Picture a tiny, 20-passenger airplane cruising at an altitude of 13,000 feet. Its seats are two long benches, its rear end an open tailgate. Its passengers, outfitted in parachutes and multi-colored jumpsuits, leap from the tailgate one by one into three miles of open air below.
Now imagine you’re the guy filming the action. You’re in a separate, smaller plane – the PAC-750, a nine-passenger utility aircraft – following closely behind. And because the only good angle is through the plane’s open side door – yes, the open door – you find yourself crouched on the floor with the camera, head and shoulders sticking out into the 100 mph relative wind.
They do say, after all, that a good cameraman is the one who gets the shot.
This particular cameraman was Dino “DJ” Stokes, a 2007 Film grad, and the shot was for SkyLife, a new extreme, documentary-style reality show. SkyLife’s three-part pilot series, filmed just an hour north of Orlando at Skydive DeLand, also features the work of three other Full Sail Film grads: Sebastian Cuevas Minotta, Anna Trujillo Marsiglia, and Dagen Davis.
SkyLife airs Sunday, May 31 on NBC Sports at 11:00 AM (EST), and offers an intimate look into the unique lives and personalities of skydiving folk. “It covers skydiving in a broad sense,” explains Anna. “But it also follows the stories of some professional skydivers and first-time jumpers. As the name suggests, it’s about life in the sky.”
Skydiving exists inside an anomalous culture. Jumpers live all over the world; some are doctors or lawyers, others are nine-to-fivers, and some are eccentric transients who live in tents and pack parachutes for a living. They’re a diverse bunch for sure, but they share a love of adventure and a thirst for adrenaline – and at 13,000 feet, that’s all that matters.
The premise for the show developed after a bit of creative collaboration between Skydive DeLand owner Bob Hallett and organizer Hal Spence. “We’ve been thinking about it for years,” Bob explains, “and we just didn’t know how to do it.” Eventually, in typical one-thing-led-to-another fashion, the pair teamed up with Nashville-based director Kevan Cyka and music industry professional Billy Chapin, and the foursome started making plans. Billy gathered his portion of the crew, and Kevan reached out to Full Sail’s Career Development department for the rest.
DJ and Sebastian were recruited to operate cameras, Dagen served as a digital imaging technician, and Anna worked as a production assistant. Dagen’s roles included uploading footage onto hard drives and organizing footage for post-production. “I managed all things digital on set (such as camera battery life, GoPro camera life) to make sure there was no stoppage in shooting,” he explains. As the PA, Anna was responsible for getting waivers signed, wrangling talent, and slating for the cameras.
“There’s a lot more legwork that goes into producing for television than, say, a corporate gig. I feel like everything I have done until now just kind of led up to this, and prepared me for the hectic, reality TV style of this show,” says Sebastian.
The specific nature of the show presented logistical challenges, too. From weather concerns (no skydiving allowed on cloudy or rainy days) to coordinating ultra-precise aerial cinematography, there was little room for reshoots. “As you know, time is money,” explains Hal. “Judiciously using the time during the day is really important for a project like this. In skydiving, it’s all about the weather. You can’t squander a day just goofing around with blue sky and find out the next day it’s raining.”
“[The crew] came through for us, though. They knew exactly what they wanted to do, and we didn’t have to do a whole lot of retakes. We got almost everything the first time. Easier on everybody that way.”
And despite the hectic pace, there were plenty of exciting and fun moments. “One of my favorite shots,” Anna recalls, “was when we were standing in the middle of the landing field while the jumpers flew right by us. I’m excited to see how those turned out in the edit.”
Sebastian, who filmed alongside DJ in the PAC-750, says his most vivid memory took place in the air. “After the skydivers jumped, we had to get back to the runway asap, and so – I had no idea this was going to happen – the pilot took a straight nosedive. My camera floated in front of me, and as he started pulling out, the camera felt like it weighed a ton. It was really cool.”
Even Hal, a national skydiving competitor with thousands of jumps under his belt, got a thrill from working on the show. “It was an awesome experience. We had [DJ and Sebastian] outfitted with parachutes, and gave them an emergency course on what to do if they fell out of the aircraft. I know it was a fun experience for them, probably a little frightening, but I wouldn’t blame them for that. And you know what? For two non-skydivers to take that leap of faith, to put a rig on, doors open … those are professionals who are interested in getting the job done.”
Want to see the final product? Be sure to watch the SkyLife premier this Sunday on NBC Sports. Subsequent pilot episodes will air on following Sundays in June.