Short Film Showcase: ‘80s America Was Epic From Above

Harrison Sanborn turns back the clock in Above America, which presents sweeping aerial views of iconic U.S. features. Sanborn remastered footage shot by his father from a helicopter in the 1980s, and even the Twin Towers make a poignant appearance in this cinematic throwback. I asked Sanborn more about his film.

How did you come across your father’s footage initially?

I had more or less grown up seeing bits and pieces of the footage, which was part of his personal project entitled “America by Air.” I had always thought it was neat but, dubbed down several generations from the original, standard-definition one-inch tape, it had very little clarity. It was only recently that I discovered my Dad still had the original negative, and my interest in the material was totally reinvigorated.


Did you ever get the story behind why he chose to film those locations?

My Dad, along with his business partner and helicopter pilot, had done many aerial shoots all over the country but never had time to film the locations in the way they would have liked. When ferrying a helicopter back to the East Coast from California, they seized the opportunity and shot every beautiful location they could. He really wanted to show the scale and natural grandeur of the country in a way that many people never get to experience.

Ken 1980

Were there any landmarks that held some significance to you or your family?

I know that my Dad worked out of New York City and New Jersey a great deal, so when the Twin Towers had collapsed in 2001, it was very unsettling for him because the skyline had changed so much. He said that even in bad weather or low visibility, you could use the towers as a reference point, since they stood tall above the clouds and fog on many occasions. Additionally, my ancestors made the same journey through the western frontier, so it’s interesting for me to be able to see the same landscape in the span of a few minutes that must have taken them many hard weeks and months to traverse.


Did your father inspire you to be a filmmaker?

I think that being raised around the cameras and aircraft influenced me greatly, just as his Dad inspired and influenced him to be behind the camera. He certainly supported my interests and taught my a great deal about photography and film, even before I’d decided that was what I wanted to pursue.

Harrison 2012

What was the process of viewing the footage and re-scanning it to a resolution of 2K?

I did a supervised transfer at Fotokem in Burbank, California. The colorist and I essentially decided to perform a flat pass with minimal corrections to enable maximum flexibility, since I would be digitally color grading the piece after the fact.


Why do you choose this particular piece of music to accompany the film?

It was intended to be a bit of a “tongue-in-cheek” musical choice, and somewhat of an homage to the famous scene from Apocalypse Now. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries just felt so much like flight to me that it was hard to resist!


What are you working on next?

I’m currently starting work on a documentary that focuses on the the beauty of seaplane flight in the country, contrasted with the simple and oftentimes rough lives their pilots lead. I’m additionally in preproduction as DP on a fantasy film that will be shooting in Bulgaria and several locations around the U.S. next year.



Watch more from the Short Film Showcase.

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s mission of inspiring people to care about the planet. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of the National Geographic Society.

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Rachel Link curates content for National Geographic's Short Film Showcase. Each week she features films from talented creators that span a range of topics. She hopes that this work will inspire viewers to explore the world around them and encourages filmmakers to keep pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling.