Catching up with… Tom Sanders
Tom has been a legend in skydiving photography since he started jumping in 1978, and started taking photos of the sport the same year.
Tom Sanders jumping with a 35mm movie camera during the filming of the feature film Stealth, near Kaena Point on the North Shore of Oahu Island.
Photo by Dave ‘Clem’ Major
His lengthy career involving the stunt coordination and filming of skydiving, BASE jumping and hang-gliding has included four James Bond movie sequences, Point Break, the Rise of the Silver Surfer, George Bush’s AFF, and countless commercials such as Sony, Mountain Dew and Burger King. Tom produced, directed and filmed a movie called ‘Over The Edge’ about skydiving, BASE jumping and hang-gliding, which won first place in every category entered and many additional awards.
Tom was one of the first skydivers to jump with video equipment (it was a 22 lb chest mounted VCR and a separate camera), and the first to transmit a live skydiving video at the iconic demonstration jump at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
National Geographic TV has done three shows featuring Tom’s work. He was awarded the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service from the United States Parachute Association and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019.
Tom being inducted in the Skydiving Hall of Fame, Skydive Perris, 2019
Photo by Dennis Sattler
Being inducted in the Skydiving Hall of Fame is only the last in a long list of awards that you received over the years for your work, but it’s a very important one. How do you feel about it?
It is a very big honor to be inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame. There are many I believe that belong in there before me but hopefully we can get them in soon. I am thrilled that my contributions to skydiving were deemed important.
Example of Tom’s first skydiving photography – from a plane- mounted camera
You started your company, Aerial Focus, 40 years ago, specializing in aerial photography. How challenging was it to start a business in such a field?
I was pretty much inventing a business so everything was new but there was also no competition like you find in most professions. I was fortunate that I had a good idea and was able to make it work. Getting permission to mount cameras on the aircraft to take photos was all new to me and fortunately the photos were a big hit. The parachute centers loved it because I paid them a commission but that was our Facebook back then.
Students would take their photos and show them to their friends and many decided to make a jump. The photos were a great promotion for the DZ, and the income allowed me to quit my job as a carpenter and work full time as a skydiving photographer, which was pretty non-existent in 1978. Some guys like Carl Boenish or Rande Deluca could survive on high-end skydiving jobs but the student and recreational skydivers had not been a reliable source of income until I started Sport Shots, which I soon changed to Aerial Focus.
1988 Olympic Skydiving Exhibition Jump
What was the most difficult aspect of the first live skydiving video transmission of the Opening Ceremony of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul?
The most difficult aspect was having a portable never before designed live transmission set-up that could work with the major world TV coverage all fighting for bandwidth for signals. Our systems worked well during practice at the DZ or even in Seoul during practice jumps but with all the major TV coverage at the Olympics our system was struggling to compete even though we had a dedicated frequency, our signal was stepped on a bit.
Whether it’s recording skydiving history over the Olympic Stadium, honoring a US President around the globe, paying tribute to HM King over Thailand, creating a signature aerial sequence for a feature film, or parting the mist at Angel Falls… Tom Sanders is a consummate professional and a warm-hearted friend
Patrick Swayze above Skydive Perris during the filming of Point Break.
Most of the filming was done at Lake Powell without Patrick because he was working with the actors on the ‘first unit’. After he was done with that Tom and Ray Cottingham shot some scenes in Perris and California City with him.
You’ve worked with a lot of stars for different movies. Which movie is your favorite and why? Which actor/actress did you enjoy working with the most?
Normally the stunt crew or second unit has little or NO interaction with the actors. I did get to meet Tom Cruise on a non-filming jumping situation and Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes because they were involved a little with the stunts in Point Break and Drop Zone. I met the main actors on Hawaii Five 0 as well but really their involvement is rare. Patrick Swayze was my favorite. He was super nice and loved to skydive. He was a natural and fun to be around.
I was inspired by Tom’s work on great films like Point Break and of course the 007, James Bond, epic aerial sequences. Tom’s film work is still some of the most memorable skydiving ever to hit the big screen
Which commercial was your favorite one to shoot? What about the most difficult?
A SONY commercial was my favorite because it was very challenging and the end result was really awesome.
Making of SONY Commercial
The SONY and Yamaha were very similar in many ways but the SONY involved many aspects all in one job. Hidden parachutes, in freefall with unusual objects. Different rigging for every shot. Both were very challenging, potentially very dangerous but my crew nailed it and they both went perfectly smooth with no close calls or fails.
Yamaha Commercial – Behind the Scenes
I was lucky enough to meet and work with Tom early in my camera career. His years of experience and attention to details makes every job more efficient, not to mention safer
Tom named this way to get a shot, the ‘Dangle Cam’ 🙂 Dave ‘Clem’ Major and Tom hung under the helicopter with their normal skydiving camera system. At 8,000 feet their riggers, Jake Brake, Jake Lombard, Moe Viletto and Shoobie Knutson, would release the Yamaha motor scooter so it would fall into the frame of our movie cameras. The director wanted a shot of a motorcycle falling into the frame…. This is how Tom approached getting the shot. They had radio contact with the riggers, they gave a roll camera and released the scooter.
Can you tell us about the evolution of your camera gear from the beginning?
In 1978 there was no consumer video equipment available. Skydiving cameramen would use a 35mm still camera with 36 frames of film available and the higher end guys would also jump with either a 16mm or 35mm movie camera. I learned under the guidance of a legend, Ray Cottingham.
I was already making a solid living by filming students with cameras mounted on the plane or shooting out the emergency exit window on a DC-3. Then I added a still camera to my helmet. A Nikon F. Everything had to be set manually back then and if your exposure on your Kodak slide film was off by more than 1/2 an F stop it was trash. Auto focus was not suitable for skydiving either. Newton ring sites, like I still use today and one still camera. After a few hundred jumps I started adding a 16mm movie camera. All manual. Home-made battery packs and switches. I pretty much moved up to what my heroes already used.
The night helmet – on this system Tom had a vertical still camera because he was going to be shooting parachutes on a night pyro demonstration jump at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the huge event they hold each year. He was filming the Liberty Parachute Team. The big flash unit is for the still and next to that is a 16mm movie camera.
When video came out I was one of, if not the first, to add a video camera with a separate chest mounted recorder. In that time frame we only used the expensive movie camera when we needed the quality. I was one of, if not the first, to jump with a 35mm movie camera, a 35mm still camera, a video camera cabled to a chest-mounted recorder. That allowed us to have some immediate review of the jump on jobs where we had to shoot on a movie camera for the quality. On super major important jobs like the Olympics I would jump with a medium format still camera (Hassleblad), a Canon 35mm still camera, a video camera and a 35mm movie camera. Those systems took me up to the early 2000s. Eventually high-end video cameras replaced movie cameras so two cameras became one. No longer were you limited to 55 seconds of film, etc. Before video took over I had evolved my helmet system into an Arriflex that carried 200 feet of film, not 100 like the primitive Eyemos most cameramen used and it incorporated a true through the movie lens video tape for perfect video playback of what the movie camera captured.
Now that cameras are smaller I usually have 5 or 6 cameras on my helmet. Two small GoPros for video. Two medium size professional still cameras. I use the SONY A7rII. One with a 18mm lens, one with a 25mm lens. Usually one mounted horizontal and one vertical and two SONY RX0 still cameras which are very small as back-up. One vertical and one horizontal. I have had to add water housings on jumps into the Blue Hole.
This belly-mounted photo was taken on a World Team jump, shot with a 35mm still camera. The camera only held 36 pictures so Tom triggered the photo with a wireless transmitter while triggering his helmet camera as well. That way he was able to even get pull out photos from the belly-mount at the end of a 90 second skydive. The quality of that image is far better than a still taken today with a GoPro.
Tom is self-motivated and not one to wait for doors to be opened. Drive and results keep the doors open. His talent, art, and skills are on full display.
How many reserve rides do you have?
I think 4. Last one was a few decades ago. My Performance Designs parachutes are super docile and really difficult to make them malfunction really. I currently use 170 Storms with super soft opening Dacron lines and a slightly larger slider.
What advice do you have for “baby” cameraflyers?
Don’t add cameras until skydiving is as natural as breathing.
Describe yourself in 5 words or less
Perfectionist (not meaning I am perfect, meaning I am dis-satisfied with anything not perfect). It has served me well as a stunt coordinator and photographer. It is annoying even to me but it is part of my DNA.
Bruno Brokken took this photo of Tom during Rich Grimm’s Boogie in Belize, above a private island the group skydived onto for many days, afterwards they jumped at the Blue Hole…
During Rich Grimm’s Boogie in Belize, Tom got to jump two times into the Blue Hole.
He designed a six-camera system with water housings to allow him to use professional cameras and land in the ocean. Tom didn’t like putting all four of his still cameras on one switch, in case something failed, so he used two bite-trigger switches, two vertical cameras, two horizontal cameras and varied the focal length of the lenses.
Do you have a motto, or favorite quotation?
Go the extra mile. That is why I used booms or selfie-sticks 40 years ago, mounted cameras everywhere, not just where it is easy but where it takes extra effort. Effort is rewarded.
Having had the opportunity to work with Tom, it’s amazing to see his dedication to get the shot he is looking for. If that means getting up long before skydiving starts to mount cameras on the plane, or jump with camera set-ups that almost look heavier than himself, Tom will do it to get the job done.
What was the biggest breakthrough /decision of your life?
Making my first skydive changed my entire life. Gave me confidence that I could do anything I wanted and gave me an opportunity to become a professional cameraman.
Meet Brutus – the skydiving dog – and his owner, Ron Sirull. Brutus had over 50 jumps and was quite comfortable in freefall
Photo taken by Tom over Skydive Elsinore
How many jumps, what type, how long in the sport?
8,000 plus jumps, over 7,500 camera jumps, very few freefly/ sitfly or wingsuit, almost no tunnel yet.
A ‘Hang load’ in pioneer days… This photo of jumpers on a Twin Beech was taken at Lake Elsinore in the early 1980s, shot by Tom from the DZ’s Cessna
Who are your sponsors?
Sun Path, Performance Designs, Cypres, Alti II, Bev Suits and Bonehead Helmets. In the past, Technicolor, Canon Cameras JVC
What equipment do you jump, and why?
I love my PD Storms. With the Dacron lines and larger slider I really can jump whatever will fit on my helmet and the flare is even better than my Spectre’s. I also love how comfortable my Sun Path rigs are. My equipment allows me to concentrate 100% on my filming and not worry about my gear at all.
Tom’s best ‘selfie’ – exit over Maldives featuring load organiser Kate Cooper-Jensen and Tom filming. It took a lot of team effort. It was shot with a large professional 35mm still camera. Michael Bess, a skydiver and Boeing machinist, built the very custom strut camera mount. Markus Bastuk, the owner of the plane and pilot, as well as Oliver Wermann his pilot, triggered Tom’s wireless transmitter every day of the Rich Grimm Maldives Boogie earlier this year. Tom and Denise Sanders had to change batteries every few loads on the wing mounted cameras and perform other duties to make sure the system was working. Nice team effort!
What’s next for you, and what are you most excited about?
I hope to spend more time on the mainland at a DZ with a tunnel so I can improve my camera flying skills. I am also planning on releasing a very high end photo book in the next couple of years. I am now being represented by a Fine Art Gallery in Aspen Colorado. It is owned by a skydiver Rosalyn Pergande. Between displaying my work in her gallery and on some tours she has organized I am planning on releasing what may be new to our sport. Fine Art Action Photography Limited Edition Collectors prints. These will be numbered pieces from projects like Point Break, James Bond movies, recreational skydiving photos that I feel have an appeal to non-skydivers too.
Magic sunset – Photo by Tom Sanders
We only have space here for a tiny taster of Tom’s work, but you can check his impressive collection on his site –Tom Sanders Aerial Focus.
About the Author
Meet: Lesley Gale
Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
Lesley is delighted to be sponsored by Performance Designs, Sun Path, Cypres, Cookie, Symbiosis suits and Larsen & Brusgaard