The new home of aviation on film

The First Annual Reel Stuff Film Festival of Aviation

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: The new two-projector system at the Air Force Museum Theater offers crisp 4K images

The best film festivals offer attendees an experience beyond merely paying to watch a film on a big screen in a packed house. Films can transport us to other places and states of mind, but a festival screening does the impossible – it inserts us into multiple places all seemingly at once. We watch from the seats, we sit in the cockpits of planes, drivers’ seats of cars in freeway chases and, then – thanks to filmmaker Q&A’s – we can get inside the heads of directors, behind the lens with cinematographers, in discussions with producers and film editors.

No one understands this better than Ron Kaplan, founder and director of Reel Stuff Aviation Resources LLC, which contracts with the Air Force Museum Foundation Inc. to produce the Reel Stuff Aviation Film Festival. Kaplan worked on the Air Force Museum staff, even serving as executive director. He has produced the museum’s annual Hall of Fame induction and enshrinement ceremony celebrating the top aviators, and from 2008-2010 produced a Reel Stuff Film Festival as a fundraising event for the foundation with screenings throughout the Dayton community that reached out to community sponsors.

His latest partnership with the AFM Foundation, the First Annual Reel Stuff Film Festival of Aviation, kicks off on Thursday, April 11 and continues through Sunday, April 14, with Kaplan curating a program featuring 12 films – some with multiple screening opportunities. But the added benefit is a stellar collection of 14 presenters who will be on hand to introduce the films and be available afterward for extensive follow-up sessions where audiences will have the chance, DVD-bonus-features style, to get answers to questions surrounding the subjects and/or the filmmaking process, which with aviation films is an open-horizon that few outside the fields of either flight or cinematography can fathom on their own.

Kaplan lives and breathes this stuff, both the real and the reel. Between the annual festivals, he scours the world for films on flight, tracking down multiple copies of films in a variety of formats to discover the optimum presentation for audiences. The true talent though is not just in finding that one DVD, which fulfills the promise of quality, but Kaplan also manages the daunting task of maintaining an extensive network of filmmakers, festival programmers, distributers and fans around the world.

And thanks to cultivating such relationships, the festival’s first day will include a special, non-military aviation treat, the Midwest premiere of “First in Flight,” a Wright brothers dramatization presented by director Brandon Hess and producer Tara Tucker. Tucker is the filmmaking daughter of famed airshow pilot Sean Tucker, and as the story from Kaplan goes, when Hess approached Tara to work on “First in Flight,” he wasn’t even aware of the Tucker connection. Now, fortunately, audiences will have the chance to hear them spin the tale of the film’s birth and find out other fascinating tidbits about their alternative perspective on the Wright brothers.

There will be a presentation of William Wellman’s silent classic, “Wings,” the first film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr., a noted historian and actor on both the big (“Black Caesar” and “It’s Alive”) and small screen (everything from “The Brady Bunch” to “CSI”), will be in attendance for this digitally remastered exhibition.

For those who missed the recent one-week only release of Paramount Picture’s 3-D “Top Gun,” have no fear. Reel Stuff offers two opportunities to catch it in all of its larger-than-life detail. The first screening (April 13 at 6:30 p.m.) will feature Clay Lacy – the film’s aerial cinematographer – as well as Barry Sandrew, the founder and CCO/CTO of Legend 3-D, the company that converted the film into the dynamic 3-D format, which also combines giant screen and high-definition capacity. “Top Gun” is one of those titles with the broadest of crossover appeal. Directed by the late Tony Scott, the movie set the bar not only for its aerial sequences, but it helped to usher in a stylistic movement that embraced music and music video elements to the more traditional action-oriented fare of its day, and it cemented the presence of Tom Cruise in the Hollywood pantheon.

For the real/reel aviation buffs though, the likely centerpiece of the schedule might be the back-to-back events on Saturday afternoon revolving around the Memphis Belle. Oscar winner William Wyler’s original film (1944) documenting the legendary B-17 aircraft, which happens to be undergoing a full restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, screens at 12:30 p.m. Wyler’s daughter, Catherine, performs double duty, presenting both her father’s film and the 1990 “Memphis Belle” feature film from Warner Brothers, which she helped to produce.

Another aspect that separates this year’s Reel Stuff Film Festival is that the event is undergoing a significant bit of rebranding. The 2013 edition is the First Annual run in what is expected to be the festival’s new home at the Air Force Museum Theatre on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. This kick-off also serves as the grand reopening of the theater following an $800,000 face-lift for the giant-screen space which seats 400.

Mary Bruggeman, the theater operations chief, proudly trumpets the many enhancements to the theater which will make it a destination for aviation enthusiasts and fans of film for years to come. Careful consideration went into the renovation plan to capitalize on the current and anticipated technology in terms of digital projection and large-screen formats, but just as much attention was paid to the museum’s focus on education and entertainment programming options.

Digital technology fuels the industry, and confounds the purists who fear the end of the era of film projection, but from both an exhibition perspective and a growing rationale based on efficiency, digital just makes common and business sense. The two-projector system used at the theater features crisp 4K images that can be drawn from content on specially formatted hard drives (that are the size of a DVD case rather than huge platters of film which were costly to ship and set up), DVD or Blu-Ray, or even directly from a laptop with the appropriate connecting cables. These expanded options mean not only greater availability overall for content, but also much reduced rental and licensing rates for the premium level titles that might premiere at the museum theater and settle in for longer runs.

This guarantees, for Bruggeman, that the theater will be able to plan and implement programming for families and the aviation enthusiasts with greater ease. While leading a recent walk through, for example, she name-checked the 2008 3-D animated feature “Fly Me to the Moon” as a possibility for a weekend family feature and it would indeed be a fun selection, especially if paired with something like the Georges Méliès short “A Trip to the Moon” from 1902. Film programming is trickier for Bruggeman though because unlike with the festival, screenings end up competing for time with the museum’s other offerings. But the mind reels over the potential.

Of course, the main attraction is the theater itself, which, thanks to the collaboration with D3-D Cinema, can handle higher frame rates – like the format seen in “The Hobbit” – along with the true 4K/3-D playback options that push the theater’s capabilities beyond those of most mainstream multiplexes. Eighteen speakers line the sides and back of the theater with separate clusters – with subwoofers – in each corner as well as behind the screen. No doubt, audiences will be able to feel takeoffs and aerial sequences like never before. Accessibility features are also available – hearing impaired and visually impaired audio devices and individual closed captioning.

The walk-through included a special sneak peek of the space, a test drive of both the facility and the digital projectors. All of the technical specifications melt away in the face of the shock and awe of the spectacle. The 60-foot by 80-foot screen – the installation of which involved knocking a hole in the side of the building just to get it inside – is larger than most of the current film formats available, but given time, the industry will no doubt catch up. Until then, nothing is lost as the frames are letter-boxed. The images are as crisp and vivid, especially those transferred and remastered from black and white prints. The first two rows of seats were removed to allow for a larger presentation stage, which means that, from a viewing perspective, there’s really not a bad seat in the entire house. Whether second row front-and-center or from the back row, audiences will not have to strain or stretch one bit.

While discussing the wide range of programming options available for an aviation film festival, it became apparent that Reel Stuff is not simply an annual event exclusively linked to our region. Kaplan’s vision is intriguingly in line with that of the ReelAbilities, which has a home festival base in New York, but now partners with groups in 13 cities across the country – Visionaries+Voices and Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD) just teamed up to host a festival in Cincinnati – to promote the arts and artists in the disabilities community. And in each city, there’s a different theme or focus, which guides the development of that region’s film program.

Aviation offers a similar kind of open-framed approach. The sky’s the limit and while so much of the film programming Kaplan has put together over the last few years has been U.S.-specific, he’s finding that he’s fielding more and more inquiry from abroad, an untapped source, waiting to perhaps trigger international partnerships and festival opportunities. The first steps though might open an exchange for regional audiences to discover stories of flight from sister cities and/ or fraternal connections with aviation clubs seeking new horizons. But for now, this first flight in the new home appears to be ready for a smooth takeoff.

The First Annual Reel Stuff Film Festival takes place Thursday, April 11 through Sunday, April 14 at the Nation Museum of the Unied States Air Force, 1100 Spaatz St. For more Reel Stuff information and festival updates, visit or 

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at

Schedule of events

Friday, April 12, 2013

10:30 a.m. THE RESTORERS
Presented by Adam White, Director and Kara Martinelli, Producer

Presented by Tara Tucker, Producer and Brandon Hess, Director

3:30 p.m. HIGH FLIGHT
followed by UNCLE JACK

Presented by Jon Tennyson, Producer/Director

6:30 p.m. WINGS

Presented by William Wellman, Jr. Son of the Director Wm. Wellman

Saturday, April 13, 2013

10:00 a.m. AIR RACERS 3-D

Christian Fry, Producer/Director/Writer

12:30 p.m. MEMPHIS BELLE

1944 Documentary

Presented by Catherine Wyler Daughter of Director William Wyler


1990 Release

Presented by Catherine Wyler, Producer

6:30 p.m. TOP GUN 3-D

Presented by Clay Lacy, Aerial Cinematographer and
Barry Sandrew, Ph.D, Founder, Legend3D

Sunday, April 14, 2013

10:00 a.m. STEVE CANYON

Presented by John Ellis, Restorer & Historian


Presented by Kmele Foster, Producer

3:30 p.m. TOP GUN 3-D

Presented by Capt. Robt. L. “Hoot” Gibson, USN (Ret), Barry Sandrew, Ph.D, Founder, Legend3D and Anthony Edwards, Navy Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw from “Top Gun”

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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