Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 40 seconds.
On May 13, the CBS reality TV show Survivor wrapped up its 40th season, marking an incredible 20 years on the air by awarding a $2 million grand prize to sole survivor Tony Vlachos. Since its first season in Borneo, to the most recent seasons in Fiji, Survivor has taken viewers around the world, documenting its contestants’ dramatic conflicts against extraordinary natural backdrops. And what better way to take in those backdrops than by helicopter?
From the beginning, aerial filming has been part of Survivor’s winning formula — providing the scenic context for its human struggles. In recent years, drones have taken up some of this labor, as they have in the film and television business more generally. But for the most breathtaking sequences — shots that transport the viewers at home to the show’s exotic locations — there’s still no substitute for a helicopter. That’s where pilot Ken Gray and cameraman David Alan Arnold come in.
Gray has been flying camera helicopters for the show since season nine, Survivor: Vanuatu. He’s an Australian who grew up as the son of missionaries in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where he became conversant in the local creole language, Tok Pisin. This background served him surprisingly well when he first showed up on location in the neighboring Pacific island of Vanuatu.
“I get there, and I would just say half a sentence, and [the locals] would say to me, ‘Oh you man belong PNG’ — they could pick my accent,” he recalled. “So it was this absolute unexpected bonus that I could communicate with the locals.”
Flying in Vanuatu, filming around active volcanoes, Gray was soon hooked, and the producers were equally glad to have him on board. So he came back for the next season, in Palau, and again for season 13, when the show returned to the Pacific after a two-season stint in Central America. He has flown for almost every season since.
Hopscotching between countries hasn’t been a simple matter. The show typically contracts with local helicopter operators everywhere it goes; in order to fly their aircraft, Gray must obtain a local pilot license and be added to their operating certificate.
The bureaucratic hoops are endless — and that’s on top of all the operational challenges associated with the show’s remote locations.
“Pretty much everywhere we go, there’s all of these issues that we deal with, but that just makes it such a great adventure,” Gray said.
Arnold joined the show starting with season 23 in Samoa. Growing up in a small town in Florida, Arnold never imagined a career filming from helicopters, but he knew he wanted to work in the entertainment business. “I physically could not have been further away from Hollywood in the contiguous 48 states!” he recalled. “So this was an absurd notion. I had no clue how I was going to make this happen.”
Nevertheless, Arnold began going through the phone book, looking for any companies in his area with even a tangential connection to film or television. By chance, he stumbled on Wescam, which was using its new gyro-stabilized cameras for aerial filming.
“Unbeknownst to me, behind this door that I was knocking on, was literally this group of people that were working on all of the biggest TV shows and movies,” he said. “And they brought me into their circle, just right off the street.” Despite having no relevant experience, Arnold so impressed his employers with his work ethic and hunger to learn that they began teaching him the business — and he was off and running. Besides Survivor, Arnold has shot for a number of films, sporting events, and TV shows, including The Deadliest Catch.
For Gray and Arnold, capturing their footage is a team effort. “I typically have a very narrow field of view with a telephoto lens,” Arnold explained. “Because [Gray] is looking at the entire world outside of the aircraft, we can capture so much that I would never be able to find because I’m busy steering the camera.”
So, for example, Gray will spot a wave exploding in the wind, and line up the aircraft in such a way that sunlight illuminates the spray. “I steer the camera to 10 o’clock, I find the wave, and I zoom in,” said Arnold. “Typically [Gray] is looking around the line of sight of the camera, so he’ll say come to the right, there’s a bunch of rocks and the seagulls are about to fly off it. So I pan the camera to the right, and sure enough, there are the rocks and the birds.”
On a typical day of shooting, Gray and Arnold will take to the air and “go hunting” — seeking out waterfalls and clouds, dolphins and whales. They’re continually experimenting with new techniques and different angles, like descending shots from 14,000 feet that are the real-life equivalent of zooming into the Survivor beach on Google Earth.
“What we do is try to give stuff that the drone can’t do,” Gray said. “The way I see it, we’re basically flying a big paintbrush in the sky. We’re just continually trying different things, and I absolutely love it.”
If this sounds like a dream job to you, Gray and Arnold would be the first to agree. Their good fortune isn’t lost on either of them.
“Ken will literally at least once a day say, ‘Dave, are we made for this job or is this job made for us?'” Arnold said. “He’s been on the show longer than I have, and not even for a second does he take it for granted how magical this experience is, to be able to go out and fly over these incredibly stunning locations.” (Gray doesn’t disagree, but points out that the phrasing might be Arnold’s.)
And the scenic locations are only part of what makes the job so special. There’s also the camaraderie of working with Survivor’s talented, hard-working production team to create each new season of this cultural sensation — every detail of which must be kept absolutely secret until it airs.
“Survivor is an amazing thing to just witness; to be a part of,” Arnold said. “It’s just an amazing thing to witness the spectacular natural beauty of the show . . . and see all of that plus this incredible strategic human struggle of man against nature on that beach, which then culminates in this year a $2 million prize — just awesome.”