There’s now so much choice in how to approach an aerial production – the growing range of cameras, lenses and mounts available – we always advise getting an aerial coordinator, pilot/aerial DoP in at the earliest stages of a production. This provides the production team with insights into the possibilities, technicalities and importantly any permit or legal aspects for the shoot.
Always start with safety first. The weather, awareness of a locations proximity to an airport or other sensitive areas such as embassies, police and power stations.
The type of mount equipment and camera format will impact on weight. Be aware that in some cases helicopters will require fuel planning especially with the larger, heavier camera systems like SuperG, Eclipse, Wescam and Shotover.
It’s best to use a specialist aerial camera operator who will have an understanding of the specific equipment, and the interaction between the helicopter, equipment and pilot. Asking a ground based operator or DP to jump in and operate because you like their ground work isn’t the solution.
Key personnel for aerials are the aerial coordinator (often the pilot), an experienced specialist filming pilot, experienced aerial camera operator or aerial DP, an aerial technician – to install and oversee the camera mount. This applies to both helicopter and drone shoots.
You might also require an aerial unit assistant. The remote nature of aerial filming generally needs someone to assist the unit with batteries, magazines, and so on. You might also require a fuel bowser with a safety operative.
The pros and cons of drones
Drones are best suited to calm conditions where they can provide fantastic low level shots. They are also great for tight spaces, but by law they are not allowed to go above a maximum 400ft without aviation authority exemptions.
One key limitation when using a drone is the weight they can carry, which restricts usage of certain kinds of camera, apart from the Aerigon drone which can take even the largest cinema cameras like the Red Dragon or Alexa.
There is no hard and fast rule where a drone should be used. Rather the question should be "what is the best tool for the shots I require?".
For example if the shoot calls for a mid shot of an actor at a window of a house, pulling out to a high wide shot seeing the geography. In a lot of cases the drone is more suited to this than a helicopter, which has its own set of restrictions.
On the set of Into the Woods, our drone was involved in a couple of sequences through trees and up to reveal the canopy beyond. Whilst the location had the space for a helicopter, the downwash from a helicopter would’ve blown the trees around and we couldn’t have got in close to the trees with a wide-angle lens as we did do with the drone.
How do you decide on helicopter or drone/camera pairing?
Things to consider is the camera format required – this will often dictate the system required – IMAX or Arri 65 would require a large system such as the SuperG or Eclipse.
The operating area and type of helicopter available can often dictate the type of camera system that can be used.
With drones, if you want to use the Arri Alexa or Red Dragon with PL mounted lenses, then the Aerigon drone is about the only option. On Avengers: Age of Ultron, we employed both helicopter and drone aerials, often working them side by side at the same location – the helicopter getting the high, wide plates and live action, the drone capturing stunt sequences between the buildings on the set.
Jeremy Braben is an aerial DP and CEO of Helicopter Film Services
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