Sharpshooter: The human drone

Gustavo Cabana skydiving
Barrie Smith
August 11th 2017 at 11:30AM : By

The only thing Gustavo Cabana likes more than cinematography is jumping out of planes. Barrie Smith talks with him about the challenges - and the freedom - of shooting in the sky.


Name: Gustavo Cabana

Age: 50

Where did you grow up? In Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Where do you live today? Empuriabrava, Spain

Languages? Spanish, English, Portuguese.

Occupation? Skydiving cameraman.


Gustavo Cabana, cinematographer


What training have you had?

I studied photography with a great professor when I was 16. He gave me technical knowledge, but I didn’t find my inspiration until I started jumping with cameras in 1991.

You're a skydiving and underwater cameraman. What specialised gear do you use for aerial work?

The most important gear we use is a custom helmet to attach the cameras on, with platforms, brackets and quick releases, cable connections, audible altimeters which signal different altitudes and a ring sight for framing the shoot.

I use Nikon DSLRs for stills and high quality video, as well as Sony video Handycams which have an excellent balance SteadyShot, like a gyro, perfect for shooting in high speed free fall jumps.

We use cable remote shutter releases for the stills with custom made tongue switches, since we need to have our hands free to fly, and wired remote control for the Sony videocams and turned-on indicators for when we use GoPros.


Flynamic Free Routine 2016 from Gustavo Cabana on Vimeo.


Do you ever do live broadcasts from the sky?

The first time I used air-to-ground transmissions was when I shot the US Nationals championships in 1999, with a small pack on the chest, connecting a TCA cable to the Hi8 cameras we used back then. Now there are more and better options out there.

Describe the preparations and processes in an aerial shoot.

Depending on the kind of jump I need to shoot, we plan the timing of the exit, where we are all going to be in the sky and the moves we need to do. If it is a big record jump, we define sectors around the formation with the rest of the camera team, so as to not interfere with each other – also the timing of the separation when the jump is over for a safe opening of the parachutes. Sometimes I like to jump with a group without knowing the flight plan and just follow them, trying to be creative with every new move they do.

Normally, we don’t use radio. The communication is more personal with signals and body movements. I adjust the camera to subject distance flying my body closer or further away.

What is your most memorable jump?

I have many, but big world record jumps are the most memorable because of all the teamwork involved and the emotions we go through, shared with skydivers from all over the world, until we get the record. It’s a very magic moment, a communion of human energy.

I had the privilege of shooting all the skydiving disciplines' world record formations: 400 jumpers flying belly down, 164 in head down, 72 in head up and 100 with their open parachutes linked together in a huge diamond kite-like formation.


Gustavo Cabana, skydiving ring


What are the major safety concerns?

Lately, it is the use of really fast flying machines, which complicates the traffic with other open canopies. Many accidents happened with jumpers colliding with each other, getting entangled, parachutes collapsing and falls into the ground. Or when they fail to do a proper and soft landing or for weather issues.

Also in free fall, because of the high speeds which can reach 300km per hour, a collision with jumpers flying in different trajectories can have fatal consequences. But at the end of the day, with the millions of jumps done around the world, this sport became pretty safe, besides the fact that some skydivers are not so skilled.

You also do underwater shooting. How do underwater and aerial camerawork compare?

I started diving in 1987, the year before my first jump. Both sports are unique - they’re in 3 dimensional and dangerous environments, where you (and your cameras) can move around without any external help, like tripods, fluid heads, jib rigs and tracks. The better you fly your body through the air, or move your body underwater, the better images you can get.

A few years back I did a lot of technical diving, using rebreathers, in wrecks and caves. I shot most of them with a helmet-mount videocam and also did photography with full DSLR rigs. I think the underwater environment is much more harsh for ourselves and our equipment. And having daylight up there helps big time!

There’s a time difference between the two types of shooting too - one second in free fall is like one minute underwater.

Is there any specialised equipment you wish was out there?

Just better and smaller cameras - like a 4K, 60fps, with balanced stabilisation optics. And a small Nikon full frame mirrorless cam.

How seriously are you affected by weather conditions?

We can’t jump when the wind speed on the ground is higher than our canopies’ forward speed. With 23 knots we go into a standby, or "weather hold" as it's called.

Clouds are amazing to fly through, but too many, when we can’t see each other, makes an unsafe playground. And rain is painful on the skin - besides that, cameras and water don’t mix well.

We use cable remote shutter releases for the stills with custom made tongue switches, since we need to have our hands free to fly 

Where have you shot?

I have done around 20,000 jumps all around the world.

I’ve done aerial shoots in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, United States, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Thailand, Uruguay, Spain, France, Croatia, Germany, Ecuador, Venezuela, Czech Republic, Poland, India, China, Qatar, Italy, Belgium and Chile - jumping from small Cessnas to Hercules cargo planes, helicopters, Boeing 727s and Russian AN-72s, biplanes, trikes and balloons.

Who are your clients?

A lot in the skydiving industry itself and I also do ads for agencies, banks, insurance, cigarettes and watch companies.

What was your first ever shooting job?

A commercial for a toy, in which we did a very interesting stunt in free fall.

Do you find your clients sometimes lack an understanding of your role and special needs?

Understandably. It is difficult for an outsider to understand our needs and the environment in which we work. Our task is to communicate and share our knowledge with them.

Gearwise, do you travel heavy or light? Do you work with an assistant or alone?

Normally, heavy and alone! We need to carry our cameras and accessories, plus our heavy skydiving rigs (around 20 pounds each), plus helmets, suits and the rest of stuff.

Is the DSLR style of camera workable in your shooting style?

I think it's the best in terms of size, weight and versatility, before going up the ladder to a Red cinema camera.


Gustavo Cabana, cinematographer, over Dubai


What specialist camera gear do you use?

A ring sight is the most specialist tool for us. It's like a virtual viewfinder to frame our images.

On location, is battery life an important issue?

Not really — jumps are short.

Have you ever shot 3D?


Best thing about your job?

The possibilities of flying a camera all around your subjects, without being limited by the two dimensions we have on the ground.

Worst thing about your job?

To find out that the great human beings you meet and fly with in the past are gone too early.

Hairiest/scariest shoot and why?

Demonstration jumps at night in the middle of cities, because there's always the possibility of having a malfunction of your main canopy, or a bad spot — and the need to land elsewhere where you can’t see the ground.

What country would you most like to shoot in?

The US is the biggest skydiving destination in the world. And there are many events and opportunities to make images of great jumps.


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