The first article in a new series looking behind the scenes at outrageous skydiving stunts – Joe Jennings explains how he made a living room fly…
But first, the story itself, this is an extract from an article Joe wrote for Palos Verdes Pulse, a lifestyle digital magazine…
Imagine yourself sitting on a couch with a heavy-duty strap twisted across your lap like a seatbelt… You, the couch, and your entire living room are anchored to a 2,500 pound platform made of welded steel, and you’re in free fall over the desert. Five thousand feet above ground and approximately 20 seconds before impact, you release the strap, but it doesn’t move.
Five years ago, I put a good friend into this exact predicament.
In college, I studied business management and Spanish intending to build a career in South America, so naturally I became a skydiving cameraman in Southern California! Today, almost thirty years later, producers contact me when they have a story to tell with people and/or objects falling through the sky. Normally, they’ll have a shot list or storyboards and I help them to coordinate whatever they need to get the job done
When I’m asked what I love most about my job, my job, hands down, it’s teaming up with friends to design, build, or modify an “object”, to then drop it from an airplane or helicopter to film in free fall. It’s a combination of geeking out on fluid dynamics, and the pure rush of crashing things into the ground from two miles up. I like to brag that we can make a car stay upright in free fall. No other team has accomplished this without special effects or parachutes, and we’ve done it dozens of times!
In 2015, NVIDIA asked if we could make an entire living room fly.The campaign to promote the NVIDIA “Shield” streaming device, was called “Rule The Living Room”; heroic stories of average people in precarious situations taking command of their living rooms. In our story, a guy is watching TV with his cat when a huge door opens behind them and the entire room falls into the sky. He casually dons a helmet and settles in for the ride.
Check it out…
Rule the Living Room commercial
I remember my mind racing through a hundred details, many of them unknowns. Ultimately, we designed a 2500 pound rectangular platform of welded steel beams, with a floor made of steel mesh and sheet metal, and four large fairings, disguised as shelves, to keep everything upright. The furniture and every part of the room was locked in place and reinforced to tolerate hurricane strength winds from any direction.
The people I team up with on projects like this remind me of characters in the movie, The Right Stuff. They’re smart, gritty, accomplished, and a big part of why I love doing these things. My go-to guy for all things complex is Steve Curtis, a world champion skydiver from Arizona who reminds me of the desert itself, and who never ever stops moving. As much as I love hard work, next to Steve, I feel like a slug. The guy we selected to ride the living room is Jeff Provenzano, a living legend, known worldwide as one of today’s great skydivers, and one of the nicest guys I know.
All things going well, Jeff’s job was pretty easy, no fancy flying, just show up, be cool, and kick back on the couch. To stay in place, he wore two straps tight across his lap twisted together in one hand. It’s a simple restraint that works every time, just let go and you’re free. He had a Cypres AAD, and bright minds had pondered every imaginable problem he might encounter, so what could possibly go wrong?! That’s the thing, you have to do the stunt to find out, and if something does go wrong it will happen fast and require a fast response. Jeff’s real job was to manage the unknowns and to stay alive.
ONE MINUTE TO DROP
2.5 miles above ground, the tail of the C130 opened wide and we took our positions. The loadmaster, who was on intercom with the pilot and crew, began to give hand signals. One minute, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, then a countdown from 10. I can hardly describe the rush of adrenalin I felt at that moment, standing on the tailgate of a giant airplane, cameras ready, all systems go. A month of building, welding, meetings, all-nighters, beer, coffee, and junk food, all boiling down to one minute of free fall. The intensity was almost overwhelming, but a few seconds before exit, it all transformed into a kind of focus that feels silent and calm. It’s a familiar feeling I describe as being on “autopilot”.
Five seconds before exit, nothing moved and all eyes were on the loadmaster as he counted down. The airplane was flying nose-up, and the living room held in place on rollers by a single quick-release strap controlled by Steve. At zero, the loadmaster signalled go and Steve released the platform. It rolled fast and literally pushed me off the tailgate and into the air.
The launch was clean and fast and the living room settled upright into free fall. Just seconds out the door, by the way my body responded, I knew the room was going to fall faster than 120mph, in fact, it fell closer to 140mph, which is fast but manageable. And it flew beautifully, rocking back and forth as the fairings controlled its pitch and roll to keep it upright.
Clearly Jeff was relaxed and in character, shifting occasionally, pointing the remote, and doing what a relaxed guy does while I buzzed around capturing a variety of angles. We were ecstatic because, even if we didn’t get another jump, we’d given our clients everything they needed to tell their story and, if it wasn’t for the ground, we could have kept going! Jeff’s strict break-off altitude was 5,000 feet to give him extra time to deal with any issues.
So, at 5,000 feet, Jeff released his seatbelt and came face to face with a very dangerous unknown, something we hadn’t considered. The seatbelt didn’t budge and he couldn’t move. The knot in his lap was the plastic-covered heavy-duty straps sticking together. They’d flown apart on every test, but we hadn’t considered how long and how tightly Jeff was holding them inside the airplane and in the air.
Jeff figured it out and unpeeled the straps from each other then pulled them apart one twist at a time. The onboard camera next to him captured everything and it became part of the story. Altogether, it took Jeff about 7 seconds to free himself. When we landed, I asked if he still thought we were paying him too much.
The following day, we expected the second living room to perform like the first one. This time, however, one of the roller wheels on the airplane seized up and scraped against the steel frame as it rolled by causing it to tip off of the tailgate into a steep and unbalanced dive. The platform was designed to correct for some roll and pitch, but if it began to tumble, the weight and inertia would entirely overpower the fairings.
Jeff knew the exit was blown, but the room was built like a tank with everything locked down or encased in steel frames, so he decided to ride it out. In free fall, staying with a tumbling object is like riding a bull on an extremely windy day. Blasts of wind come from every direction as centrifugal forces work to pry you out of your seat. So as the room began to tumble, Jeff braced himself and held tight to his seatbelt.
He intended to hang on until 5,000 feet but a tuba caught his attention as the cable holding it in place wiggled loose. He thought the cable would hold, but the tuba whipped around violently and then broke off and flew away. He could see other parts of the room beginning to come loose, so he released the grip on his seatbelt and the centrifugal force lifted him out of his seat and into the air.
I remember opening my canopy feeling disappointed that the room had tumbled out of control. It hurts to design and build something only to watch it fail. But when the director and agency writers saw the footage, they were thrilled. The second room expanded the story with an urgency and intensity they loved. Sometimes, when a plan goes down the tubes, the world gives you something even better.
Behind the scenes
The above is an extract from an article I was asked to write about my work for a local lifestyle magazine. I had been reading A Promised Land by Barack Obama and thought I’d try to emulate his storytelling style. He wrote for people like me who know almost nothing about government, and I wrote for wuffos – so in these notes I’ll try to answer some skydiver questions…
There are lots of unknowns around building any object to fall right side up, so we start with the big picture and then work our way through the details as we build. Usually, I’ll draw a basic design and present it to production for approval knowing we’ll need to make adjustments as we build. To stay upright, whatever we build should be balanced and have a low center of gravity with as much drag topside as possible, kind of like a badminton birdie. Then we measure the bottom surface area and fairings to pencil out the weight needed to make it fall at least 120mph. I like 120 or even a bit slower because it gives us more time in free fall. Faster is OK because we can always fly head down, but too slow is a total bummer. Nothing sucks like going low on an object we spent weeks building.
Living Room Designs
When we decided to drop cars for Good Stuff in ’96, we expected them to fall pretty much straight down. Our very first car, however, told us an entirely different story. It tracked all over the sky in any random direction it wanted, and its big flat surface areas made it super-efficient so we chased after it, then it’d turn around and chase after us. The living rooms move around a lot like a car and I’ve filmed lots of cars, so I can tell by the angle they are rocking or tumbling which way they’ll most likely travel and I can respond quickly. I think it’s kind of a unique skill set.
For the opening sequence of Good Stuff, we built two small living rooms to push from a Skyvan. The design was pretty simple with fat steel beams welded into the shape of the letter ‘I’, with the furniture and everything else strapped and bolted onto it. I think it weighed about 800 kilos completely built with two seated skydivers. The three NVIDIA living rooms were almost twice as big, over 1,500 kilos and needed a floor. Part of the floor was sheet metal and part of it was steel mesh to act as sort of a center vent.
I can tell by the angle cars are tumbling which way they’ll most likely travel and I can respond quickly. I think it’s kind of a unique skill set
Photo by Joe Jennings
When I wrote about coffee, beer, cigarettes, and all-nighters, I wasn’t kidding. We had about a week and a half to shop for steel, build the platforms, and paint them black, then another week to build everything onto them. As usual, Steve Curtis was pretty much superhuman about getting them done and delivered. If you’re an aerial stunt coordinator with a complex project, or just need a badass skydiver, hire Steve once and you’ll know what I mean.
The second welder was Jeremy Jackson, who was also a machine. One night he cut his hand wide open, and Steve offered to stitch it up. They decided on Crazy Glue and Jeremy was back to work in 20 minutes.
Photo by Joe Jennings
There was also a third living room rigged with a parachute that was left out of the commercial. In the original story, a parachute opens and our hero glides along, victoriously ruling his living room. I’m guessing it wasn’t included in the final edit because the director loved the free fall living rooms crashing into the desert. I love that kind of stuff too.
The parachute living room was built with attachment points and a small platform for the GPS guided parachute system provided by Wamore Inc. We also built a removable shield to protect Jeff from being struck by any part of the parachute system as it deployed. In hindsight, I’m glad we made the shield because out the door, the drogue was burbled and the D-bag and control panel swung around as the parachute slowly extracted and deployed. I don’t think anything hit the shield, but I’m glad it was there. When the parachute successfully deployed, Jeff removed the shield and tossed it away, then he cruised along for maybe five or six minutes just chilling in his GPS guided parachute living room, a very rare experience indeed. At about 900 meters, he stood up to face me and jumped off to deploy his own parachute. I followed the living room to the landing area where it flared and landed softly right on target. It was amazing and Jeff could have safely landed with it.
I honestly haven’t counted how many objects I’ve filmed in free fall or under canopy, but I’m sure it’s 1,000+ and maybe closer to 2,000 because I’ve been doing so much of this since 1992. It started with almost 200 reinforced pizza boxes that we filmed for local pizza stores around the world. I think the most outrageous object I’ve ever filmed in free fall was a locked cage pushed out of a C-123. Suspended inside was master magician and escape artist, Robert Gallup, who was shackled and stuffed into a padlocked bag without a parachute. His task was to escape the chains, get out of the bag, open the cage door, and then clip a parachute to his chest and bail out. I was just one of the camera flyers on that project, but what an insane thing to witness! I really mean it when I say that by the grace of god, Robert is alive today. I think he had 100 jumps at the time.
When I was making Good Stuff, one of my main co-conspirators and advisors at Skydive Arizona was Bryan Burke. I think he enjoyed dropping objects as much as I do and whenever I’d approach him with some new idea, he’d give it some thought and say, “What could possibly go wrong?”. Over time it became kind of a mantra for us as we explored new things and contemplated every hazard we could imagine. Dropping and filming things gave us loads of data, and over time we just got better at it, but we certainly haven’t perfected any of this, so I doubt we’ll take tandem students for free fall car rides anytime soon.
So that’s how to make a living room fly. When you’re challenged with a big idea, bite off more than you can chew, then bring in good people and chew hard.
Video journey, making the commercial
Here are some of the key people who worked on the NVIDIA project with me:
- Bryan Burke – Ground crew / spotter
- Greg Gasson – Second camera flyer
- Mark “Trunk” Kirschenbaum – POV cameras
- Steve Curtis – Co-coordinator, builder
- Jeremy Jackson – Builder / welder
- International Air Response – C-130
- John Limbaugh – Loadmaster
- Jeff Provenzano – Living room rider
- Sam Najah – Producer
- Adele Amos – AZ producer
- AKQA – Agency
- Simone Nobili – Concept
- David Dao – Director
- NVIDIA – Client
More of Joe Jennings
- Original ‘Come Fly with Me’ article, written for whuffos
- more detail for Joe Jennings on his website, Facebook page, Instagram and Youtube accounts
And don’t miss our latest article on Joe! 😃