Video Aerobatics
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Video Aerobatics

To create compelling images—whether for a music video, a television ad, or a corporate presentation—videographers will go to great lengths to come up with creative camera angles for the shots. Rather than simply shooting a subject straight on, they will shoot up at it or down at it, or from some cockeyed perspective that gives the subject a surreal appearance. They'll place cameras on dollies and cranes to get innovative tracking shots. They'll even mount them onto the head of dog, a horse, or a person to capture a unique point-of-view.

One tool of the trade that's particularly good at capturing unusual shots is the remote-controlled helicopter. Capable of flying at speeds up to 70 miles an hour, these feisty little machines can be fitted with cameras and can go places and get shots that would be otherwise impossible. They can mimic the point of view of a golf ball zooming down a fairway, they can swoop through doors and windows, and they can skim the ground before suddenly soaring into the air for a revealing aerial shot.

Remote-controlled helicopters are fairly familiar tools in the feature film world, where they're used frequently to capture dazzling sequences in some of the biggest blockbuster films. This year, for example, choppers from Flying Cam ( were used to capture some dramatic shots in Die Another Day, in which James Bond and the bad guys chase each other down forested roads on hovercrafts. Flying Cam choppers were also used in the latest Harry Potter movie to create shots of the flying car that Harry and his pal Ron used to fly to Hogwarts after missing their ride on the train.

Directors of car commercials also make frequent use of remote-controlled copters because they're the perfect tool for following a car along a windy mountain road or across an open desert. Compared to a big helicopter, the tiny choppers offer several advantages for such shots. They can fit above narrow roads. They can shoot up at a car from ground level and then swoop and dance all around it in one continuous shot. And their small blades don't create enough of a breeze to disturb the natural elements around the car—be it desert sand or mountain snow.

But for all their popularity in feature film and car commercials, these small flyers are still considered a novelty in the video world. Part of the reason might simply be that there are only a few places that offer this particular video service. It takes a highly skilled pilot to operate one of these flying cameras, which means it's not something that you can just pick up from your local video equipment rental shop. In the US, the three primary providers of miniature video choppers are Flying Cam, Coptervision (, and ChopperCam ( The cost of renting a chopper and a two- or three-person shooting crew ranges from $4000 to $10,000 a day. Understandably, that price tag might be too high for some video projects, but for those that can afford it, the benefits can be well worth it.

Jack Dawson, the media relations live-shot coordinator for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, first saw a remote-controlled helicopter several years ago while wandering the aisles at NAB. Ever since then, he's been looking for just the right opportunity to make use of one. That opportunity came last year when NASA decided to create a video celebrating the agency's fortieth anniversary of planetary exploration. The video was first shown at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, and is now on permanent display at JPL.

Working with Coptervision, Dawson ended up creating two dramatic shots for the video. One showed the sprawling JPL campus, which sits in a picturesque arroyo at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. To capture this, the chopper made a long, low glide over the sand of the arroyo before swooping upwards to reveal the JPL campus at daybreak just as the sun came up.

Even more dramatic was a second shot that showed the Mars Yard, a reproduction of the surface of Mars that NASA has built outdoors. The sequence opens with a close-up of a rover traveling over the surface of Mars. Suddenly, the chopper rises straight up to reveal the shadow of a person coming into the frame. Then as a scientist walks into the picture and reaches down to make an adjustment to the rover, the chopper tilts upward to reveal the JPL complex in the background.

"The shot came out absolutely perfect," says Dawson, who notes that they later tried to duplicate the shot with a crane, but the results weren't nearly as good.

Nick Simon, producer for Lawrence & Schiller, an advertising agency in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was equally pleased with his Coptervision experience while making a television commercial for a local hospital. Like Dawson, Simon wanted to capture a dramatic establishing shot for his video. So he had a camera-equipped mini chopper fly low along the road in front of the hospital, then shoot up four of five floors to reveal the hospital grounds below. That would have been completely illegal to do with a full-size helicopter, he notes. Moreover, since he had the helicopter crew for two full-days, he wound up shooting other dynamic aerial sweeps that he says will be useful in future ads for the hospital.

As pleased as Simon and Dawson were with their shoots, they also acknowledge that if they were to work with the equipment again, they'd be even more creative, now that they really appreciate what the choppers can do.

"This is a completely new piece of equipment for most people," says Dawson. "You can look at promo reels, but until you really use it, you don't actually know what you can get and what you can't. It's well worth the cost, especially if there are some special shots that you need."

Meanwhile, the chopper companies continue to make improvements to their flying machines to allow them to do even more. For example, all three companies report they are working to integrate their choppers with GPS systems that will allow the choppers to fly a pre-programmed route that could even take them out of the line of sight of the remote pilot. And ChopperCam reports that it recently created a new model chopper that uses a turbine engine rather than a gas engine. This, he says, eliminates the vibration you can get with a small helicopter, creating a more stable picture, especially when shooting long-distance shots.

With each new improvement, the creative possibilities for film and video directors keep on expanding.

A remote-controlled mini chopper from Coptervision was employed by NASA to capture shots of its JPL campus for a video celebrating 40 years of planetary exploration.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.