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Old August 27th, 2006, 02:39 PM   #1
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Helicopter Shots Season 2

No one can argue that the aerial shot is the most appealing shot a production can have but some of the e-mails I've received recently have caused me to 1) schedule a show dedicated to aerial cinematography and 2) write this posting.

I've read alot of postings over the past few days in boards all over the net that talk about attaching cameras to aircraft with bungees and wires and platforms and all sorts of other apparatuses. I've even seen postings where people advise you to bring your own harness "like the one hill climbers use" in order to "feel safe". To these and other posting I have to say, "Are you insane?!?!"

There's a line I think everyone draws or needs to when it comes to "getting the shot" and no where is this ore important than in the aerial shot. You see, there's alot more to it than just throwing a camera in a helicopter or airplane and going for the shot. And there's a reason for that. While most of us who do alot of production have all seen it done in a pinch to some degree or another, the external mounting of cameras on aircraft has serious ramifications unless it's done professionally and within Air Worthiness guidelines. As a pilot with more than 13,000 hours as PIC (Pilot in Command), I wanted to make you aware of the fact that, not only is it illegal, it's downright dangerous to mount a camera on an aircraft...and it's alot easier to get caught these days with citizens always on the lookout for things that look "terrorist" in nature.

I guess the first concern for most of you is, "Is the cameraman in jeopardy?" And the answer is, simply stated, "Only if something goes wrong and someone is injured or otherwise subjects the camera operator to a civil law suit. Or if your 'equipment' fails and you die by falling out of the aircraft."

As far as the pilot is concerned though, it's a different story as the regs are exceedingly clear when it comes to operating an "unsafe aircraft". FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) Part 91.3(a) covers all aspects of operating an aircraft including pre-flight planning, the airworthiness of the aircraft, safe operation of the aircraft and compliance with all regulations applicable to the particular flight operations, to name a few. All of these things come into play with the addition of a mechanism like a camera and mount to the exterior of an aircraft as do others so a violation of this one subsection pretty much guarantees the yanking of a pilot's certificate if he or she is caught.

While the FAA is certainly concerned with the pilot's safety and that of the passengers, it's the people on the ground that are of principle concern to the authority. During flight, so many things can go wrong from the most simplistic issue of the camera and mount falling off to the most serious which are problems associated with the "weight and balance" of an aircraft. Aircraft are subject to forces that keep the aircraft moving in balanced flight. Each of these is constantly shifting as various forces not the least of which, air flow, exerts force on an aircraft. An empty aircraft has a balancing point if you will in front of and behind which only a certain amount of weight can be placed. Exceeding these limitations and not only does the aircraft become more difficult to handle in normal situations, it becomes just one more thing the pilot has to deal with in the event of a problem. And an aircraft that's out of balance on the ground can turn a "problem" that develops in the air into an "emergency situation" real fast.

I'm not here to pass judgment on anyone but I have to tell you that in the eyes of the law and, quite frankly, in the eyes of the general public, pilots are held to a much higher standard than the average citizen. More is expected of us if for no other reason than the decisions we make routinely involve the lives of many, many more people than the average citizen. We're expected to make the right decision all the time with no room for exception and that's a pressure I take and every pilot I know takes very seriously. With that said, personally, I wouldn't go anywhere near a pilot who would even think of strapping something to his or her (or more likely a rented) aircraft and saying, "OK, jump in!" It's simply too dangerous...for the pilot, the cameraman and public. So the bottom line is that while you can always argue that there are already too many rules and regulations that make filming difficult, this is one you just don't mess with.

And there's one more aspect to the subject. if you think you're poor now, just wait until the lawyers and FAA get through with you in the event of an incident...and I don't mean crash. I mean something as simple as someone looking up, seeing someone hanging out of an airplane or helicopter that's close to the ground, noting the tail numbers and calling it in. Believe me. Faster than you can say "Osama", there'll be a host of local and federal authorities at the pilot's home airport waiting for you to land. And if they miss you there, you can bet that within minutes, they'll be knocking at the pilot's home door. How do they know where you live? Simple. Any of the pilots out there know and will tell you that no one and nothing is more closely tracked that aircraft and their owners. Flying an aircraft is a privilege with a capital "P" and if you don't know that, then you're not a pilot. My medical is done every 6 months because of the ratings I carry and things they allow me to do but even with the simplest recreational Class 3 pilots it's done every 1 or 3 years. And not only are pilots checked, their aircraft's airworthiness is certified by an certified aircraft mechanic every 12 months. In short, you're more likely to get away with just about anything than you are to get away with breaking the rules and regulations of the FAA. http://www.usua.org/Rules/ruleandregs.htm is a great resource of basic aviation questions.

So the next time you're thinking about going up, what do you do? Simple. First, there's stock footage. The HD air footage libraries are growing. Granted, they're nothing compared to SD and SD libraries are limited at best and expensive but footage is available out there. Next, rent an outfitted helo with pilot, sit in the back and direct the shots you need. LA411 at http://www.cinematography.net/Pages%...helicopter.htm
is a great resource for aerial facilities in the Los Angeles area and there are others in most metropolitan cities across the country. Finally, we're in the middle of working a deal with 2 LA-based and 1 New Jersey/New York-based outfit to provide for your aerial shot needs at a substantially reduced price. Until then, there are 2 safe ways and one unsafe way. Which one is best for you is up to you. But as I said, each time you go up with a pilot, you're betting your life that he or she will get you back home to your wife and children safely. Isn't it odd that you'd put your full faith and trust in a person whose first decision is to knowingly break the law by taking you up in an aircraft that isn't legal? So look for the certification that the ship you're going up in is safe and legally outfitted with a permanent system. Or, look for an operator that uses a mobile platform with seating and harasses that are appropriate and legal...not that a "hill-climber's harness" isn't a good idea too, as long as you're climbing hills.

The bottom line is aerial shots are expensive and good aerial shots are even more expensive. But then what's the price of your life and a good film?
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Old August 28th, 2006, 10:46 AM   #2
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Well, that seems definitive.

If you don't mind answering what I hope is a simple question, I have seen advertisements for helicopters in Hawaii that have no doors. They seem to be set up for photographers. Must be loud as all get out.

Can I assume that their aerodynamics are not affected by this? So shooting out the window while using some sort of stabilizer would work reasonably well? Or just save the money (or just shoot a lot of stills)?
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Old August 28th, 2006, 05:52 PM   #3
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I'm not a helicopter pilot, but a couple of my family members are. Whether the doors are open or closed or off altogether, helicopters are just plain loud, period. Speaking in general terms about your garden-variety lightweight helicopters such as the ubiquitous Bell 206 Jet Ranger and similar series, commonly found in television news and law enforcement capacities, they're usually not going to fly fast enough nor in weather severe enough to have their aerodynamics affected by the doors being open.
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Old August 28th, 2006, 09:48 PM   #4
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Chris is precisly correct. It's surprising to most who have not been up in a helo with the doors off but the aerodynamics are generally not a concern and there's not alot of wind entering the cabin. The R-22, a Robinson-brand helicopter typically used for initial private training, routinely goes doorless when aloft because it's just plain hot up there. Helos generally are within 500' of the surface or AGL (Above Ground Level) and therefore subject to the same heat as ground-bound pedestrians are; this dimetric to the airplane which travels higher and therefore is not subject to the source of most heat on earth, reflective heat from the earth's surface. Add to this the fact that the plexiglass "bubble" of the helo acts as a magnifying glass and the cramped quarters prevalent in trainers and it's just easier and more comfortable to remove the doors.

When it comes to aerial shooting, there's a great unit out there developed and manufactured by Arnie Itzkowitz and available through www.aerialexposures.com that fits well into an R-44 or a Schweitzer, the former being the preferred unit of the two options because of the fact that the unit can sit down into the seat area if you're going for the economy route. In the Los Angeles area, Robin Petgrave at Celebrity Helicopters in Compton (877) 999-2099 is a very experienced pilot that just got his gyro unit from Arnie and is available for charter shots. Up north in the San Francisco Bay area, Blue Skys Aviation is another one. Both of these outfits use the R-44 which is the helo I typically fly in the gas range. The R-22 is too underpowered to accommodate a pilot, gyro unit/camera setup and you so pass on that one if you ever are offered the services. Contrary to popular belief, just because a helo doesn't exceed a weight and balance at take-off doesn't mean it's safe to fly when it's near its limits. And lighter helos provide a less stable shooting platform. Downdrafts and other atmospheric conditions prevalent in mountain and desert flying play havoc with a helo so you want the most power your pocketbook can afford when shooting from the air. In the turbine family, the Bell 206 of which Chris speaks is a stalwart and one in which I've logged more than a couple of hours but by far my favorite aircraft to fly or shoot from is the Eurocopter A-Star. It's wide, roomy, powerful, stable and thus makes for a great platform from which Arnies mount with your camera can be used. The rear area can seat 3 across and the doors-off mode gives plenty of room for shooting from both sides. And because it's a turbie, it's significantly quieter than the gas engine Robinson. Anyway, that's what makes dvinfo such a great resource; experience and Chris' breadth of experience and knowledge never ceases to amaze me. Thanks Chris. And Steven, if you ever want to go up for a spin in the LA area, give me a shout and it'd be my pleaseure to take you up and give you the opportunity to get some great LA aerial shots.
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Old August 29th, 2006, 01:03 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris Hurd
they're usually not going to fly fast enough or in weather severe enough to have their aerodynamics affected by the doors being open.
Aerodynamics? Are you serious? Everyone knows that helicopters only fly because they are so ugly that the Earth repels them. (grin)

I agree with everything Jonathan says regarding fixed wing ops.

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Old August 29th, 2006, 07:13 AM   #6
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Thanks for the offer Jonathan. I'll keep that in mind. I have a lot of family in the LA area.

I keep having this picture pop into my head of a camera mount in the belly of an airplane with a nice piece of glass in front of it mounted flush with the fusilage, and a professional monitor and mounted in front of the copilot's or passenger's seat.

Probably an expensive rig, but it seems like the way to go. Looking at those stabilizers it all makes a lot of sense for helicopters. You guys have any pictures of how you do this from an airplane?
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Old August 29th, 2006, 08:54 AM   #7
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Actually, airplanes are more easilly and inexpensively rigged for forward-looking cameras which are the ones everyone associates with movies. The fact of the matter is that your brain thinks forward-looing because that's what the expensive, motion picture shots are. They're usually taken from the nose mount of a helicopter. In reality, these are not likely to show up on independent productions because they are the most expensive shots. The indies are likely to get the side-mounted camera shots which are taken out of the sides of helicopters and airplanes with devices like Arnie's mount and, as you might imagine, are completely different. That said, in the UK there's a wonderful invention that we've just ordered that attaches to the wing mount strut. This device makes getting the forward-looking shot affordable for the indie and they just look so much better. Find them at http://www.lastrefuge.co.uk/data/aer...ion_mount.html
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Old August 29th, 2006, 09:33 AM   #8
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Hey hey hey on those helicopter jokes ;-) You can't just stop at one! All kidding aside, Season 2 will be jam-packed with contests and give-aways, one of which is going to be a ride for photo session in a helicopter or airplane, both courtesy of yours truly. That means we'll provide for your air transportation to and from Los Angeles and 2 hours flying time in the air for your picture-taking pleasure.

Last edited by Jonathan Ames; August 29th, 2006 at 08:06 PM.
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Old August 30th, 2006, 01:50 PM   #9
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I read through some of the postings on the other forum and it just blows my mind. I can't imagine a DP let alone a pilot letting someone "rig" something to a helicopter.

I have a fair amount of aerial experience shooting from a Eurocopter, Bell 206, Bell Long Ranger and recently a Robinson 44. I have also shot handheld, with a Tyler Mount and a full Flear system. My first topic to discuss with the pilot is always "You let me know what you are comfortable with and if you don't fell safe doing something then we will not do it." I feel that it always takes the pressure off the pilot of sharing the fact that something makes them uncomfortable doing.

One thing that I can't stress enough with taking the door off of a helicopter, make sure EVERYTHING is secure, bags, batteries, EVERYTHING. It could be devasting if something falls out the window and gets sucked into the tail rotor.
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Old August 30th, 2006, 03:26 PM   #10
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maybe this macho thread isn't the place to interject, but another good aerial mount is the hot air balloon mount. you don't get to control the outcome of your image all the time, but the simple and inexpensive beanbag stabilizer works pretty well!
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Old August 30th, 2006, 04:46 PM   #11
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Not to mention it's a whole lot quieter than a helicopter! Except when the burners go off.

Plus all the barking... every dog within a square mile goes to red alert when a hot air balloon floats by.
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Old August 30th, 2006, 05:56 PM   #12
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First, I'm glad this has generated the thoughts it has. You'd really be surprised at what I've heard "cinematographers" or "DPs" talking about what they've supposedly done. On the other hand, if you think the film community is small, the pilot community is even smaller as it seems we all know each other or someone who know the other guy or girl. The pilots I fly with would have no part of the stuff I've heard goes on and if it was left up to the vast majority of us, we'd yank every one of their tickets. Yeah, I hear all of the jokes but I can tell you as a pilot of both craft, helicopter pilots are alot more serious about their craft than airplane pilots are and it has to do with how we fly. Airplanes, for the most part, fly themselves as they're designed to be inherently stable whereas helicopters are constantly trying to crash themelves into the ground. The result is a different type of pilot is attracted to each aircraft and the helo piloits are alot more serious, alot more introspective and I think inherently conservative...as it should be. I dont know what it says about those of us who fly both! The up side is this only serves to illustrate the level of professionalism Chris' forum has. Glad to be a part of it and I really hope the one who wins the contest has a love of both flying and ciinematography. There's so much more to it than just getting the shot.

On the balloon issue, some of the most beautiful shots I've ever seen have been from balloons. I think it has something to do with the serentiy of the atmosphere that just naturally lends itself to serenity in pictures. Anyone who's been on a real shoot where there's money and time involved knows the atmosphere affects the workproduct. Pressure comes through on film as does calm.

Also, I just found a major downside to the UK cvamera mount. It's $20k. We're going to invest in it because we already have the airplane and we'll be using it alot. One thought was that we could put together a really extensive library of some great aerial shots in the So Cal area and then make them available to the indies on this board. Does anyone think they'd use that kind of service?
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Old August 30th, 2006, 08:48 PM   #13
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A balloon moves with the wind currents. They are flown early in the morning or near sunset in order to avoid thermals. The only time you notice a breeze is when you are tied down or traveling through an inversion layer -- the balloon has a lot of mass and takes some time to accelerate to the new wind speed. A balloon pilot can fly you right above the tree tops ("contour flying") giving you access to some incredible shots of animals in the woods and other aerials that you can not obtain via other aircraft.

Tip: Balloonists are always seeking ground crew so it's quite easy to trade crewing for flight time. Just ask a balloonist.
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Old August 30th, 2006, 09:31 PM   #14
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How right you are. In aircraft, we call tree top flying "map of the earth flying.
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Old August 31st, 2006, 01:14 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan Ames
On the balloon issue, some of the most beautiful shots I've ever seen have been from balloons. I think it has something to do with the serentiy of the atmosphere that just naturally lends itself to serenity in pictures. Anyone who's been on a real shoot where there's money and time involved knows the atmosphere affects the workproduct. Pressure comes through on film as does calm.
...huh, this is one of the most zen-like ideas about video shooting i've ever heard...gives me a bit to think about...
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