Leland filmmaker says go fly a kite

By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

James Weston Schaberg says there’s nothing like the view from the sky. As a longtime commercial pilot, he would know.

But that’s not necessarily what he means. The Leland native has turned his love of the sky into multiple businesses while reveling in the joy of flying the skies – and flying a kite.

That was the inspiration for his film Eye of the Wind, a documentary that was due to be released on video earlier this month. “I didn’t set out to make a movie, just a video journal,” Schaberg says. It premiered for a sold-out show at the Bay Theatre in Suttons Bay before a similarly receptive audience at the Garden Theater in Frankfort.

Showcasing the area’s green-blue waters and those reveling in them, birds, the dunes, waves slapping the shore and the kites themselves, Eye of the Wind is a return to an art form pioneered in the late 19th century. Frenchman Arthur Batut first used a kite to lift a camera into the air. According to the Monovisions, the online magazine of black and white photography, Batut’s book on kite aerial photography appeared in 1890. It included an aerial photograph taken in 1889 from a kite over Labruguière, a commune (similar to a township) in southern France where he lived. It is believed he was the first to use this method successfully.

Since then, the technique has been used by scientists, military personnel, and artists alike. But as planes and helicopters became common, photographers largely abandoned kites. More recently, the affordability of drones gave practically everyone access to aerial photography. Still, Schaberg saw both the utility and sheer fun of using a kite. “Drones are noisy, prohibited in some areas, battery life (is problematic). As a three-year-old, my son loved kites. I thought, ‘What if I put a GoPro (camera) on a kite?’ It was wildly successful.”

He says the challenges are multiple, from getting the right amount of wind from the right direction to working with different gimbals to keep the camera steady. “I need seven knots at least to get a kite in the sky. You don’t want too much wind, or too gusty. Between seven and 25 knots is the sweet spot.”

His colorful kites range in size and shape, some as large as 16 feet wide. “Coming from an aviation background, it’s a fun challenge to be presented with.”

He’s always been fascinated by the skies above. “I dabbled as a kid with gliders, rockets, kites,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be a pilot from an early age.” He attended and taught at Northwestern Michigan College’s aviation program and got his license as a commercial pilot nearly 20 years ago, heading out of the area for work. But like others, he felt the call to return to the region, and moved back to Leland in 2017.

Then, shortly after his return to the area, he transitioned out of the cockpit. He’d been interested in film dating back to 1999, when his grandfather gave his family a small Sony digital camera. Over the ensuing years, Schaberg studied art and humanities at NMC, Montana State University, Western Washington University, and Prescott College, where he focused on environmental photojournalism. “I graduated from Prescott College last year after 18 years and four colleges,” he says with a laugh.

Among the clients he’s worked with are Mammoth Distilling, On The Ground, Northwestern Michigan College, Bozeman Community Food Co-op, Michael Moore, Traverse City Film Festival, Old Town Playhouse and Manitou Island Transit, for which he handles all the company’s social media.

His film work also includes Unboxing, which showcases two dancers in an enclosure defined only by its corner pieces. Upon stepping out of their box they find like-minded companions dancing around the box, now tipped at a different angle. They eventually return through the box, finding it tipped on a different axis. For him, the film represents a means of breaking free from the patriarchal aesthetics of dance, ballroom dance in particular. “I’ve been a dancer, and transferred my skills to be a dance instructor and published a couple books. I also love math and geometry,” he says. Hence the box in all its angles.

Schaberg recently returned to the skies in person. “At the end of 2022 I went back to work as a commercial pilot. It’s a stable income and provides for my family,” he says.

But not to worry, he’s not abandoning his film career, nor his fascination with kites. “It’s been a fun journey. I’ve gotten to know tech, art, be outside in nature, be with my son.” What could be better?