A brief introduction to helicopter and drone filming
Drones or UAVs are a fairly new tool for film-makers. They are small unmanned vehicles that fly by using a series of horizontal propellers, with a camera slung underneath that is mounted to a 3-axis stabilising gimbal. The multiple propellers allow drones to be very stable and nimble and the gimbal removes all of the drones movements from the camera so the footage is silky smooth.
Helicopters give a very stable and versatile platform to film from as they can move seamlessly through any axis and most importantly hover. Once a helicopter is fitted with the most popular and advanced stabilising systems and cameras the filming options and shot creativity are endless.
What to consider when thinking about an aerial shoot
The most important thing to consider when deciding if an aerial unit is required in your corporate video is your surroundings. What is the proximity of buildings that aren’t under your control, when are the quietest times of day and what major transport systems are nearby. These should include, busy A and M roads, rail routes and airports. The aerial team you choose should guide you on this and carry out a recce to ensure safe operation.
I’m a firm believer in keeping your neighbours fully up to date with developments and filming dates when it comes to aerial filming with drones as they still have a bit of a name in the press. If the flight path needs to cross a neighbours property you will need to seek permission as that is out of your control. The aerial team can advise you on flight paths but it is usually best in this instance if any correspondence come from you.
The weather, especially in the UK. Helicopters can fly in a lot more varied weather conditions than drones but if it’s raining and looking miserable then the shoot will have to be postponed, and don’t be surprised if this happens a few times. It just doesn’t make sense to film incredible aerial shots when the weather is miserable. Drones can operate in a fairly narrow weather window so you should be prepared to be flexible on dates. Each drone operator will have a different policy on postponing shoots but generally for helicopter shoots you should expect to be required to give at least 24 hours notice to postpone a shoot and that is only due to adverse weather conditions, not if it’s a little overcast.
Safety considerations and drone laws UK
In order to fly a drone commercially in the UK the pilot must have a valid license from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and a valid aerial insurance policy. This insurance covers the equipment and most importantly must include a public liability policy. Once you know your hired crewed are operating legally it’s important to then understand the other laws we must abide by, which have been set by the CAA.
The drones we fly are under 7.5kg in weight as anything heavier falls under a different category. The main difference between the two is the proximity you can fly the drone to people and buildings outside of your control. ‘Outside of your control’ covers anything or anyone that is not part of your project, for example if you wanted a shot of a busy Hyde Park the members of the public in the park would be outside of your control. Drones under 7.5kg in weight have a maximum altitude of 120m and a range of 500m, this range is hardly ever met as the drone becomes too small to operate properly. We must also stay at least 50m away from anything or anyone that is outside of our control, this does reduce to 30m during take-off and landing. If the shot is your building for example the drone can be flown as close as required because your building is under your control.
As long as you stick to the laws outlined above a drone can be used on public land without any other permissions, if however you need to take-off from private land then permission from the land owner must be granted. Sometimes it can be as easy as a phone call, an explanation and off you go but other land owners will ask for payment, this is perfectly acceptable for them to do so, so it is up to you if the extra cost is worth the shot.
For more information and up to date regualtions please have a look at our blog about drone laws UK.
What limitations are there?
Batteries – Batteries are the main limiting factor when operating drones. A battery will give you 15-20 minutes of flight time which for 99% of shots is perfectly adequate. It’s important to have multiple batteries so that you can extend the operating time, we tend to take six batteries on a shoot. It is also important to seek out any power points during the recce as if you can charge batteries whilst flying this increases the flexibility, especially as the batteries can be recharged pretty quickly.
Despite drones being so revolutionary for the video production sector they do have their limitations. Having said that, if you plan well and are aware of these the majority of the ‘limitations’ won’t need to have an adverse affect on the shoot. Lets break them down below –
Battery life – On average you will get around 15-20 minutes flight time per battery. This only becomes an issue if you need to record a continuous shot for longer than this. In our experience this is unlikely so it shouldn’t cause any alarm. We carry at least 4 batteries per drone, this gives you plenty of flight time and if the location allows
Line of sight – The law states that a drone must not be flown out-of-slight of the pilot, this purely comes down to safety because a drone can fly a lot further than that. Once the drone is out-of-sight it can become quite hard to control the drone so again this shouldn’t cause too much of a problem.
Altitude ceiling – Drones have a max altitude of 400ft which is absolutely fine for 99% of shots. The only time this could become an issue is if you want to ca
pture a birds eye view of a very, very large subject.
Weather – Drones aren’t waterproof so flying in the rain isn’t possible and the rule of thumb is to not fly in winds higher than 20mph, this is to ensure that the footage remains silky smooth. Drones can fly in higher winds but it can be counter-productive. For the majority of shoots this isn’t a problem as we want the weather to be as nice as possible.
Safety for people on the ground – There is a lot of bad press in the media about drones, but it shouldn’t be the case. When a drone is operated by a trained professional and all the safety laws are followed drones should not pose a risk to the public.
The primary issue when it comes to helicopters is the cost, you can expect to pay north £8,000.00 for a two hour flight. But, the flexibility they offer and quality of footage certainly makes this outlay worth it for the right projects.
Other things to consider would be the proximity helicopters can get to airports, this also applies to drones, the weather would have to be very wet and overcast for the flight to be postponed without any extra costs. If it is a little more cloudy than you’d like it won’t be enough to postpone the flight.
What pre-production is required?
There is quite a bit of pre-production involved when it comes to planning a drone shoot. Helicopters are a little different as they are operated by specialist companies so this is taken out of our hands. Lets have a look at the different elements required for a drone flight plan –
Site recce – this is carried out ahead of the aerial shoot. During this visit to the location we check for any issues that might hamper the shoot, these could be airports, overhead power lines, busy transport links to name just a few. We also confirm if we will need to set up any cordons, if the location will be closed to the public during the shoot then this won’t be necessary but if members of the public will be present a cordons will be used to keep them at a safe distance. We will also identify suitable take-off and landing areas and discuss a schedule with the client. We look for any power points that we can plug the battery charging station in to.
Take-off and landing maps – Once the recce is complete we then put together a series of take-off/landing and flight path maps. These aren’t required by law but we find that our clients like to have them and they also help us when it comes to the shoot.
Permissions – If there are any particular requirements for the shoot these will be identified at this stage because permissions may be required. If a road needs to be closed there are quite a few steps involved which take time to organise or we may need to find the owner of a piece of land so we can gain access for a take-off/landing site.
For helicopter shoots we act as the director so we will put together a storyboard for the client to sign off. This ensures that everyone knows what to expect from the helicopter shoot. We also liaise with the helicopter crew so they know what equipment we would like to use and the storyboards help give them an idea of the flight path required.
What’s involved on the shoot day?
Once all the pre-production has been done and the sun is shining with a gentle breeze we are ready for the shoot. When we arrive on-site we will first walk around the site to identify the take-off/landing areas to make sure nothing has changed since the recce. The drone then gets set up and we fill out a risk assessment that includes contact numbers for the local emergency services, local weather conditions and general information about the location.
After all of this we are ready to fly. We’ll follow our shot list and setup cordons if members of the public are present. As each battery lasts 15-20 minutes we will minimise the time we spend in the air. We generally take-off, capture a few shots and then land, discuss what we just shot and decide what to do next, whether that’s to change lenses so we can get a slightly different perspective, move onto the next location or redo a shot. This allows us to keep tabs on what we have as we go and to ensure we use the available time as efficiently as possible.
If we’re shooting from a helicopter we will arrive at the air field and meet the helicopter crew. Once in the air we will direct the pilot and aerial cameraman to ensure we are capturing the shots that have been signed off on the storyboard.
I hope this guide has been useful, aerial filming can add a whole new level to a video production so it is definitely worth considering. We are always happy to offer advice and to see if an aerial shoot is possible anywhere in the world. If you’d like to find out more please send us an email or call Will on 01273 911345.