With the seemingly unstoppable rise of the drone its easy to forget that helicopters are a still a thing when it comes to getting aerial footage. Costly yes - but to legally get really high shots over wide areas there's just no other option.
I recently had the request from a client to undertake a shoot across south Essex, highlighting some key areas over a very wide geographical area. It was obvious at the outset that a drone wouldn't cut it - we just couldn't get the height needed or the range (500m LOS for drones) for some of the shots. We planned on a drone for lower level shots and the helicopter for wide sweeping panoramics of an area.
So we decided that we'd really need a helicopter to achieve this, but one for a realistic price.
For a big budget James Bond Skyfall style of approach - shooting from something like a Bell Jet Ranger with Cineflex or Shotover - the costs were just too prohibitive. Sure I'd love to have shot this with a Red Epic-W at 8K and a Shotover, the results would have been fantastic, but I had to think more creatively.
PLANNING & PRE-PRODUCTION
Camera wise it would be the FS7 - I own one and know the footage quality is great - shooting 4K in SLOG at 60FPS would give me enough scope to stabilise the results for delivery in HD. We could also pull stills from the footage especially if I shot at a higher shutter rate. The camera would be mounted on the Ronin2 and so this would help counteract any issues from movement in the helicopter. Lens wise I needed to be fairly wide, this was a big overview of a large area and so tight focused in shots just weren't needed. This also gave me more flexibility if I'd need to stabilise the footage. I settled on the Sigma 18-35 - this gave me a bit of scope on the zoom if needed but is wide enough to get a really good overview of some of the locations. I read that EIS would not help due to the micro vibrations of the helicopter and actually make it worse. The Sigma's being non EIS just don't have that issue.
This was a very tight time scheduled shoot as well - a flight of around 60-90 minutes; and so a Red Epic would have eaten through batteries and I just wouldn't trust it for not overheating for the length of the shoot. I pretty much kept rolling as soon as we took off as we needed to get a really wide geographical area.
Even 4K at 60FPS in XAVC-I I knew would be a lot to ask of the FS7, and with the dual XQD Card slot I could just switch the cards in and out as they filled up without missing a second of footage.
So next was the helicopter itself, after a few quotes of several thousand pounds for an hour or more of filming we eventually decided on a Robinson R44 the cheapest available (and just happened to be owned by a friend down the road) but which we felt could do the job - We needed two camera crew for the Ronin (someone to hold the gimbal) and someone to handle the remote control. Coming off the back of the recent Doctor Who shoot I was pretty confident about spending an hour remote operating the rig at 1000 ft in a noisy chopper and so Mark was going to be the one holding the rig. We also needed to have a door off...in February... in England.
I'd read a lot about the need to suspend the rig from the helicopter itself to minimise those vibrations but on actually getting into the cabin itself I quickly realised this just really wasn't an option. Without really spending some time converting this into a filming specific chopper (something the owner really wasn't interested in) we'd be relying on the Ronin completely.
So we did a recce to the helicopter and realised with the Ronin 2 it would be a very tight squeeze and the rig would be angled out of the door - so it really was essential to have a remote camera operator controlling the camera independently, we'd also need to take the top handle of the rig off.
PRODUCTION - SHOOT DAY
After a week of awful weather we had a great window of opportunity - the weather cleared and the sun came out. The R44 arrived at our pick up point on time, Mark was squeezed into the cabin and the R2 lashed to him with a couple of carabiners and a filmmakers vest. I squashed in next to him, plugged in my monitor into the SDI out port on the R2 configured the camera and in no time we were up and away...
Based on the lens and the shoot requirements we flew up to around 1200 feet and stuck between this and 1,000 throughout the flight.
Shooting in LOG I had a lut on my monitor giving me an idea of exposure but still used the FS7 monitor to check focus peaking. After a few minutes of take off I realised the vibrations were definitely an issue - slight, but you could see them in the footage - I was hoping that the 60 FPS and warp stabiliser in post would help me out here (you can see in the video link below taken from a handheld go pro the vibrations in the cabin).
The Ronin 2 did a great job - I had a couple of times when the roll on the gimbal just didn't keep the horizon level, this seemed to be when the heli banked , I had to correct the gimbal roll setting on the remote to counteract this and then recenter a couple of times. I'd been warned about this - despite the new R2 having built in GPS for some reason it won't keep the gimbal level in this kind of situation.
Aside from that it was all pretty simple. The remote operated well, the camera lasted on a single Sony BPU60 battery (which is pretty incredible) and I used 4x64gb XQD cards - hot swapping meaning I didn't lose any footage due to stopping and starting.
The FS7 also did a great job in this situation. I'm not sure if I'd even have been able to achieve this with a Red or ARRI - certainly not without some sort of external power supply and I have no idea how that would have worked with the gimbal.
The Results - Post
On first glance of the footage whilst the pans and tilts were lovely and smooth and the footage itself looked great, the jitters were very obvious - after years of working with drones from big octocopters to the tiny Mavic it wasn't something I was used to as good drone footage is always so smooth. The long sweeping vistas were great and would have been impossible with a drone but the jittery footage needed some work.
So after powering up Premiere I dropped a shot clip into a timeline and added Warp Stabilizer with its default settings. The results were instant.
You can see the results below with this test footage of before and after.
Every job you take on you learn something new. This was my first time filming from a helicopter and so I picked up a lot of information on how to handle future shoots; but overall I'm pretty happy with how this came out.
In future things I'd do differently - every minute in the air counts and I'd focus on key areas next time rather than trying to cover a whole wide area. This would give us more time to setup shots from different heights - you kind of forget how high you can go with a helicopter compared to working with drones.
Lens wise this was fine for the job but I'd probably go tighter and higher - maybe a zoom from 24-105 would give me better options - but only if I was focusing on specific areas rather than one whole long sweeping location. Changing lens on the Ronin is a no-no as well when you're up in the air - you just need to stick with one lens and go for it.
Time of day is important - at one point we had to shoot into the sun so it wasn't ideal - remember this was a big wide area we were trying to cover so we had to shoot everything no matter the angle of the sun.
Ideally I'd use a bigger helicopter with more room to move around and less issues with vibrations - I've heard a Squirrell is the next best in size vs costs. I'd definitely find some way to suspend the R2. I just can't see how you can do this from an R44.
Still for the cost involved this was definitely a successful shoot - the client was happy and even though I pretty much saw the whole thing only through a monitor it was a great challenge and experience.
One thing I did kind of forget is that you can tell the pilot to go where you pretty much want - when you're working with drones you have this really limited ceiling to work within - with a helicopter you can just say - hey bring it up another thousand feet please...!