Until recently, if you wanted something filmed from the air, you had no choice but to hire in a helicopter, usually at significant expense. But with the development of ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs, or ‘drones’ to you and me), are the days of helicopter shoots for film and TV coming to an end? Jeremy Braben of Helicopter Film Services, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider the name of his company, thinks not. His well-articulated thoughts are below.

It’s no secret innovation in digital media and engineering has resulted in an explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles – commonly called drones – in film and TV production. What remains a mystery is the true effect these radio-controlled mini-helicopters will have on the film industry.


Popular opinion seems to favour revolution; that UAVs will slash the cost of aerial filming across the board, opening it up like never before to new filmmakers with small budgets, while generating key savings for larger productions. Many believe this sounds the death knell for the use of helicopters – UAVs’ bigger and more expensive brother.


Aerial filming experts, however, know the reality is more complex. Rather than revolution, in my experience, the introduction of drones is more of an evolution – and a really exciting one. Full-size helicopters, the traditional mainstay of aerial filming, can carry full-size camera kit along with the talent to get the most from it, so there is no compromise on equipment or expertise. But they lack the versatility of UAVs.


Due to their small size and agility, UAVs can film sequences that were unthinkable when helicopters were the only tools available. They are great for indoor shooting in confined spaces and calm, controlled conditions. I’m working on a project at the moment where we’re using UAVs to shoot cars racing through subways that would be impossible to film with helicopters. So they are pushing innovation in filmmaking.


Where UAVs fall down is in the quality stakes. Their size means there are limitations to the cameras and lenses they can carry. There’s a growing trend to use Sony F65s, the big cinema cameras, for example, which a UAV could not cope with. They are also susceptible to wind, which can make outdoor shooting inconsistent to say the least.


Helicopters, on the other hand, can operate in most climatic conditions, and carry whatever kit is required, along with an expert operator.


When you look at the situation in this way, suddenly a rational picture emerges beyond the hyperbole and sensationalist rhetoric. As an aerial film specialist, for me the UAV or helicopter conundrum is driven first and foremost by the demands of the production and the capabilities of each machine to deliver on these demands. Budget is important, but using a UAV purely on the basis of cost could result in unusable material and so end up wasting the money spent on hiring it and the time taken to use it. 


This raises another issue – expertise. One of the main problems with the explosion in UAVs is that they are frequently supplied by remote control companies and hobbyists, who have little knowledge of the of the film and TV industry. This means that they can offer little in terms of offering advice on using UAVs from a quality perspective. Nor are they aware of the health and safety issues surrounding a production, which along with privacy concerns has been one of the reasons UAVs have been banned for commercial use in the US. Such action could harm innovation in filming, is clear evidence of the lack on understanding about UAVs, and is proof that regulations need to be put in place to ensure these exciting machines can be used safely and securely for the benefit of all concerned. After all, there are strict regulations on the use of helicopters. 


To avoid disappointment or something potentially far more serious, producers should source UAVs from companies that can prove their aerial filming credentials. Why would you go to someone who has a new toy and no history of working in film and TV, putting your budget and production at risk? When I use UAVs, I apply the same criteria to their operation as I do to helicopters. 


I’m convinced UAVs and helicopters will work side-by-side in the film industry for some time to come, pushing the boundaries of aerial filming, each playing to its own strengths. The key is understanding. If the true capabilities of UAVs are understood and embraced, backed by self-regulation, these innovative machines will be a wonderful asset to the film and TV industry in the future.

Jeremy Braben was the aerial DP for Televisual’s 4K London film below…

4K London from Televisual Media on Vimeo.

Staff Reporter

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