View from the top

If you watched a Monday Night Football game on ESPN during the NFL’s 2016 regular season, chances are, you spotted Sam Walker’s handiwork. A video camera ace since his first TV production course in high school, Walker (BSBA ’14) now spends his days operating mobile robotic cameras that capture aerial footage during televised events.

“I bought my first camera in high school and loved taking pictures,” he recalls, “which progressed into videography.” Walker started doing freelance video work as a senior in high school, and continued working throughout his time as a student at TU. Initially a petroleum engineering major, it only took one semester before he decided it was not for him.

He discovered management information systems (now computer information systems) in the Collins College of Business, which was a much better fit. And any time he wasn’t in class, Walker could be found honing his directing skills by capturing video of all Golden Hurricane football and basketball games, as well as working for local production companies.

As drone technology emerged, Walker knew demand for aerial video would skyrocket. He purchased a drone and added to his quickly expanding skillset, and also became certified to fly a helicopter. “I got hooked when I took my girlfriend on a Valentine’s Day helicopter tour,” he said. “I hadn’t been in one since I was 8, and I wanted to be able to fly it myself the next year on Valentine’s Day. Three months later, I had my license.” His long-term goal is to earn a commercial license, so that he can one day own his own helicopter and camera system.

Walker says that after getting a taste of having the flexibility to choose his own projects and set his own schedule, he knew he wanted to go into business for himself. By the time he graduated in 2014, Walker had filed the paperwork to incorporate his company, Over the Top Aerial Productions.

Walker’s work centers primarily on sports events, which means he may only stop at his home in Tulsa just long enough to do a few loads of laundry and re-pack for the next destination. “I like the thrill of live TV,” he said. “The event happens and then it’s over. You may mess up, but you get to do it again the next day.”

In 2015, Walker landed a contract as a pilot with SkyCam, formerly Tulsa-based company that developed a computer operated, stabilized aerial camera supported by four wires and suspended over a playing field to capture close-range footage of athletes. He traveled to SEC football games with CBS in 2015 and to Monday night football games for ESPN in 2016.

A few days before a game is scheduled to air, Walker and the SkyCam team arrive to set up the system, which involves running miles of cable and constructing a series of virtual walls that control the camera’s placement. Walker says his MSI telecom courses often come into play, particularly when understanding the signal paths he uses to control the camera. “When you’re flying a 50-pound camera over Tom Brady’s head at 20 miles per hour, you want the system as safe as you can make it,” he said.

“Being an aircraft pilot really helps, since you’re used to constantly checking gauges while focusing on what’s happening inside and outside. It’s the same type of environment in the control booth when we operate the SkyCam.” The team disassembles its equipment immediately following the game, typically wrapping up around 3:30 or 4 in the morning. “It’s a pretty cool feeling to leave the stadium and be in the airport by 6 a.m., watching SportsCenter highlights and the work we did the night before.”

Besides the gratification that comes with seeing his work on national television, Walker says he also enjoys the freedom that comes with selecting the projects that interest him. And he constantly pushes himself to stay on top of the latest technology. “I want to learn everything I can,” he said. “Any opportunity I have to learn something new, I’m going to do it. I always want to be able to bring something to the table that makes it hard not to hire me.”