One of the most difficult places to film is from a helicopter. There are many reasons for this, but it mostly has to do with the nature of how a helicopter obtains lift and direction. Without getting into the theory of aerodynamics, let’s just say that the ride inside a helicopter is far different from that of a fixed wing aircraft. I think the word “vibrate” best describes riding in a helicopter. With this in mind, add a few other words like “unstable, bumpy and squirrely” and, well, you get the picture.
Now you might be asking, if all of this is true, how do cinematographers get those incredible images shot from a helicopter? The answer? They use gyros and stabilizers. But what if you can’t afford to rent or own this kind of equipment? Are you out of luck? The short answer is no. There are several things you can do. Here are my tips for filming from a helicopter.
My first experiences with helicopters didn’t have anything to do with filming. In the 1970s, I worked for a company that was searching for uranium in Wyoming and Montana and I ran the scintillation equipment. Other than videotaping from a police helicopter in Phoenix 15 years ago, my real “baptism” came in 2011 while filming a documentary in Israel. At first, we were going to purchase the helicopter footage we needed. After checking the prices, however, we decided to film it ourselves. Prior to departing, I purchased a Kenyon KS 8 Gyro and also designed a bungee cord configuration to help stabilize my Panasonic HVX camera in the helicopter.
We chose a Robinson R-44 helicopter to rent and, at the beginning, I had my legs on the outside of the helicopter. Not a good idea! When traveling over 100 miles per hour, the wind tries to pull you out of the helicopter. Think about how it felt when you put your arm outside of a moving car as a kid. I quickly brought my legs back inside and jturned my body sideways to film. In the photo below, you see the doors on the helicopter are still on. They were all removed prior to takeoff.
We filmed places like the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Caesaria and Scythopolis from fairly low altitudes. How did the footage turn out and what did I learn? For the most part, the footage was great. The gyro was amazing as it controls your X & Y axis (up and down and left and right) but it doesn’t do anything for roll. I shot slow motion (60 fps) on about 1/3 of the footage and realized that I should have shot all of the footage that way. There are several reasons why. When filming at 60 fps, you’re gathering 2-1/2 times the information as when filming at 24 fps. This makes the footage clearer and more stable. Another thing that is very important is depth of field and focus. I always set my lens to the widest focal length and set focus to the closest distance that you’re going to be filming. Don’t set your lens to infinity. Ask your pilot what the closest distance they expect to be from what you’re shooting, and set your focus to that and then pull all the way back on your lens. This way, everything will be in crystal clear focus when shooting wide.
You also need to tell the helicopter pilot not only where you want them to take you, but how you want them to fly the helicopter – slow or fast, what direction, tight circle, etc… It’s also a very good idea to keep the shadow of the helicopter out of your shots. This video has examples from my first trip to in April/May of 2011.
Now for a caveat. In June of 2012, we went back to both Jordan and Israel to finish our shooting, including another day filming from a helicopter. We were lucky enough to have the same pilot and the same Robinson R-44. This time, the weather wasn’t as good and it was very hot and humid. Instead of shooting from the back seat, I shot from the front seat, next to the pilot. Prior to getting on board, I turned on my Kenyon KS 8 Gyro (it takes a lot of power to get it up to speed, so in order to save the battery, I used the car cigarette lighter socket to start it up) and once I was seated in the front, they handed me the gyro and I thought they had put the power unit in the back. We took off and it took us around 45 minutes to get to the first location. After shooting for over an hour, we had all the footage I needed.
As we headed back, I noticed that the gyro was cool. It should have been hot to the touch. I turned around and asked my partner to plug in the cord to a backup battery. He said, “Eric, it’s under your feet.” I looked down and my heart dropped. The light on the power unit was off and the battery was showing full. When they handed me the gyro, they must have accidentally shut off the power switch. This meant by the time we got to location, the gyro wasn’t working. In other words, I shot all of the footage without my gyro! I immediately turned it back on and filmed some of the scenery on the way back to Tel Aviv figuring so that at least I’d have some beautiful country on film if nothing else.
The first thing I did when I got back to Jerusalem was download the footage. Guess what? It was beautiful. How and why? Three reasons. First, I had designed a harness to hold the gyro and my camera with bungee cords. Second, the gyro, even though it wasn’t working, added enough weight to make the set up more stable.
Here is a segment of Jotapata, Israel shot on the second trip. As I mentioned, my Kenyon KS 8 Gyro wasn’t working, yet the footage is very stable as you can see. Without the use of my Bungee cable, this wouldn’t have been possible.
Third, I have a great stabilizer as part of my Final Cut Pro X editing system. The bottom line – if I hadn’t designed and used the bungee cord configuration, it could have been a total disaster. Oh, and I forgot to mention the cost of renting the helicopter. It was $1,200 an hour with the clock running from the time we got on the helicopter until shutdown. Our bill each time was around $4,000.
In conclusion, if you’re planning on shooting from a helicopter, you have to carefully plan how you’re going to film. Years ago, when I was filming from a police helicopter with a 20 pound camera, I used a pillow on my lap to help keep the camera stable, a procedure I don’t recommend. Instead, if you can’t either afford to rent or purchase a stabilizing unit, try my bungee cord configuration.