What is Aerial Cinematography? Here are 3 Reasons Why You Should Invest in It
“We had this monstrous helicopter that had a cameraman bravely strapped to the side,” the legendary actress and singer Julie Andrews once recounted on The Tonight Show. “It started at one end of the field, and I started at the other, and we walked together,” she said, laughing. “The downdraft from the engines just flung me into the grass. We did this about six or seven times, and I was spitting dirt.”
Of course, what the Academy Award winner described was the iconic opening scene of The Sound of Music, where the camera gracefully drops into the Austrian Alps to find Andrews amid the grass and the mountains, singing the title song.
Aerial cinematography has long been a staple of cinema, and its ability to contextualize a film’s subject within a grand landscape or bring audiences to unimaginable locations is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with film—from The Sound of Music to the foreboding establishing shots of Sacramento in American Beauty, where the cookie-cutter layout of suburbia is plotted out like a map.
As a term, it’s fairly self-defined. Aerial cinematography is a filming technique that uses aircraft like helicopters, planes or drones to capture an elevated perspective. It allows filmmakers to access entirely new landscapes from previously inaccessible vantage points, to film large-scale environments and to achieve breathtaking and dramatic visual storytelling in a cost-effective way. Traditionally, aerial cinematography has been used to shoot striking establishing shots and dramatic action chases—a favorite of the James Bond franchise. However, in recent years, aerial filming has entirely revolutionized genres like nature films, investigative crime series and documentaries, becoming a prolific cinematic technique used in nearly every documentary or feature film you can see.
Why is aerial cinematography so popular?
The uptick in aerial filming—and its increased use for more intricate shots—is due in large part to the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2014 ruling to issue commercial permissions for film companies to fly drones, which was previously prohibited and is still strictly regulated. Since, drone footage has become a commonly used technique and an in-demand resource for films with small budgets or limited aviation capabilities.
However, while the industry’s appetite for aerial cinematography has grown exponentially, drones have not advanced at a similar rate, failing to meet aerial photography’s more complicated demands. Generally, sweeping shots that require high altitudes and long ranges are out of scope for any drone, and drone operators lack the resources and capabilities offered by professional aerial film and helicopter crews.
Here are three reasons why you should invest in aerial cinematography:
1. Aerial cinematography allows filmmakers to access worlds their audiences couldn’t previously enter.
Scale is among the most important reasons why a filmmaker might employ the use of aerial photography. If filmmaking involves the creation of new worlds for viewers to witness, that world-building requires access to dramatic scenery and locations no camera crew or crane operator could visualize. Breathtaking aerial photography transforms the visual tableau of a film, allowing filmmakers to place their audience amid the scale of the movie’s setting or bring their viewers closer to a subject’s surroundings.
While many cinematographers employ helicopters and other aircraft to achieve shots they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attain, the aerial filming medium has had particular resonance in documentaries, and many nonfiction filmmakers—especially those interested in nature and the natural environment—have used aerial filming to an unprecedented scale in recent years.
When famed filmmaker Werner Herzog made his 2016 film Into the Inferno—a documentary feature about volcanoes—scaling their cliffs, coming up over the edges and peering inside was essential. His astounding opening aerial sequence, which soars up a mountain and into a volcano, establishes the entire tone of his film—an exploration and veneration of the world’s wonders. Just the same, filmmakers like director Michael Sanderson have used aerial filming to achieve new feats in photography. In the BBC’s Planet Earth II, Sanderson used aerial cinematography to film rare species in their natural habitats, like the pale Araguaia River dolphins in the remote jungles of Brazil.
Filmmaker Robert Greene sums the attraction to aerial cinematography among many documentary directors well. “When you’re making documentaries, you’re so hungry for something that works,” he told the New York Times. “People are so fearful when making nonfiction: fearful about being boring, or not important, or misrepresenting the subject. You’re worried your close-ups might be out of focus, or your sound isn’t as good as you wanted it to be.” Aerial photography is an answer to that fear, he said. “It’s something that works. It’s epic, and it’s easy.”
In the same way that aerial filming gives documentary filmmakers access to grand environments, action filmmakers have long used aerial cinematography to contextualize their character in the drama of a scene, car chase or action sequence, employing the largeness of aerial cinematography to color a character’s broader world. Nowhere is this technique more visible than in the James Bond series.
Only aerial cinematography could convincingly capture Skyfall’s Daniel Craig chasing a bad guy across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, riding a street-bound motorbike. Because CGI would fail to depict a scene as vibrant as the original, aerial filming allowed director Sam Mendes to reach above Istanbul and place the famed secret agent—as well as his audience—in the real drama of the chase.
How do filmmakers achieve large aerial scales?
Often, drones fail to meet the capabilities some directors require to create these astonishing shots. A drone might be incapable of scaling the height of a mountain, or the far-off enclave of a rare animal might exceed the range capabilities or flight time of these hand-controlled aircraft. While drones are smaller and better equipped to maneuver over the streets of a bustling city, they might lack the speed or camera capabilities to capture a sophisticated motorcycle chase. Certainly, drones lack onboard and skilled camera crews who could more easily achieve any of these shots.
Helicopters have the same advantage when it comes to height. Drones might be a good choice if you’re filming at low altitudes, but anything over a few hundred feet becomes inaccessible. While many countries have established their own regulations on drone flight, in the US, the FAA strictly regulates the use of these aircraft, restricting them from flying above 400 feet. While helicopters can fly as low as necessary if safe, most helicopters offer a maximum altitude capability of 8,000 to 30,000 feet.
2. Once prohibitively expensive, aerial filming is now a common, cost-effective tool—and its popular use has ushered in a new visual language in film.
“Audiences can now spot them,” said acclaimed filmmaker Jeremy Workman in an interview with the New York Times, referencing the ubiquity of aerial shots in contemporary films. Aerial cinematography, he suggested, is now an expected tool for creating dramatic and powerful imagery, and audiences anticipate seeing it. In other words, gone are the days of standard establishing shots, which have traditionally used aerial cinematography for purely technical means—like God’s eye views or overhead angles that serve as surface-level visual representations of setting.
Thanks to the proliferation of drone technology and the creation of cost-effective and custom aerial services like Helicopter Express, filmmakers are encouraged to take aerial cinematography beyond simple use. Importantly, they’ve begun to explore the application of aerial photography as a genuine thematic tool, creating new languages and modes of storytelling.
For example, Workman observed that, in his own films, he could use aerial filming to contextualize the loneliness or isolation of his characters. Aerial photography, he said, can “[cue] the audience that this is a bigger story that translates beyond one character.” In The World Before Your Feet, about a man who walks every street in New York, Workman used aerial filming to dramatize the main character’s place in New York’s urban landscape. Aerial shots “[said] something more than just, ‘Look at New York,” he argued. “It had to say, ‘Look at this guy within this city.” It’s a technique that’s been used by many directors, like Zack Snyder in his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. In that film, he used an overhead shot of Ana driving her car through the chaotic destruction around her, a lone survivor.
Similarly, many critics have praised director Dan Reed’s use of aerial filming in his harrowing series Leaving Neverland, however sinister and frightening the implications of his striking aerial work may be. In writing his review for the doc—which chronicled Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse of children—New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that: “The majestic gliding rhythm of the [aerial] shots evokes the flights in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, suggesting both that these men’s childhoods were stolen at Neverland Ranch, and that this documentary represents their final flight from Jackson and his legacy.”
How can filmmakers afford to apply these techniques?
Production costs—like location scouting, pre-production shot preparation, fly rehearsals, equipment transport and technical hires—previously relegated the use of aerial cinematography to luxury. Budgets could afford only basic shooting. However, a key reason why filmmakers are increasingly encouraged to explore aerial cinematography—often incorporating aerial filming amid the usual shot list for a scene—is its widespread accessibility and cost efficiency, thanks to chartering services like Helicopter Express who make it easy for film production companies to have a helicopter on the scene.
Significantly, when weighing the costs of incorporating aerial film into a production, helicopters are best equipped to perform in hazardous locations like high altitudes, high temperatures and elevated atmospheric pressures, ultimately providing a safer and more successful option for production budgets.
3. Hiring a helicopter charter service gives production companies access to experienced and knowledgeable aerial film crews.
While breathtaking, orchestrating an aerial shot involves many moving parts and significant technical planning that most standard film crews are not equipped to perform. Some film crews lack the correct equipment to achieve high-quality videography, and most lack the trained expertise of an aerial film pilot or onboard crew. Further, deficient resources for aerial filming often pose additional costs to a production company’s budget, like the need to hire or contract certain experts. And subpar resources can expose production companies to certain insurance liabilities, especially if they’re unable to meet the safety and flight demands of a specific location.
Identify unique filming locations and plan flight paths for optimal camera angles
Research filming locations to understand potential safety concerns or flight restrictions
Use technical expertise to film aerial scenes that realize the story and cinematographic goals of the filmmaker
Utilize professional-grade aerial equipment, cameras and lenses
These services span the entire production process for an aerial or location shoot, and they provide valuable resources and expertise to a film production company who wants to employ aerial photography in their visual storytelling. Importantly, rental services for camera systems and technical expertise circumvent key roadblocks that prevent many film companies from incorporating aerial cinematography into their production.
Here’s how you can hire an aerial cinematography helicopter and crew near you.
Helicopter Express has been providing film solutions to producers in Atlanta and the southeast for 25 years. Whether your project requires a picture or a camera ship, Helicopter Express’ diverse fleet and SAG-carded pilots are fully equipped to handle all aerial production needs, especially in the booming movie production city of Atlanta.
In the past decade, Georgia has emerged as the Hollywood of the south, and its generous tax credits for film companies has made Atlanta the most important film production location outside of Los Angeles. In 2018 alone, 445 film and television productions wrapped in Georgia, representing an estimated $9.5 billion in economic impact. Tyler Perry Studios is the largest production lot and studio in the United States—as well as a significant resource for the Atlanta economy—and Pinewood Atlanta Studios, one of the largest-purpose built studios outside Hollywood, serves as the American launchpad for franchises like the James Bond and Star Wars movies.
Helicopter Express is positioned to cater to all the aerial cinematography needs of this vibrant and booming industry in Georgia—especially now, as the Atlanta film industry looks to lead Hollywood’s return to production after COVID-19. In July, Georgia said it plans to hire an additional 40,000 workers across roughly 75 upcoming productions, investing $2 billion in the state’s economy over the next 18 months.
And, if you’re filming elsewhere, Helicopter Express will come to you.
While we’re an Atlanta-based chartering company, we offer aerial cinematography services to film productions around the country, and our company regularly charters from locations in Georgia, Wyoming, Texas, Florida and New York.
Make us your go-to team.
Our highly skilled pilots have the experience and equipment needed to rise to any challenge. When you need experts you can trust, give us a call.