Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Basic Helicopter Filming

I will start a low budget film, on Super 16 mm. there is some shots in helicopter.

No money for special mounts. What I must do?

My impression is hanld held cameras, to absorbs shocks. A friend mine suggests film around 32 fps. Is it help?


Adriano S. Barbuto

Cinematographer So Paulo / Brasil

There's one thing I always do when I have to shoot out of an aircraft that's not equipped for cameras: I bring a climbing harness - the type used by mountain-climbers, or now more popularly at wall-climbing places.

Being securely harnessed in gives me a whole lot more confidence (and safety) when the camera's on my shoulder and there's no door on the aircraft!

The only really inexpensive method I've seen was on a low-budget music video shoot several years ago... the DP used bungees to hang an SR2 from the door-frame of the helicopter. That took most of the weight of the camera, and absorbed a fair bit of the vibration, so he could use a much lighter touch to operate the camera. I know he was overcranking, but I can't remember the frame rate.

If you don't have the budget for a mount, depending on the shots you need, you may try an image stabilizing lens. I've used the Gyrozoom with video cameras, and as long as you and the pilot are in sync, it works relatively well. (I've played a bit with the Arri stabilizer on an SR2, but haven't actually used it myself.)

----- George Hupka Director/DP, Downstream Pictures Saskatoon, Canada

Stangely enough I worked on a music video several years ago that used bungie cords for a helicopter shoot. The DP had made an extra rig that attached to the bottom of his LTR. It is hard describe but I'll try.

Start with a center piece that can be attached to the bottom of the camera. Three arms (about 20 inches) are attached and balanced with lead weights at the end. If I remember right the whole rig weights about 15 pounds or so. The camera was mounted so two of the weights were in front and one was facing the rear. The camera was mounted to the chopper via bungie cords with additional webing as saftey. I used it on a video shoot and it works. Not a Tyler, but it dampens some of the pitch, yaw and vibration. I wonder if you could replace the weights with some gyros??? When you are rigging it to the chopper you need to be mindfull of the wash from the chopper blades. And I would agree with George that being securely harnessed makes a huge diference in shooting. (most chopper guys I have worked with have this stuff and insist that you put it on) I'm sure you know this, but it is always a good idea to talk to the pilot as far in advance so you are both on the same page.

I'm sure that many others could comment on the importance of saftey and planning when shooting in a chopper. I would think that shooting in a chopper is the most dangerous part of the job we do...

Good luck...

Russell Gienapp DP/Halifax, Nova Scotia

*******BE   CAREFUL if attaching anything to a helicopter.

An attachments are supposed to be inspected & signed off on by an FAA inspector. Also, if 'hanging' a camera from a bungee, make sure the bungees are secured or the whole rig may come off hitting you, the tail rotor or just plain disappearing into the great unknown:)

Always sit behind the pilot. Most ships are right-side controlled but Hugh 500's are left-sided. The pilot needs to be seeing what you are doing.

Let the pilot fly the out a system of communication beforehand, such as "a little more left pedal" (rotate the helicopter a little to the left), etc, etc.

A harness is always a necessity....either hooked into the hard mounts on the helicopter or even tied off to the center column.Seat belts are not adequate as they can be accidently opened & don't allow for any side movement.

It's best to stay out of the slipstream or only shoot when you get the ship slowed down to a 'crawl' for stability.

Have fun.

Al Satterwhite DP/LA

P.S It's wise to choose an excellent, experienced pilot. I've ridden 2 of these suckers into the ground, saved both times by excellent pilots.... and lotsa luck!

Shooting hand held from a helicopter 101 Not exhuastive. Take advice from the pilot.

There is no simple way of learning to shoot from a open door of a helicopter. The biggest impact on the quality of the picture is the pilot, the weather and just how comfortable you are feeling in a banked turn with nothing between you and a 1000 ft drop but 1G and a safety strap.


Consider scheduling a wide as possible window so you can choose the time with the smoothest air.

If the weather is bad consider changing direction of the shot. Ask the pilot if there is there anything he or you can do to make the flight smoother.


Choose a reputable company if available. If you are flying low or fancy choose a pilot who has at least 5000 hours flight time.

Beware, every pilot will have had a cameraman in the back at some time or other and so can claim to have filming experience. Do not fly in a private rich kids or corporate chopper with unknown plot except for the simplest of flights.

Your comfort and experience

If you have not flown with the door off then perhaps a short dynamic flight in low cost chopper is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the experience. If the experience is not to your liking then employ a operator for the shot and ride along as his assistant to get flight time.

There are two ways to work from an open or removed door. One is to sit on the floor with your feet dangling or resting on the skids. This gives maximum panning and tilting scope. But is useless at higher speed because your legs and the camera are in the slipstream.

Your mic will become unusable due to wind noise unless you lean backwards out of the slipstream.

This position is good for shooting uncontrolled subjects at low height and low speed (not necessarily a safe way to fly)

It is possible to get shots looking straight down when the aircraft banks. You can also rig it so the camera can be hand held between your legs, looking straight down when in a hover.

This position requires a harness for you and a safety strap for the camera. Take your own harness along and carabinas.. if you trust your life in your own hands that is. All carabinas should be self locking or screw type that can't be accidentally opened (tragically this happened in a televised bungy jump in the UK)

If the harness does not have a front release mechanism then strap a divers knife to your ankle in case you need to get out in a hurry.

Gaffer tape your trouser legs to stop them flapping or tuck them into your socks:)

Wind-chill could be very high so consider silk or cyclists gloves.

Sitting on one inch of foam, securely taped to the floor is an idea. There can be a lot of turbulence in the cockpit with the door off so make sure there is nothing that can get blown about. More to the point prepare a bag, that can be strapped down, that has a zipper so you can access what you need.

The second way is to sit on the seat.

Your shooting angles are more limited, but you are out of the slipstream and generally more comfortable. No silly looking leg ware and changing or batteries and mags or tapes is easier as is communication with the pilot and director. If you are a big chap the camera may come into contact with the roof every now and then.

If you are shooting video take a battery that can be cabled to the camera this will reduce fatigue and give you more scope to tilt down. In general do not use any power from the helicopter.

The seat cushions are usually velcroed in consider removing one, with pilots permission if the camera is too close to the ceiling. More of a problem with video.

I use a small Kenyon gyro that attaches directly to a camera. It helps reduce high frequency vibration. The key to reduce the low frequency oscillation is to be very relaxed so your body acts as a sponge on one hand and a self levelling device on the other. This is not possible to do if you are tense!

I wouldn't reccommend a home made bungey for your first flight.

Which door to be removed? If you want to get technical then wind direcion can have a bearing on which door to remove. Tail rotor effectivness and hence tail stability is affected by wind direction. So it may be on a crappy day that the pilot will suggest (if you let him) shooting in a particular direction which will enable him greater control of the tail. If you are on the ball you will know which door to remove. You can't shoot a counter clockwise orbit of the subject from the starboard side or a clockwise from the portside. If you have a particular shot that develops from a specific landmark then consider which door to work from in advance. Will you be heading clockwise or anticlockwise around the subject?

Plan the shot well in advance if you can. In Europe at least, every few seconds costs a dollar or so! Co-ordinating action on the ground with a specific aerial manoeuvre should be avoided unless you have experienced production staff.

Co-ordinating air to air action is somewhat easier because you will be in the hands of the pilots who shouldn't take off unless they are sure of what you want.

Co-ordinating a air to air shot with a specific ground feature in the background is very difficult for the inexperienced.

Sometimes it is not possible to go as low as you need. One way around this is to get permission to land near the site you are filming. During the landing and takeoff phase you may get the shot you need. Plan plan plan if you can. Shooting hand held involves comprimises!

Arrive with plenty of time to set-up. Allow a 30 minute briefing with the pilot and a one hour rig. Prove to the pilot that you are safety conscientious and have made a effort to plan and he will be more likely to take you seriously! Production often schedule only 30 minutes to "jump on board".

Don't expect mid and long lens shots to be steady for more than a few seconds. Leave the long zoom on the ground. Go close and low if practical. It is possible to track the horizon in post, or remove a wobble (up to a point) 35mm and HD offer more scope than 16mm in my opinion.

Ensure all members of the crew are aware of how to work safely around a helicopter/airfield. Pickup the smallest of yours or anyone elses rubbish. If you are moving seats about and you find a screw on the floor give it to the pilot. Take as few passengers as possible. Generally this will give the aircraft more performance or greater flight endurance and the pilot needs only be concerned with the comfort of a single passenger.

Ensure that the production insures you as your own insurance generally, will not.

Expect a saftey briefing. Get into the habit of walking around the front of the aircraft, never duck under the boom, even when the rotors are stationary. When the helicopter is on the ground and the rotors are coming up speed or are slowing down a severe gust of wind can deflect them down below head height. When the rotors are turning you should only approach the aircraft on the signal of the pilot or ground staff. Camera assistants, don't be pressured into running up to a helicopter because the director or camera operator is beckoning you!

In flight, with a pilot I havn't flown with before, I preface any *unplanned* suggestion for a new manoeuvre with "if it is safe to do so, could we..." This reinforces the proper chain of command in the cockpit, especially if there is a demanding director onboard putting on the pressure if the flight has gone pear shaped.

If you can't go low consider a wide angle lens and a 250 ft access platform, on a windy day it wobbles as much as chopper...

Mike Brennan DP London

Michael's excellent post should be immediately archived for reference!

One additional point for those who may have been in light planes but not in helicopters - the type of motion you get is quite different. If you haven't had helicopter experience, even if you're comfortable in light planes, the first time you shoot from a helicopter you might want to take a precautionary Gravol (diphenhydramine) just to protect against motion sickness. (I've never needed it myself, but I always have some with me for the inevitable producer who wants to go for a chopper ride)

I find that when I'm shooting from my shoulder, with my eye up against the viewfinder, I get much more disoriented than I do when flying without a camera. After ten or fifteen minutes of steep banking, circling, etc. I really need to take a break for a minute or two & get my eye off the viewfinder, just so that my body can find the horizon again and settle in. This is sometimes hard to explain to a producer who is paying a thousand dollars an hour for a helicopter, but a woozy cameraman isn't much good to anybody.

Now if you want a really fun experience, try flying with cropdusters in Argentina!

----- George Hupka Director/DP, Downstream Pictures Saskatoon, Canada

Mike's reply says it all, it's very comprehensive. I used to work full-time of aerial shoots, so I can back his comments. One thing is indeed, 'Chain of Command'

Only one person is in charge in a helicopter. Not the cameraman, not the director, not the producer; but the pilot. Getting excited around a helicopter (and it IS exciting) can lead to disaster.

I've seen (and stopped) first ADs from running into the tail rotor (this can cause instability and mean that you have to abandon the shoot). I've had to back up pilots who refused to do a shot because it was both dangerous and illegal - we both got fired off the production. And I've had to check back a wrecked camera and mount when both director and cameraman were killed because a piece of camera equipment jammed the flight controls.

Yes, aerial filming can be great fun, I can't deny it, but please always bear in mind that safety comes first.

And I really DON'T like the idea of home-made mounts. Yes, I've built them myself in the past - but only under the supervision of a licensed airframe engineer, only in the workshop at an airport and only with the very specific permission of the pilot. And even then, if we kept them, we had to get them *CAA approved.

Certainly, when I was working in aerial filming anything attached to an aircraft became a Modification (either major or minor depending on how it was attached). When we were testing new mounts, we had to fly under Air Work Category and this had all kinds of legal and insurance implications.

As they say, there are old aerial cameramen and there are bold aerial cameramen. But there aren't any old, bold aerial cameramen.

*CAA Civil Aviation Authority

Brian Rose (Feeling every one of his 56 years) Technical Manager OpTex Broadcast Rentals UK

This thread (along with a few moments of viewing "You Only Live Twice" aerials on TV last night) made me want to ask if anyone, and I'm betting it will be Mr Samuelson, has any info on the guy who shot those great aerials from something called the "Para-Shoot". From what I've heard, this guy would hang from under a helo while strapped into a parachute harness! If you watch the footage, it's a little hand held IIc shaky, but really amazing.

I'd heard of some wild adventures this DP had, and that he sadly met his death when he flew out of the rear of a B 25 camera ship on "Catch 22".

Any info? We should probably move it to chat.

Kent Hughes DP and "Rotor Trash" SoCal

And from what I've read, So Paulo is the helicopter capital of the world so you should be able to pic a nice ride! I would shoot at 32 or 48. I did this handheld from a Cessna and it helped. I'd like to try the bungee option one day myself.

John"o Brasil penta campeo"Babl Miami Jeff gets paid in Real $ (Brazilian currency) for this one Check the exchange rate

It was Skeets Kelly. Michael will no doubt be replying to this verys soon.

Look forward to it.

Mike Southon bsc


Yes, Adriano, "overcranking" helps. Don't be shy about it. If it feels rough, go to 48fps or more.

Hand held will absorb a lot of shock and vibration. However, on a rough ride, the problem is keeping your eye to the eyepiece. You may think the picture will look a lot worse than it really is.

For an idea of what can be like go to:

For local advice, get in touch with :

Homero Martins AirCam Rua Araguari, 340 Guarema, Sao Paulo (011) 475-1681 (011) 475 1781

He's a very nice man, extremely knowledgeable, and he can give you a lot of very good advice as to whom you should fly with and whom you should avoid. Tell him I said "Hello".

The most important piece of gear that seems to be in short supply outside major centers, is a voice activated intercom system. Make sure you have a working intercom. If your shot is the least bit complicated, it is essential that you and the pilot can easily communicate while in the air. You'll having plenty to do without screaming, besides having to scream while trying to hand hold is not a good way to get a smooth shot. Go over the shots on the ground, using toy models. This can make the shot clearer to all concerned. If ground co-ordination is necessary, then make sure you have air-to-ground radio communication. Having air to ground radios that interface with the intercom separately from the helo radio is tremendous asset, otherwise you have to relay everything through the pilot. Homero can help with this.

Best of luck,

Brian Heller IA 600 DP

The Para-shoot was indeed a helo rig used by the late Johnny Jordan. It was devised by Johnny Jordan and helicopter pilot John Crewdson. It consisted of a hoop about the diameter of a parachute canopy that was attatched to the skids of Crewdson's Alouette. The shroud lines of a parachute complete with body harness were attatched to the hoop; the operator would hang about 25 feet below. As the helo hovered above, the operator put on the harness. Then the helo and operator would take off.

I believe the rig was devised for "You Only Live Twice" or perhaps an earlier James Bond film. It was on this film, that Johnie lost a leg below the knee. He was hit by the rotor of the helicopter he was filming.

However, the most incredible shots where the rig was used was in the bobsled scene in "On her Majesty's Secret Sevice", another Bond film (1967). The helicopter followed the run at speed, while dragging the operator, Johnny Jordan, backwards in the run just ahead of the sled. Jordan used his leg(s) to keep himself centered in the track, while hand holding the camera on the bobsledders.

I remember when I first saw the scene, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't figure out how someone on the back of a bobsled could possibly stay on the sled and still get those amazing shots. Later, when I found out how it was actually done, I was even more amazed. When you consider that Jordan had only one leg, then it is beyond fantastic. How he was able to get in and out of the rig after he lost his leg must be a study in courage and determination.

From what I've heard, this guy would hang from under a helo while strapped into a parachute harness! If you watch the footage, it's a little hand held IIc shaky, but really amazing.

Watch "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". The bobsled and skiing scenes are well worth it.

I'd heard of some wild adventures this DP had, and that he sadly met his death when  he flew out of the rear of a B 25 camera ship on "Catch 22".

Jordan refused to wear a gunners belt; he said it restricted his movement too much.

Brian "Still gob smacked by Johnnie Jordan" Heller IA 600 DP

Brian Heller wrote :

He was hit by the rotor of the helicopter he was filming.

I'd heard he actually got footage of this accident occurring!

..the bobsled scene

And this footage resulted in an accident that broke his other leg, or something.

Truly, incredible footage! I'd heard that his tragic fall out of the B-25 on "Catch 22" was the impetus behind Bob Netmann's AstroVision design.

What an incredible body of work. Thanks for the info Brian.

Kent Hughes DP SoCal

Yes, and one other accident which nearly resulted in yet more people ending up as a three-line obit in the union rag.

It may have been fine back then but no shot is worth a life. Let's be VERY VERY clear about this. There is absolutely NO reason to take risks when making a feature film, commercial, doco or whatever.

Sorry, but I've seen too many friends lose their lives or sustain very major injuries. When I started to look at the stasticis, I started to feel that I had had enough. I still don't really want to face the reality to how near I was to getting killed in a Lear jet just to get that 'exciting' shot. Thanks to the pilot who insisted we take the rig out of the aircraft the moment he landed and f**k the director, I am still here. Basically, we nearly had a mid-air collision with a Hunter (I'm talking about feet) because some art director had invented a shot that didn't work. OK, we should NEVER have taken off but being Macho Men, we said we'd 'give it a try'.

So what would have happened when they managed to dig the camera put of the ground? The crew's name as a dedication at the end of a Guinness commercial? Sorry, but it's only just beginning to sink in - and it was about 15 years ago.

Brian Rose

Technical Manager OpTex Broadcast Rentals UK

Please re-read my statement. His "tragic death" was what helped push Bob to build a rig that kept people safely contained in a fuselage. I was merely stating how incredible the footage was for such a precarious rig. I'm also amazed that someone could capture their own mid air amputation.

I'm sorry you've had a bad experience, I've been lucky enough to only work with flight/camera crews that refused to even discuss shots that placed us in any more jeopardy than was necessary.

My rules are: I get home-The Pilot gets home-We get the shot. And most definitely in that order!!

Kent Hughes Safe DP SoCal

It may have been fine back then but no shot is worth a life.

I agree completely. However, it was Mr. Jordan's decision not to wear a safety belt. I doubt very much if there is a recognised film pilot around who would allow any passenger or crew to do that these days.

Brian Heller IA 600 DP

As Brian Heller also remarks, pilots are far more safety conscious these days.

That was exactly the point I was trying to make.

Hate to say it, but it WAS with the Astrovision.

Although Astrovision made filming MUCH safer than shooting out the back of a Herc or whatever and does let you shoot at 40,000 ft, it doesn't stop misjudgement. I admit that this is what happened and that at the time I didn't have the balls to say no.

It 'looked OK on paper' and I was working with very experienced people, I also like to think that being trained by the likes of Peter Allwork helped.

And yes, I did learn from the experience. I did quite a lot of air to air with Peter and others and it felt safe. I also learned when to turn down jobs! And as I said, like you, I'm still here.

My point was that there a just too many accidents which should never have happened. I was taught to work to CAA rules and I did help when producers and directors got too pushy. There was one director who refused to believe the pilot when he said that the shot was illegal,

'How much do I have to pay you guys to make it legal?'

the pilot told him approx 4M pounds (what he expected to earn for the rest of his working life. We simply flew back to Battersea heliport, dropped him off (from the ground I hasten to add!!) and returned to base.

We didn't get paid, nor did we want to get paid.

Brian Rose Old and not so bold)

It may seem little to add, but as someone who has had various experiences in helicopters as well as on the ground, I can only say that David Samuelson's words still hold true for me and will do until cameras have become obsolete: "The shot worth dying for has yet to be made". It is worth remembering that behind the camera is a living human being that is not as replacable as a cracked lens. Not all directors and producers are aware of this fact and I think my friend Bryan has done well to remind them and so should we all.

Roger Simonsz DP Paris


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