David Alan Arnold’s career as an aerial photographer couldn’t have had a more humble beginning.
Arnold didn’t have a college degree, let alone any aviation experience. He did have pluck, though.
He landed a job as part of the cleaning crew at Wescam, maker of gyro-stabilized cameras. One day he stayed up all night giving the company’s shop a thorough cleaning.
“The place looked so different the next day,” the Emmy-nominated camera man recalls. His boss noticed the change, too.
“He pointed to me and said, ‘You’re going with me on my next shoot,’” Arnold recalls. “I literally was hired because of my attitude, my willingness to work hard and not complain.”
It wasn’t easy from there. He gave himself a crash course in the gyro-stabilized cameras he routinely uses today.
“I was a slow study,” he says. He learned by reciting text from a camera’s maintenance manual (“which read like the phone book”) into a tape reporter. He listened to those recordings over and again.
“Through repetition I started to soak it up,” he says, adding co-workers started consulting with him on the equipment thanks to his bootstrap education.
Within six months he was up in the air with the Wescam, technology built to smooth out helicopter vibration. He started shooting sporting events like the U.S. Open and NFL games. He even contributed footage to the 1999 Bond film “The World Is Not Enough.’
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Today, the L.A. based camera man captures a variety of content from his aerial lens: baseball games, breaking news, reality programs (“Survivor,” “Deadliest Catch”). You know those swooping aerial shots showcased on “The Bachelor?” Chances are Arnold made them happen.
“I get around,” says Arnold, who offer a window into his profession via his Instagram account. “What you see on Instagram is what I do every day.”
He generally works with just the helicopter pilot. The average show assignment will have them in the air for about six hours of flight time. He’ll catch the sun emerging over the top of tall building or convey the dramatic scope of a reality show’s emotional peak.
“I’ve developed a very unique skill … you wanna send someone to shoot the Super Bowl or a remote Alaska wilderness. I’m one of the few who do it,” he says.
It’s not easy. Nor is it safe. Some of his peers have lost their lives shooting these events. He considers himself lucky for not sharing a similar fate.
“I certainly have not been smart about the dangerous parts of my career. I’ve made more mistakes that I can count,” he says.
Facing danger is part of the human condition, he says.
“I think there is a side of the human spirit that is fed by adventure and a moral quest and challenge. Everybody yearns for that,” he says.
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Arnold has plenty of creative control when he’s high in the sky. He generally gets few specific directions when given an assignment. Consider his working relationship with TV director Chip Dean.
“He doesn’t really say much except, ‘I want this shot for this time in the show. You go out and get me three ‘wow’ shots of the city. He doesn’t tell me how to do it,” he says. “98 percent of the time they just let us do what we want.”
The rise of drone technology allows TV shows to gain even more airborne vistas for their programming. Fans notice them while watching their favorite football team on Fall Sundays. Shouldn’t Arnold be threatened by his new, robotic counterparts?
Not in the least. He says they complement his work.
Part of Arnold’s job is watching TV shows to get a better feel for his camera work and what directors may need from him. It’s one explanation as to why he’s become a Kardashian fan. That’s not the only reason, though.
“They’re definitely flawed, just like me. Their lives are different, but it’s kind of fun to look around [their world],” he says.
Arnold’s new book, “Help From Above,” is available for pre-order now.