Big camera idea takes off

High-flyers: Ex-All Black great Richie McCaw with John Coyle's aerial camera system on a Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters chopper

An invention by a Queenstowner has played a hidden role behind the shooting of many of the movie industry’s biggest blockbusters. John Coyle, who’s also helped expose New Zealand’s scenery around the world, discusses his aerial camera systems with Philip Chandler

Today’s New Zealand launch of a Disney kids’ movie highlighting the country’s scenery owes much to a Queenstowner’s inventiveness.

The panoramas for Pete’s Dragon were shot by an aerial camera system designed and developed by local American John Coyle.

He and Queenstown film equipment provider Brett Mills own Queenstown Camera Systems, which rents out two Shotover camera systems for shoots around NZ and worldwide.

A helicopter using the same gyro-stabilised system also captured ex-All Black captain Richie McCaw gliding for the movie Chasing Great which is also currently screening in NZ cinemas.

For many of these shoots, renowned local pilot Alfie Speight was at the controls as the aerial camera system was deployed.

Coyle’s particularly proud of camera work on Pete’s Dragon showing the computer-generated Elliot, the dragon, swooping through the stunning scenery.

“The camera operator and the helicopter pilot had to imagine this flying dragon coming down and doing his little flip.”

A mechanical engineer, Coyle says his interest in aerial camera systems was sparked in the early 1990s in the United States.

“The company I worked for designed prototype equipment and I met a guy who needed something stabilised on an airship.

“That’s how it started.”

He then formed his first aerial camera company Cineflex, which held TV cameras for shooting sporting events, wildlife documentaries and also movies.

Britain’s BBC used it for its stunning wildlife productions, in particular.

“The helicopter’s able to fly far enough away from the animals, and the lenses can zoom in so far that the animals don’t get disturbed in their natural habitat.”

Coyle sold his company in California.

“I had some customers in NZ so I’d been down here a few times and I thought it would be a good place to raise a family.”

He shifted to Queenstown with his wife and family in 2007.

Living on Lower Shotover Road and being in the film industry inspired the name for his new company, Shotover Camera Systems.

“The system was made big enough to hold movie cameras and lenses which are much bigger than TV ones.”

The secret was to use ultra-light carbon fibre for the camera structure to still allow the chopper to carry a full load of passengers and fuel.

Nose for good gear: John Coyle (right) with his go-to Queenstown pilot Alfie Speight in 2011
Nose for good gear: John Coyle (right) with his go-to Queenstown pilot Alfie Speight in 2011

Coyle sold Shotover Camera Systems to Los Angeles company, Helinet Aviation, four years ago.

“I’m out of the gimbal-design business. I’ve done it for 20 years, ‘m done with it – that’s the reason I sold.”

However, by renting out two aerial camera systems, he’s kept his hand in.

Just this week he was in Auckland where a system will be rented out for a shark epic, Meg, starring Jason Statham and Ruby Rose.

Coyle says he doesn’t have a copyright on his systems.

“There are competitors who’ve been around longer, but I think I was a little more innovative – now they’re copying me.”

If proof’s needed, his system’s been used on heaps of big box-office movies.

Think Suicide Squad, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers 4, Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious 7.

Asked a favourite, he singles out the remake of NZ movie Goodbye Pork Pie – “just because I think it’s a classic”.

Coyle’s not a name-dropper but says he enjoyed meeting mega-director, producer and explorer James Cameron, whom he helped for a Tourism NZ campaign shoot near Glenorchy in January.

“He’s also an engineer – he showed quite a bit of interest in some of the things I’ve designed.

“He’s very friendly and personable – not one of these stuck-up guys.”

The Queenstowner says his newest project is designing sporting equipment, which he’s getting a patent for.

Though you could say Coyle’s coy about discussing it just yet.