Mystery film crew comes to IYK

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Mystery film crew comes to IYKWhile residents across the nation shelter in place in hopes of reducing COVID-19 outbreaks — choosing to endure financial hardship and isolation in exchange for protecting human life — many point to the difficulty in finding any associated silver linings.

But V/SPEED co-founders Mike Knockenhauer and Greg Wilson have found at least one — capturing visual documentation of our natural history while some of those high-profile venues are empty of tourist traffic.

Like many operations staging out of Inyokern Airport — whose unique location offers entree into diverse geography under ideal weather conditions and restricted airspace — the mission of this visiting nine-man film crew was shrouded in a degree of mystery.

Although crew members did not disclose the details of their project, they shared freely about their collective commitment to aviation, cinematography, and affording the public a glimpse of the seldom-seen wonders in our world.

“V/SPEED has the tools and the passion to tell stories in, about and from the sky,” states the company’s website. Their flagship system is mounted on an L-39 Jet, which made a dramatic appearance at IYK Saturday afternoon.

The V/SPEED crew has produced air-to-air footage for documentaries, commercials and archival footage of aircraft.

But the focus of this project will not be in the air, rather on our topography — something that has been captured in increasing detail and splendor as technology develops.

“Helicopters are incredible machines. Satellite images are awesome. All of these things give you some concept of what our world looks like,” said Knockenhaur.

“But up until now, most of these images are either quite close or very far. We shoot differently from anything you’ve ever seen. Our process allows you to see things from a new range of altitudes and speeds, helping to make sense of vast features and regions” — while also allowing the viewer to experience the sights with just the right context and pacing.

“This is about a completely new perspective on the phenomena and locations we are shooting,” said Knockenhaur. “As far as I can tell, nothing like this has ever been done before.”

“All the photographers in our crew are serious cinematographers and directors in their own right [and Emmy/Oscar winners, to boot]. This is just a tool — a different crane,” he said. “Our client says that this is the ‘biggest, fastest dolly in the world.’”

“We are photographing the planet in hopes of making a portrait of what we love,” said Wilson, director of photography.

Wilson started in the industry as a photographer for National Geographic. But throughout his career he has built up his expertise in as many disciplines as possible. Like the key members of his crew, he now possesses expertise in both aviation and cinematography.

“Either one is a pretty rare skill set,” he acknowledged. Merging the two is groundbreaking enough that it’s difficult to identify any other pioneering influences in their craft.

Wilson and Knockenhauer formed V/SPEED based on a shared passion for the two disciplines. “We wanted to explore and expand and just see where we could take things.”

It led them to an intersection of meteorology, conservation and storytelling — a burgeoning new space in filmmaking.

“Nothing close to what we are attempting has been accomplished,” said Wilson. “We are putting cameras where they have never been, at speeds that have never been possible, all with the hope of bringing people a new experience.”

On their crew is Craig Hosking — generally conceded as the greatest living aerial coordinator/director. (Check out his IMDB movie credits — which boast some of the most ambitious achievements in modern cinema.)

The demands of their work require intense technical precision on top of all the artistic elements that go into film capture.

“When we bring our pilots on board, we tell them, ‘We don’t fly airplanes, we fly cameras,” said Knockenhaur.

“It’s some of the most technical flying I’ve ever done,” said retired Naval Aviator John Flanagan — who is incidentally no stranger to China Lake.

His 10 years in the military included some 2,700 flight hours in aircraft such as the F-14, F-16N and A-4 as an adversary pilot for the Top Gun school.

“My flying in the past was mission oriented,” he said. “But it didn’t necessarily allow me to give something back in the same way I can now.” Unlike much of the sensitive work in the military, the final product here can hopefully be shared to a broader audience.

Flanagan also agreed that fusing photography with flying has been a challenge. “I will say it’s been an honor to learn from Craig Hosking. He’s the best in the world.”

Producer Brandon Taylor has worked in the filming industry since he was 13 — when his father began bringing him along on shoots. Twenty-seven years later, he is grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime job.

“Actually, even that is misleading. The truth is most people never have this kind of opportunity — the ability to capture our planet from this perspective. This is going to blow people’s hair back. It’s just awe-inspiring.”

Taylor noted that beyond the advantages of gaining insight into the beauties of our world, and our role as its stewards, “You also get a sense of your place in a cosmic scale — how small we are, how brief our time is. It’s a special, incredible mission to be able to film this.”

He also addressed the hidden advantage of park closures.

“This has been a time of incredible hardship for billions of people. But the absence of tourists is a strange blessing in being able to record them.

“I think maybe it increases our mandate, because it also gives us a positive outcome from all of this.”

“It’s a mission we all take very seriously,” said Mike Knockenhauer. “We have had the opportunity to be in some areas that, frankly, no one else has access to. When granted that access you accept a big responsibility.”

He hopes the lockdown associated with COVID-19 is an occurrence that “happens only once in forever. But we also know that it’s an opportunity that cannot be wasted.”

“This is a great business opportunity for IYK, but the project they are working on is incredible,” said Scott Seymour, general manager of the airport. “It is just damn cool what they are doing.”

IYK has hosted hundreds of film and commercial shoots over the years, including some breathtaking scenes from the highly anticipated Top Gun 2. But with the halt in the filming industry, V/SPEED is the first crew to make an appearance at the airport this year.

“So I was already excited just to hear V/SPEED was coming,” said Seymour. “Hearing about what they are working on, though, I feel honored that Inyokern Airport will be able to play a role. We are doing everything we can to accommodate them.”

Seymour noted that Hosking’s reputation is known even outside of Hollywood. “We’ve had the privilege of working with him on dozens of projects at Inyokern. If you read his biography you’ll see that he’s accomplished some incredible feats. I believe he is one of the only guys in the world to successfully land a plane upside down.”

For the benefit of readers who are not well-versed in aviation lingo (quite possibly the minority in our community), we share the following explanation of the source material for this visiting film crew’s name:

V-Speeds \ ˈvi-ˈspēds \ are the standard reference velocities unique to each aircraft — they define airspeeds that are critical for operation. For example, Vso is the stalling speed of the aircraft when it is in the landing configuration … flaps and landing gear extended, and Vr is the speed for rotation in a jet — when the nose is raised to a specified pitch angle during the takeoff roll.

For more information on the award-winning team of professionals and their innovative new system, see vspeed.us.

Pictured: Greg Wilson, Mike Knockenhauer, John Flanagan and David Robinson with the VJet at Inyokern Airport. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-05-08