Legendary aerial cinematographer Tom Sanders, D-6503, has filmed skydiving scenes for dozens of movies, including “Drop Zone,” many James Bond films and the original “Point Break,” which inspired thousands of people to become skydivers. His resume also includes countless TV commercials, the award-winning documentary “Over the Edge” and coordinating filming of the 1988 Olympic Rings skydive. In 2005, USPA awarded him its Gold Medal for Meritorious Service. He is the 200th person profiled since this column began in February 2000.
Nickname: Tomato. (My middle name is Otto.) Only Moe Villetto and my wife, Denise, use this; however, I suspect after this prints I may hear it more often!
Birthplace: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Marital Status: Married to Denise
Occupation: BASE jumping and skydiving stunt coordinator, photographer, cinematographer, videographer and certified flight instructor for powered hang-gliders
Life Philosophy: Do what you love, then you will be happy and it will show in your quality of work and life in general.
Hard opening or line twists? Seldom. I have used Performance Designs canopies exclusively for decades. Dacron lines and docile seven-cells. I carry too much weight on my helmet for anything “cool.” I just want to land safely after opening with 15 to 25 pounds of cameras.
Team Name: I was the cameraman for B.J. Worth’s team, Mirror Image, in the ’80s after Rande Deluca moved on to full-time Hollywood work. Also did a stint as cameraman for the very serious, super competitive 4-way team called Flashpoint … a group of Denise’s friends from Michigan.
Sponsors: Airtec, Alti-2, Bev Suits, Bonehead Composites, Performance Designs,
Sun Path Products
Container: Sun Path Javelin Odyssey
Main Canopy: Performance Designs Spectre 150 with Dacron lines
Reserve Canopy: Performance Designs PDR 176
AAD: Airtec CYPRES
Discipline: Belly flying, back flying, camera, BASE
Home Drop Zone: Pacific Skydiving, and on the mainland, Skydive Elsinore [in California], where I made my first jump in 1979 and shot many Hollywood projects.
Licenses and Ratings: D-6503, PRO
USPA Competition Medals: Silver in 10-way formation skydiving at Nationals and silver twice in 8-way FS at Nationals as the cameraman for Mirror Image.
Total Number of Jumps: 7,500-plus
Camera: 6,500 FS: 500 Demos: 300 CF: 70
Balloon: 50 Freefly: 50 Wingsuit: 25
Accuracy: Every jump Tandems: Twice at night from 3,500 feet as a passenger for the movie “Drop Zone.” BASE: 150 (140 with serious cameras)
Largest completed formation: Filmed a 299-way for the World Team
Total Number of Cutaways: Five. The most interesting was at night over downtown Miami during the filming of the Wesley Snipes movie, “Drop Zone.” I was wearing a huge Arriflex 35mm movie camera, a video camera and a still camera.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
I was assigned to go skydiving in a self-confidence building class. I had no desire to jump out of an airplane in 1979. I was a carpenter, a surfer and not an aerial person at all.
Of all your skydives, does one stand out most?
[The Olympic Rings jump into] the 1988 Seoul Olympics opening ceremonies. I was in charge of live transmission of skydiving for the first time to a world television audience. B.J. Worth selected me to be in charge of the freefall camera team. I selected Norman Kent and Rande DeLuca to be the other two cameramen. Rande Deluca died of natural causes, and then I added Kenyon Crabtree for his excellent camera work with Visions and his knowledge of live transmission.
Who has been your skydiving mentor? Ray Cottingham, number one. He is a legend in freefall cinematography who few people these days know about because he is also the most humble man on the planet. Also, Kevin Donnelly, Carl Boneish, Rande DeLuca, Kenyon Crabtree, Norman Kent, Craig O’Brien and B.J. Worth.
What safety item do you think is most important or most often neglected? Seat belts on takeoff, including [securing] camera helmets.
Do you have any suggestions for students? Do not give up; it will get easy. Take advantage of the modern wind-tunnel technology that was not available until Bill Kitchen made it all happen just a few decades ago.
If you could do a fantasy 2-way with anybody, whom would it be with? Patrick Swayze at Lake Powell. He never got to jump with us at Lake Powell. He was such an amazing person; I would just like to do another jump with him and tell him how much he meant to skydiving and how much a pleasure it was to get to spend time with such a great spirit.
If you could make everyone do something to make earth a better place, what would it be?
Become a vegetarian.
What kind of skydiving student were you?
Mike Wheeler, my instructor on most of my jumps, actually had to have a little talk with me after the second or third time I backlooped through the risers on a clear-and-pull. He had to tell me, “Skydiving is not for everyone.” I am stubborn, and I was making good money with my wing-mounted still camera shooting the other students, so I hung in there, but it was not easy. I was super scared.
Is there one jump you would like to do again?
December 25, 1999. Demo jump doing live transmission to a TV audience as a dozen Colonel Sanders jumped into Aloha Stadium, a small stadium with high bleachers on all sides. Hawaii is windy. On the practice jump, the organizer hit so hard he took himself off the show jump. It was a cool gig with big pay and seemed manageable, but I downsized my canopy to be compatible with the other jumpers. At the end of the jump, I was following Jim Wallace, getting some great footage. He hammered in, then I hammered in so badly I was not sure if I was alive or dead for a moment. I was able to walk off the field to the paramedics and told them I needed to go to a hospital. Turned out, I had broken my back. I feel that jump every day.
What’s your most significant life achievement?
Being inducted into the U.S. Army Golden Knights as an Honorary Golden Knight.
While in freefall, what has been your strangest thought? On a World Team skydive from over 22,000 feet our plane ran out of oxygen and I passed out while we were standing waiting to exit. I woke up at 8,000 feet feeling drugged and wondering what had happened. This was before I wore a CYPRES.
Do you have any suggestions for USPA? Put together an event like Don Kirin did, a World Skydiving Convention or whatever you want to call it. Let’s do something big again!
Explain Tom Sanders in five words or fewer:
Perfectionist. (I am far from perfect, but that is my driving force.)
What is your favorite bonfire story to tell about filming movies? While filming “Point Break” at Perris Valley with Patrick Swayze, we were all in the Twin Beech when the last to arrive, Craig Hansen, peered in the door and said, “Hey, I heard there is a movie star on this load.” Patrick didn’t say a word, but someone pointed him out. Craig said, “What have you been in”? Very humbly, one at a time, he mentioned movies like “Dirty Dancing.” Each time Craig would say, “Didn’t see that. What else?” It was as funny as could be! I think Patrick liked that he was treated pretty normally. Yes, you’re a great actor, but how many skydivesdo you have?
What’s the best thing about working on a major motion picture? Working with my skydiving friends on something bigger than we could do without the Hollywood money.