How-Tos, Take Two: Flying Performers: What Has Changed in 20 Years?


In 1981, I rigged and choreographed the flying effects for Peter Pan at LaGrange College, a small Methodist college in west Georgia. Researching flying effects was difficult. I was surprised by how little was published on this subject, and how little information was available from veteran technical directors, equipment suppliers, and other theatre professionals. After reading everything I could find on the subject and seeing a touring production of Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan, I designed the systems I would use and began looking for the components. Because my systems were quite simple, it was fairly easy to come up with most of the components, but flying harnesses presented a major challenge. Eventually I discovered a stage equipment company in Milwaukee, Mid-West Scenic and Stage Equipment Company, that was doing a little flying, and I was able to rent a flying harness, which I used as a pattern for building my own harnesses.

The systems worked. The production was a success, and I wrote about my experience in a May 1984 article in Theatre Crafts. I soon found myself being asked to rig flying effects for other productions. In 2001, I worked on flying effects for nearly 40 productions. During the past 20 years, I have learned a great deal about creating flying effects, and I have seen many changes in this industry.

Flying effects, primarily seen in a handful of plays, were not particularly common in 1981. At that time, there was only one major company [Flying by Foy] rigging and choreographing flying effects. Today, flying effects can be found in plays, operas, television programs, television commercials, films, theme parks, churches, music videos, corporate events, circuses, football halftime shows, fashion shows, and many other theatrical events. There are at least five major flying effects companies in the US and about the same number of smaller companies. Some of the companies at the forefront of flying today include: Branam Enterprises, Fisher Technical Services, Flying by Foy, Hall Associates, and ZFX Flying Illusions. There are also a large number of “stunt riggers” who rig flying effects in the television and film industries.

With so many more people involved in creating flying effects, the amount of information available has increased tremendously. Although there is still no definitive “bible” on rigging flying effects, John A. McKinven's book Stage Flying: 431 BC to Modern Times does a good job of looking at the history of flying systems. Richard Arnold's Stage Technology explains basic pendulum flight, and Robert E. McCarthy's book Secrets of Hollywood Special Effects describes the design of several basic track systems. Several articles on flying performers have also appeared in publications such as Yale's Technical Briefs and Southern Theatre over the past decade.

One of the greatest sources of information has been the North American Association of Flying Effects Directors (NAAFED). Founded in 1997, NAAFED's goal has been to promote safety in flying effects through education. To this end, NAAFED conducts workshops on flying performers. Thirty-seven people from across the US and Canada attended the last NAAFED flying workshop at Northern Illinois University in September 2001. Topics covered in these workshops included the physics of rigging, pendulum flying systems, tracked flying systems, choreographing flying effects, and many other topics related to flying performers. Participants not only attended lectures, but also rigged and operated at least seven different types of flying systems during the intensive three-day workshop. This type of training was certainly not available in 1981.

Another topic covered in the NAAFED workshops is sources for components, including tracks, blocks, cable, and flying harnesses, for flying systems. Commercial flying harnesses were not available in 1981, but AMSPEC, Inc. in Van Nuys, CA, now sells many different types of stunt and flying harnesses. These workshops also covered the details of a proposed “standard” for flying performers, which is being developed through the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA). Several NAAFED members are on the ESTA rigging subcommittee that is developing this standard. The standard specifies design factors for components in flying systems, as well as outlining guidelines for installing, inspecting, and operating flying systems. This wealth of information would have been invaluable to me in 1981, had it been available.

If I were mounting this production today, with the knowledge I have gained in the past 20 years, there would be a number of improvements, most importantly in the harnesses. I would use AMSPEC's “full-body harness,” which has five pick points, although I would only use the one on the back (hip and shoulder points are also available). I would rig Wendy's and John's pendulum systems with a 2:1 mechanical advantage by using a floating block. This would make it easier to lift the performers. My operating lines would be either 1"-diameter manila or ⅞"-diameter double-braided polyester ropes instead of the ¾" manila ropes I used in 1981. The larger diameter rope gives the operators more grip. I would also use ball-bearing swivels in each system to help keep the performers from spinning during long flights.

If the budget was a major issue, as it was in 1981, I would probably make minor improvements to the “tag-line” system I used. I would add a 2:1 mechanical advantage to each lift-line in the system, and add a swivel. If the budget was not a major issue, I would replace the tag-line system with a tracked flying system.

Last, I would change the location of my flying operators. In my first production of Peter Pan, I did not realize the importance of putting scrim panels in the walls so that the operators could be located on the stage floor and still see the stage. Instead, I placed them on catwalks that were 20' above the stage so they could look over the set. Although this method worked, it would have been better had they been positioned on stage level.

I still believe, as I did in 1981, that knowledgeable technical directors who are willing to do the research and learn this type of rigging can safely rig many flying effects. The big difference is there are far more resources available today than 20 years ago.

[Editors note: Once again we stress that flying is dangerous. The construction, use, and operation of flying rigs should only be undertaken by trained professionals.]