When I decided we’d need to use a cinematographer to capture aerial shots of the World Trade Center as part of Rise — Red Border Films’ story of the men and women who built the tallest building in the western hemisphere — I knew I wanted to work with Douglas Holgate and his pilot, Rob Marshall. This duo’s reputation preceded them, with Holgate having worked on over 75 productions – which range from recent hit Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to TV show Lost, and from Thor to Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Holgate and Marshall worked in unison with me to capture the footage we needed. We had them for just four hours, which I was concerned wouldn’t be enough time. On the day of filming, the two took off from Kearney, New Jersey, a few minutes by air away from One World Trade Center, and they circled the tower as we climbed. I had no idea what we were going to end up with, but when they showed us the end result, our biggest problem was figuring out which of their excellent shots to use.
But while his work is consistently of high quality, film wasn’t always Douglas Holgate’s calling. In fact, he began his working life as a plumber and, funnily enough, for the longest time wanted to avoid his father’s profession — aerial cinematography.
“I didn’t want anything to do with what my dad was doing,” 56 year old Holgate tells TIME. But in 1986, his dad convinced him to accompany him on a job — and Holgate’s attitude changed. He soon began assisting his father on shoots, something he would continue to do for 15 years until his father retired.
Holgate’s first job in film was on Iron Eagle, a 1986 action movie directed by Sidney J. Furie on which he worked as a camera assistant. In the decades since, he’s worked on major productions including movies, TV shows, commercials and air shows.
“It’s an interesting business because you get to meet a lot of great people, and great pilots,” Holgate says. “The fun part about going on location is you meet the local people, and really get the flavor of their lives.”
One of the most important parts of Holgate’s job is working closely with pilots. In fact, he sees the relationship between pilot and cinematographer as similar to that between different instruments in a symphony.
“You have to know your part, and he has to know his part,” Holgate says. “As any photographer knows, capturing fleeting moments [is hard enough], and if a pilot and cinematographer are not working in concert, the moment is gone forever.”
But when that relationship works, it really works — even if it means occasionally engaging in some hair-raising drama. For instance, in Southeast Asia filming Operation Dumbo Drop – a 1995 comedy directed by Simon Wincer – from a Huey helicopter painted with U.S. Army logos, a shot called for footage of a C-130, or large military transport aircraft flying by. The crew started landing on grassy hilltops in the Golden Triangle — because they were shooting from fixed locations with tripods — and wandered into the warlord and opium king Khun Sa’s territory between Burma and Thailand. Immediately after they landed the army and police took the pilot away and promised: “Next time you guys will be shot down.”
While this kind of adventure would likely strike terror into the hearts of most people, it only seems to make Holgate more thrilled about his job.
“[I get to] see the world and get paid for it,” he says. “That’s pretty incredible. I can’t think of doing anything else.”
Jonathan Woods is Senior Editor of Photo & Interactive at TIME