So why do we want aerials in our films?
For me, aerial shots put sequences filmed on the ground into perspective by making sense of the place geographically, and add a new dimension from which to visually appreciate the beautiful and remote places in which we work. They can also be a useful tool to transport the audience from one place to another; or develop a certain mood, or a change of pace in the story.
What style of aerial fits the mood of the film?
Whether you want to float gently over landscapes; film a fast moving aerial action sequence; follow herds of animals, migrating birds, cars, boats or aeroplanes; it is important to work out early on what style of aerial will fit your film. Once that decision is made you can then think about how you are going to film it – what kind of aircraft you are going to use, and how you want to place the camera on the aircraft, for a sideways view with the camera in the hands of the camera operator; or a remote, forward or backward facing, one. Most probably there will be budgetary restrictions that come into play here to affect your choice too.
The Importance of Choreography
It is most important to plan in great detail, and discussions of shots in detail between Director, Camera operator, and Pilot before leaving the ground are essential. Once in the air it is noisy and windy, especially with the door of an aircraft removed; and time spent in the air in discussion, or indecision, is an expensive waste of time. If everyone knows what is expected before take off, then there might even be time for a rehearsal run before running the camera, to ensure the shot will work as planned and to take stock of local wind conditions. A rehearsal can be especially important if the pilot and camera operator have not worked together before, so any unexpected surprises can be compensated for on the “Take Run”.
Changing weather can be a dramatic backdrop to any scene, but unstable air causes problems for both pilot and camera operator. Turbulence will be found under even the most harmless looking fluffy white cumulus cloud. In turbulent air, smooth flight is impossible. Conditions may look good but bumpy air can be encountered over trees, buildings, and even roads where ground heating, due to reflective surfaces, is variable. In mountainous or hilly areas one has to be especially careful of windshear and downdraughts which can seriously wreck your day. The results of these are shots that pitch and bounce on the screen. Better to choose stable weather periods, such as early morning or the short period just before sunset; when the light tends to be more dramatic anyway.
If the air is bumpy, and you have to fly, you can always smooth things out a bit by over cranking the camera. The resulting slow motion gives the impression of floating gently over the ground subject matter, as if one was filming from a balloon. But beware, shooting ratios increase radically when over cranking, and if you slow the shots down too much they become boring to watch, however exciting the landscape.
What film format?…..or video?
This is a question that is probably predetermined by the budget, but the format that you find yourself working with will have a bearing on your choice of aircraft type and the camera mount that you are going to use (if any). If you are working with video, or 16mm, you may choose to approach the whole thing very simply, but as soon as you move up to 35mm or larger, for example IMAX, camera control and therefore image stability become essential prerequisites for acceptable aerial photography. It becomes necessary to use complex camera mounts, and may demand special adjustments to the aircraft such as helicopter rotor balancing, to reduce vibration to a minimum.