CML - Cinematography Mailing List

Shooting From Helicopters

>Published : 3rd June 2007

>I will be filming from a helicopter for a DVX100A shoot next week and wondered if anyone had any words of wisdom. Unfortunately, the production doesn't have a budget for any serious mounts. We will be shooting shots of LA during the day. Let me also say that this will be my first time in a helicopter.

>I found some great posts on safety and mounts in the archives, but less on "guerrilla" or low-budget type shooting. Also there was a thread about RF interference from transponders - any more info on that subject would be appreciated.

>Thanks in advance,

>Anne Etheridge
LA-based Cinematographer

>Go to and find a link to the rental house in LA that has their mount.

It's very inexpensive to rent and will do much better than shooting hand-held which is what you seem to indicate you plan to do.

Robert Goodman
Philadelphia, PA

>Anne Etheridge writes:

>>>I will be filming from a helicopter for a DVX100A shoot next week and >>wondered if anyone had any words of wisdom.

People have been shooting hand-held shots successfully from helos since hellos were invented.

class="style2">>>We will be shooting shots of LA during the day. Let me also say that >>this will be my first time in a helicopter.

>Everybody had a "first time". Be sure the pilot knows it's your first time. Try to arrange a brief ride before you begin shooting to make sure everything is ok.

>Weather is the most important factor because you cannot control it. If it is windy, don't shoot. There is usually less wind early in the morning or later in the day toward sunset -- which also happens to be the best time for light as well.

>The next most important factor is the pilot. There is no substitute for experience. If the pilot does not have film experience, find another pilot.

>Next is the helo itself.

>I would assume due to the competitive nature of the film biz in LA that any aerial film operation in LA would have to keep its helicopters in very good shape as far as rotor tracking and balance are concerned…

>I would also assume that there would be an intercom. Even so, be sure you and the pilot understand what it is that you are trying to get before you take off. If you have examples, show them to the pilot.

>Go with an established operation.

>As far as hand-holding is concerned, the best way to hand hold in a helicopter is to remove a door and sit in the doorway. It gives you the greatest range of movement and will give you the steadiest shots. However, it is probably the most unnerving for a novice, since there is nothing to hold onto, and nothing in front of you. If that's not an option, many helicopters have "photo doors. These are standard doors with large windows that can be lowered or removed.

>You can kneel on the floor or sit in a seat, but your range of movement will be limited, especially if the pilot requires you to wear a seat belt.

class="style2">>>I found some great posts on safety and mounts in the archives, but >>less on "guerrilla" or low-budget type shooting.

>There is a reason for that: low budget and helicopters generally don't go together. There is also far more to aerial work than can be fit in an email.

class="style2">>>Also there was a thread about RF interference from transponders - >>any more info on that subject would be appreciated.

The transponder antenna is located outside the helo, usually on the belly of the helo. If you are seated inside the helo, the transponder should not be a factor. However, if you fly near powerful antennas, you might pick up some interference.

Good luck and have fun,

>Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

>Anne Etheridge asks:

>>I will be filming from a helicopter for a DVX100A shoot next week and >>wondered if anyone had any words of wisdom.

>Having done more helicopter shots than I can remember ranging from Tyler to Continental Mounts...the most common method of shooting from a helicopter seems to be hand held.

>With that in mind, if you can get the chopper folks to remove the door from the shooting side, this will facilitate your shooting significantly.

>You main enemies will be G-force which only comes into play when you ask the pilot to do tight circles either descending or ascending. The G force will actually push you down and at times make it almost impossible to hand hold anything. Also rotor wash can cause lots of vibration.

>Most experienced camera pilots know both of these anomalies and can generally help you design your shot to keep them at a minimum.

>To me the real issue is just plain speed!. The chopper has to maintain a certain airspeed in order to stay smooth and that means anywhere's from 60 to as high as 90mph and at that speed, if you stick your camera beyond the fuselage, it'll get ripped from your hands.

>If you know of a Tyler rental house in your area, you might try and rent just the blast shield, which is a Plexiglas shield that attaches to the door hinge posts from the door you had removed. With this in place, you have almost 18" of wind shield those allowing you to stick the camera out from the fuselage for back and down shots.

>In any case, make sure you have everything you can take off the camera removed!

>Camera mike is the main thing. Your sound will be pretty much what you would expect up there and the DVX100a's internal mike will be just fine. If you keep the lens shade on, tape it in place for added safety.

>You should also have a safety line attached to the camera so that in the event you drop it or it gets blown from your hands, won't hit someone on the ground or worse, cause damage to the rotor not to mention just losing the camera itself!

>Bear in mind I've referring about shooting from a Jet Ranger, the most common rental helicopter. You may be in a much smaller machine and have to ride up front which is a bit more of a task because you will have to shoot through a small window opening unless they remove the door from that one as well.

>So I guess the main thing in any helicopter you use is to get the door off, safety line the camera, remove the camera mike and tape down the lens shade.

>If it were film I'd suggest shooting at about 32frames but that really doesn't make much difference with video. You can always slow it down a bit in post to remove some of the unwanted unstableness.

>Speaking of which, I've had a DVX for years now but I can't remember if it has in camera stabilization like SteadiShot! I never use it, but if it does, turn it on. It'll help.

>Have fun. Flying in a chopper for the first time is very exhilarating and can be habit forming!!

>Allen S. Facemire-DP/Director
SaltRun Productions,inc. Atlanta/Norcross, GA
Creativity Just Flows Here...

>Don't know if you've considered this already, but depending on your needs there are many great stock-footage houses that have amazing aerial footage of big cities, like LA. Shooting handheld out a Jet Ranger is probably not going to give your director what they're looking for.

>Sped up aerials will look like crap if they're not done with the proper gyros/pilots. What you're going to get is going to look like news-chopper footage, which is ok if that fits with the style of the film. Otherwise everyone's going to be disappointed.

Jim Eagan
NY editor/cameraman

class="style3">>>I will be filming from a helicopter... for a DVX100A . Unfortunately, the >>production doesn't have a budget for any serious mounts.

>In days of your when we couldn't afford a Tyler middle mount we wrapped bungy cord around the camera and attached it to the door. It worked surprisingly well.

>The FAA has gotten stricter and most pilots would not allow this today but it might work fine for a camera as small as the 100a shooting from the passenger seat. You would have to make sure that there would be a place to attach the bungy. Evan a modification as minor as drilling a small hole requires paper work with the FAA.

>Mik Cribben-Steadicam and helicopter operator-IA600

>After the death of my friend Neil Fredericks doing his own shots from an airplane, handheld, while being tied to a chair (he died because the plane crashed into 50' of water and he couldn't untie himself fast enough), I'm more committed than ever to finding an expert to shoot aerial shots rather than do them myself.

>You can't possibly learn in a few days or internet posts to do SAFELY what some guy has been doing decades for a living.

>David Mullen, ASC
Los Angeles

>David Mullen writes :

class="style3">>>You can't possibly learn in a few days or internet posts to do SAFELY >>what some guy has been doing decades for a living.

>Absolutely. Well said David.

>Randy Miller, DP in LA

>David Mullen wrote:

class="style3">>>After the death of my friend Neil Fredericks doing his own shots from >>an airplane, handheld, while being tied to a chair (he died because >>the plane crashed into 50' of water and he couldn't untie himself fast >>enough),

>This is certainly true, and no one is really disputing that. However, even the most experienced aerial cameraman had to make a first flight, and thanks to CML many novices have come to be aware that although it may make you feel more secure, tying yourself into, or allowing yourself to be tied into, an aircraft is a terrible idea -- one that can have tragic consequences.

>No matter what else you do or don't do, only used an aviation approved seat belt or an approved safety harness, one that you or any potential rescuer can easily open.

>Save your tape for taping magazines. Don't even think about taping the seat belt latch "for safety."

>Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

>Or tape the camera to your hand...

>I once shot out of a Cessna where we bungeed the camera handle to a small handgrip that was a part of the plane cabin located directly above the door opening. It helped remove some vibration as I suspended the camera from the bungee, but when a suicidal bird came for our windshield the pilot reflexively banked and then corrected. The camera swung out of my hands and then flew right back into my face. Ouch.

>I now use a glove with some Velcro sewn to the palm and some matching Velcro on the camera handgrip. Solid but I can still separate should my life depend on it. For a little camera like a DVX100A you might just want to run a rope through the camera handle and attach it to yourself.

>Mitch Gross

>Here's my $.02,

>If you must use the DVX-100A and are following many of the safety regulations listed above.

>First try to shoot wide if you can and when doing it do not brace yourself against any part of the helicopter except the seat you are sitting on.

>Even with stabilization turned on in the camera it will not really overcome the bird's cyclic vibrations.

>Other things to avoid include horizon lines without a foreground subject which will draw the eye unless perfectly stable. Shooting from a properly equipped helicopter is really the best alternative.

>If you shoot good footage it may be worth it to sell it as stock footage later on. There are a number of good systems out the such as the Cineflex and the Tyler.

>However all these mounts require the skills of an advanced operator. Expect to pay $1200 to 1500 an hour, which still is cheaper than failed footage.

>Personally I have been training on the Cineflex and Flir systems and can honestly say that if you are a first time operator you will be hard pressed to achieve good results.

>Mark Forman
Mark Forman Productions, Corp.

>You can also rent a K-6 gyro which will screw right into the tripod hole on the camera base and this will help kill a lot of the vibration.

>I've done this in the past and it certainly helps.

>Kenyon is located in Connecticut and specifically cites helicopter shooting as a use. I know there's an Israeli company that offers similar gyros that work directly off 12v (Kenyon units need a supplied inverter), but I'm told the Kenyon's are better built. Kenyon will rent direct if you can't find gyros locally and they're certainly an inexpensive solution.

No connection, just used them before.

Mitch Gross


>If you must shoot handheld, a Kenyon gyro attached to the tripod mount will help immensely.

>To check for transponder interference, cap the lens and roll some tape...then play back and look for a series of fine horizontal white lines that appear about once every two seconds...if you don't see anything, you should be ok.

>As others mentioned, the best results will be achieved with the side door removed, with you sitting facing out sideways (or on the floor)...with a proper safety harness (VERY IMPORTANT !) Lean back just enough to keep the camera out of the slipstream passing the open door, and keep your upper body free of any parts of the helicopter so it can absorb vibrations and g-forces. Stay wide on the won't be able to go in tight and get acceptable results. MAKE SURE you use a pilot who's experienced in aerial filming. He'll know how to position the helo to get you the angles you need.

>Stay loose and have fun.

>Have a good shoot.

>Steve Cassidy
Aerial D.P./ Contractor

class="style3">>>There are a number of good systems out the such as the Cineflex and >>the Tyler.

>I agree, there is no use paying for the helo and running risks if the stock is not going to be good enough. If lucky you will have a few seconds of a good steady and framed shot. Or you can live with long, long shots of the skyline. Shooting from the helicopter with a small dv camera without a rig should have some use like news footage but not for "artistic" shots.

>For the weight of the camera maybe is better to use an ultra light airplane which can flight slow and low, but there is the limitation of flying permits if you are shooting above the city.

>I have been reading this thread with interest because I am shooting some aerials soon but first time with Tyler side mount. It should be interesting to hear about operating tips on the use of it. Its expensive but worth it, I think.

>I can think of many times when after shooting from Cessna, helicopters and ultra lights I spent time searching for a piece of footage good enough to use it, a few seconds worth, and the long hours of footage that wont be used because of vibration, wind, not the right framing, etc. and all the frustration that came from it. You will have to think in pretty wide shots, I think.

>Wish you luck, be safe and have lots of fun.

>Miguel del Valle Prieto Sarmiento.
Director de Fotografía-Productor.
Dos38 media (Vapsa)/esarcine
México DF-Acapulco.

>Miguel del Valle observes :

class="style3">>>I have been reading this thread with interest because I am shooting >>some aerials soon but first time with Tyler side mount.

>Make sure you have a good technician setting it up, particularly for power cables. That can be an issue.

>And if the rig is equipped with Tyler Gyros and it's your first time, remember will not be able to do "whip pans" with that kind of rig. The Gyros just won't allow that kind of radical movement but man do they increase the smoothness.

>Also, with the side mount your main issue will be keep the horizon horizontal. It takes a bit of finesse which is why a correct set up is important. Otherwise you wind up fighting the damn thing!

>Allen S. Facemire-DP/Director
SaltRun Productions,inc. Atlanta/Norcross, GA

class="style3">>>Let me also say that this will be my first time in a helicopter.

>Bring Gravol!

George Hupka
CML Listmum

class="style3">>>Let me also say that this will be my first time in a >>helicopter.
>>Bring Gravol!

>Or two straight Jack Daniels at the end!!!!!

>Miguel del Valle Prieto Sarmiento.
Director de Fotografía-Productor.

>To all of the very good postings, I'll offer another thought or two...

>The issue of airsickness can be a real one for a production schedule.

>I've done my share of handhelds out of choppers with some good results, and some pretty awful, like when the director was asking for an 80mm handheld with an ARRI 35-3 of lingerie models on a Manhattan terrace on a windy day). I didn't get sick that time, just frustrated. But once, I had to shoot handheld, totally open-air, in a vintage biplane with a DigiBeta, doing plane to plane, scenic's, and shots of the pilot.

>Well, this got rescheduled from magic hour to the beginning of a busy day. The combination of the cold up there, fighting the 90mph wind, and the stunts, made the remainder of the day quite a bit more difficult.

>I guess another thing that's probably worth saying is that, from a helicopter, to some extent you are shooting the weather. If the day is crap, likely your footage is, too.

>Good luck and shoot safely.

>Tim Philo

>Mitch Gross writes:

class="style3">>>You can also rent a K-6 gyro which will screw right into the tripod hole >>on the camera base and this will help kill a lot of the vibration.

>For a camera the size of a DVX, that sounds like an excellent solution. Combine it with the camera's built-in image stabilization and you should be able to make out like gangbusters.

>I used Kenyons with Arri 16-S's (about the same size as the DVX, though much more ergonomic) as far back as the early 1960s. Great combination. (Yes, Kenyon has been around at least that long!)

>Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

>Gyros are a great idea, and the Kenyons are indeed marvels:

>However, I would advise any novice not to rush right out and put a Kenyon KS-6 on a small video camera when he or she may be sitting in a helo doorway for the first time. It's best to take these things one step at a time. The gyros have their own learning curve quite separate from helicopter work, and they can be very tiring to hand hold for any length of time. A KS-2, or a KS-4, might be a better place to start.

>In any event, gyros draw a lot of juice, require several minutes to get up to speed, and depending on where you rent it, may have limited compatibility with the aircraft's electrical system, in terms of both voltage and connector configuration, so some knowledgeable preparation is essential. The battery that rental gyros usually come with is usually woefully inadequate. The video camera's battery is not going to help either. Think truck battery.

>One other thing I forgot to mention in earlier posts is the importance of some place to put your feet. Most pro mounts (Tyler, Continental, etc.) have a foot rest.

>Many -- but by no means all -- helos have a "Flight Step" attached to the skids, which can be used as a foot rest, but many do not have a "Flight Step". And no, you just can't tie
a 2x4 to the skids.

>Trying to hand hold with your legs dangling in the slipstream is extremely difficult. For that matter, trying to operate a Tyler without the footrest is also extremely difficult.

>P.S. Be sure to wear laced shoes, or you'll be going home barefoot.

>Speaking of Gyros, there ought to be a plaque on the wall at Tyler with Don Sweeney's name on it. Don Sweeney was a top aerial cameraman (now retired) in NYC. He is the one who persisted in trying various combinations of gyros on the Tyler mounts (Major and Middle) until he came up with the ultimate combination of three KS-8s -- roll, pitch, and yaw.

>The Gyros make a tremendous difference with the Tyler mount's operation; they are worth every penny.

>Helpful hint: With a heavy zoom and a 435, the Tyler Middle Mount counter weight winds up being fully extended. This causes the roll axis gyro which is mounted to the counter weight to be considerably off axis so that it is fighting with the other two (pitch and yaw) gyros. The solution is to use a KS-12 aka "The Football" on the counter weight. The additional weight of the KS-12 (15lbs) is the right amount to bring the counter weight and the roll axis gyro back into the proper orientation.

>BTW, you should not tie the camera to yourself. Instead, ask the pilot how and where to secure it. Any seat belt fitting would probably be fine. The fewer -- ideally none -- encumbrances there are when your are trying to get out of a ditched aircraft the better.

>Brian Heller
IA 600 DP











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