is a Stunt helicopter pilot and one of the very best that there is, and has for the last 30 years made incredible contributions to the movie-making world. You know the scenes, where you the viewer is given an unprecedented view of the action as you imagine the film crew to be flying over the set sometimes merely feet from the ground.
Well, more than often that is the work of Fred North. You only have to take a glimpse at the man’s Instagram (fred_north) to get a real understanding of what he does; explosions, car chases, trees, trains and nuclear power stations are all ‘par for the course’ as Fred pushes his helicopters and their attached filming equipment to the limit.
Not content with just making movies, Fred actually holds the current world record for the highest altitude achieved in a helicopter, achieved 2002 in South Africa. At 42,000 ft. a nearby passenger plane pilot famously remarked over his radio upon learning of the attempt, “is he crazy!?” Afterwards the elated North could only comment with, “I will never do that again” .
Having worked on movie franchises such as The Fast and the Furious, Transformers, Bourne and an incredible IMDB list of notable blockbuster movies that are nothing short of impressive, you begin to understand you have actually been along for a ride with Fred many times before, but, you just didn’t even know it.
In one sentence, how would you describe your job to somebody who has no idea what it is you do?
Aerial Coordinator and Stunt helicopter pilot for Hollywood movie industry
What would you say is your most significant achievement/proudest piece of work?
Moving successfully from France to the USA 15 years ago. Back then, I knew only one guy in the movie industry in Los Angeles, and now I am a significant player in the stunt helicopter motion picture world.
How do you keep yourself feeling motivated and not creatively sapped? Is there anything you do to keep yourself fresh?
I have a healthy life, I go six times a week to the gym, focus on healthy food and always try to get good sleep: this keeps me fresh. I love movie making in general and will watch everything I can to get inspired to go that bit further. A filming helicopter is an unbelievable machine that gives you so much possibility to shoot unique footage; simply put, I am merely a servant of that amazing aircraft.
You’ve worked with a long list of (very talented) directors/actors/industry people, can you recall any funny anecdotes or stories you might be willing to tell us about any of these people?
Michael Bay is one of my favourite directors, telling me when ready to shoot, “Fred do your thing. “By that, he wants me to fly with energy and speed close to what we are filming, and try to be everywhere around it to capture those magic shots. It’s really nice to hear from such a camera visionary you have a flying style of your own.
A lot of actors are scared to fly in a helicopter on a set. Often the producers will ask me to reassure them. I tell them that I would put my kids in that same chopper no problem …they usually like that analogy!
If I agree with them and think it is risky, then I let the producer know, and usually, the actor in question won’t fly.
Which particular projects would you say have pushed you the most, been the most enjoyable and taught you the most?
The Fast and Furious movies (I have been doing all of them since #4 and now we are filming #9) are definitely high-pressure projects. We are flying extremely low (literally a few feet from the ground ) at high speed and we are constantly surrounded by obstacles like power lines, explosions, really close cars merely a few feet below….expectations from the audience in this franchise are high, so we need to deliver 100% insane footages each time. I love filming high-speed car sequences; it is undoubtedly one of my favourite parts of flying.
Larry Blanford is somebody I have learned a lot from, if not the most. He is a director of photography and worked on the first Top Gun movie in addition to many others. He is exceptionally talented and experienced.
One day after watching a crappy aerial shot in a movie (that I didn’t do!)I asked him who was responsible for such a lousy shot; the light was terrible as it appeared to be filmed in the desert at midday – Is it the director or the producer I asked?
He said the film pilot was responsible, as each player needs to fight hard to get his best shot and not merely to do as told. If you agree to film amazing scenery in a bad light, you become an accomplice to a failure.
Since then I understood I could make a difference, and I should fight hard only to get stunning footage, I should open my mouth (respectfully) to directors and producers to convince them to shoot at certain times. If all the filming crew do that at all levels, the movie should be the best it can be.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we can’t learn from your resume or Google?
My international experience, I think. I have helicopter licenses for 65 countries and have collectively flown more than 19,000 hours.
Do you think the skills needed to do what you do can be learnt, or is there an element of natural talent involved?
You can learn some stuff, yes but they are not the critical skills required to be a stunt film pilot. I am sure like anything with enough time you can come close to be very good, but having a natural talent will definitely put you “up there “.
In my opinion, your decision-making process has to be impeccable, and that aspect goes along with your personality, which is hard to learn in any book. You can understand how it works, but I think your personality has to fit the required profile
Speaking of skill sets and differences, how would you best describe the benefits between using Helicopters over Drones?
Camera Helicopters have a long future in front of them and won’t be replaced anytime soon by drones; The current drone technology doesn’t have the spatial orientation, depth of field, or endurance for longer projects and all while having the crew detached on the ground, making it very difficult to get that cinematic shot. Drones have their place in the industry and should stick to those certain shots but trying to recreate the speed, style and decision making of a helicopter with a team of producers, pilots and coordinators by a drone can come off low quality and somewhat dull.
What is the most common day-to-day challenge/s you face doing the job that you do?
Being a freelancer is the main downside as you are always working on prepping the next job. It can mean you rarely take the time to enjoy the project you are doing at the time, as your mindset is already on the next one, which can be distracting and not fun. I am trying to improve in this regard though.
What would be a film that you may not have worked on and would have loved to?
Sorry, this is my arrogant hollywood moment. I have done them all ha ha ha
What Movies would you say, have your heart?
I love any non-CG (computer graphic) movies, the real action ones with no or little visual effects. We can do so much for real as it does look impressive with real moves, real lights, the real thing as too often cartoonish when the visual effect are poorly made.
This article was originally published on December 19 2019 in Issue 53