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Tuesday, 12 August 2014 16:38

Frederic Lean - Skydancers' film director

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While impatiently waiting for the realease of Skydancers, the team of Snap&Roll has interviewed the writer and director, Frederic Lean.

The New York based independent writer, director, producer and comic book author has a strong interest in humanitarian and environmental matters.Therefore he has always directed films and comic projects against injustice. In this 50-minute documentary, he gives voice to the minor comunity of female aerobatic pilots.  

How did you embark on the adventure of producing a documentary film about female Aerobatic pilots?

I've always been attracted by the adventurous spirit of the pioneers in aviation. One of my first books I read about aviation when I was a young boy was“ Wind, Sand and Stars” from the French pilot/author Antoine de Saint- Exupéry. Pioneers like the Wright Brothers, Mermoz, Bleriot, Amelia Earhart, the Lindbergs, Blanche Stuart Scott, Bessie Colman , Raymonde De Laroche, Harriet Quimby...the different paths of these pioneers have always fascinated me. These are fantastic human adventures!

Now, why a documentary about Aerobatics and especially about Women in Aerobatics? It is quite simple. I am writing, producing and directing a series about Women in Sports and during my research I quickly realized there was no one hour long documentary about Aerobatics. Also, I also noticed this sport was not very well publicized in the mainstream media- unlike the Red Bull Air Race for example or other races. So i thought what a great idea! I like to embark in projects with subjects that are not well publicized in the mainstream media and which take audiences to places they normally would never go in their daily life. So, in 2012, I said to a friend of mine, a producer, let’s make an official documentary about Aerobatics and the exceptional experience of these female pilots! I was so inspired by the life of these women pilots after talking to them that I felt compelled to tell a bit of their stories in Skydancers. Visually speaking, it was also the perfect film as a pilot to start a TV series. Aerobatics is actually beyond visual; it's about the emotions you get when you’re up there- above ground, ‘painting the sky’ with your iron wings.

What connection do you have with the Aerobatic Community?

Prior to this film? Absolutely none! Thanks to Mike Heuer (President of Honor, FAI Aerobatics) and the people at the FAI. They were very receptive and welcomed the idea of having a filmmaker making an independent documentary about women in aerobatics during the World Aerobatics Championships (WAC). Mike helped me to get in contact with all the major people and pilots in the aerobatic community. I did not expect such a tremendous support not only from Mike Heuer but also from all the pilots, their teammates and also from the French Federation of Aeronautics (FFA). Lorrie Penner and Chelsea Stein Engberg from the World Aerobatics Championship (WAC) were also very supportive.

Do you think Aerobatics should have a higher media support?

Absolutely! I believe major sponsors are starting to realize the potential of this sport. It is becoming more popular. Just look at all the videos you can see online. I know big corporations specialized in sponsoring the aviation community are now working with communication experts to find a new format to make these competitions more attractive and fun for a wider audience. The aerobatic competitions are not just amazing air show performances but also very technical and physically challenging.

XA41 from Kathel Boulanger

How did you start preparing the film?

I read and watch everything I could put my hands on about Aerobatics and about the pilots. Then, I contacted the FAI in Switzerland and met with Mike Heuer who helped me a lot. I also had contacted the FAA (French Association of Aerobatics) prior to the competition. Jerome Houdier et Loic Logeais were also very helpful in helping me to organize some of the interviews and with the technical aspects of Aerobatics. And then all the pilots, Aude, Kathel, Melissa, Debby, Dagmar and Heinke filled me in with a lot of technical information as well. When you meet them, you quickly understand they are passionate about aerobatics and love to share their knowledge with others. They gave us a lot of information during our interviews. Then, I asked also a friend of mine, PITOF -- a famous French movie director (Catwoman) -- who is also a casual aerobatic pilot, to provide me with technical information about Aerobatics. We interviewed him in Skydancers.

What guidelines did you follow?

I actually did not really have any definitive preset guidelines. I like to go with the flow, depending of what I am “fed with”, I’ll then decide how to approach my scene. In a documentary, if you want to keep the moments truthful and feel spontaneous, you can’t stage your subjects. They are not actors! You have to let them move around the way they are just used to. Also, you have to be very aware of your surrounding and somehow foresee what you subject might want to do or say next. Basically, you have to be able to adapt all the time, change position quickly and visualize a shot on a spot. If you have too much preparation, too many planned shots then it is harder to adapt and you might miss a moment you didn’t plan- I think. That’s why I like the run and gun style of shooting for a documentary. For us, often the best takes were the ones we did not planned in advance.

Frederic talking with one of the pilots during the making-off

Did you have any remarkable help to produce Skydancers?

YES! Like I said earlier, the people from the FAI Aerobatics Commission (CIVA), FFA (Fédération Francaise of Aéronautique), WAC (World Aerobatics Championship) and of course, all the pilots, their team and the locals in Sherman, Texas have been tremendously supportive and helpful.

What was the best part of the filming?

That’s a tough question for me to answer because there are so many steps I like in making a film. But from the moment I started to work on this project, I knew I had few main goals I knew I had to keep in mind. One was to introduce the fascinating world of aerobatics in a different way that you would normally see in a typical sport documentary and also to provide some historical and technical facts while narrating personal human stories.

That’s why my editor and myself kept the narrative structure of SKYDANCERS kind of atypical for a sport documentary. We have incorporated some aspects of the last World Aerobatics Championship, information about what is Aerobatics and its historical background, personal stories, 3D animation, graphic design, personal experience and archives footage all interwoven in a way that keeps the main structure progressing toward a climax. As far as the filming aspect itself, I really enjoyed filming all day long outside in a wide open space. There were some unexpected challenges though: We did not expect a storm to stop the competition, on and off, for almost 5 days. That was half of our shooting days gone. We could not shoot anything. But when we were able to film, we captured some beautiful shots of the sky, light at dusk, air plane maneuvers in the sky, pilots rehearsing, etc...But I have to say, the editing process is probably the most rewarding filmmaking aspect for me. That’s when you ‘write’ a film in pictures and sounds. In a documentary, there’s no script per sé, everything is ‘written’ during the editing phase.


What did actors enjoy most? How did you choose the actors for the documentary film?

For the pilots and their team, I have been told by some of them they’d had bad experience with filmmakers before. The main reason was because these filmmakers did not understand these pilots are true athletes competing for a world title during a world competition. Like any athlete, they have to have their space for concentration, to keep rehearsing figures, etc...Most of these past filmmakers were “in their face” all the time, asking them to do stuff in front of the camera for their film. But when you are fighting for a world title, you don’t want some guys with a camera in your face or to tell you constantly “could you sit here for a moment so I can film?’ ‘can you do this or that?’, etc... When I started this documentary, I told everyone from the beginning I was going to be very discreet with the camera. They won’t even feel I’ll be around most of the time. I stayed at a ‘safe’ distance. My cameraman and myself basically improvised all time the shots and worked the shots off of what the pilots were doing...

Do you believe this film will help women get a better consideration on the field of extreme sports?

I think it will. As a matter of fact, when I pitched the project to my producing partners and some people in the aviation industry, they were all enthusiastic and responded positively. They all recognized it was about time someone was promoting women athletes in the world of extreme sports via a documentary series. These extraordinary competitive pilots and inspiring women are showing us they are groundbreaking pioneers and they’re fighting hard to make their way in a man's world. Their achievements can promote gender equality and empower other women and young girls to follow their dreams.

Have you learnt anything noteworthy about this sport? You have always pointed out injustice in your comics and films.

Well, I can see you’ve done your homework. (laughs) It’s true my projects usually tend to evolve around personal stories linked to social injustice. It is true the world of extreme sports is still a male dominated world, but a new generation of unconventional female athletes-especially in aviation- have shown us what it takes to break the gender stereotypes and discrimination to become the next champion and this is very inspiring and empowering- regardless if you are a woman or a man. You’re a champion first! Now, women in Aerobatics can have even a better advantage compared to some other extreme sports because maneuvering an airplane doesn’t require much of a physical strength which consequently put the men and women at the same level somehow. Aerobatics is very much accessible to all women.

Do you believe this film tries to reveal unfairness related to minor sports or related to the role of women in our society?

By minor sports, do you mean ‘less mainstream sports’? I think in any sport, women are still definitely facing challenges. They are still viewed by some men as ‘weaker’ athletes but that is progressively changing and in all aspect of our society. Look at the number of women in politics nowadays or entrepreneurs, C.E.Os, scientists, philosophers or activists...women are not afraid anymore to express their opinions and to pursue their dreams. All their achievements have shown us all, it is possible to free ourselves from our preconceived limitations imposed upon us (whatever they are), to achieve our dreams, to live fulfilling and creative lives, as long you’re willing to work at it! I like a quote from Amelia Earhart “Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.” 

Note: The move is currently in post-production and it will be realease this 2014. 

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Read 112011 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 August 2014 16:14
Monica Cuadras

- Newswoman, blogger, translator, teacher & interpreter.

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"Aerobatics is the hidden rythm of our soul..."