Serving the skies


Aerial cinematography has become a common feature in today’s world of motion pictures – from high end commercials to television series to major 3D international feature films. Andy Stead reports.

Two GT40 sports cars wind along Chapman’s Peak drive at speed. Shot from behind the camera follows closely – veering out over the water on the bends but keeping the cars close and in sharp focus. Clearly a helicopter shot.

A short tunnel appears, the cars roar through – the camera follows them – THROUGH THE TUNNEL!! It is the most amazing visual, but through the tunnel?
This is of course a model helicopter. Flown by a dedicated radio control (RC) expert (as these models are no mean feat to fly), and a vehicle which is driven as a chase car behind the action. The footage can be quite astonishing as models are able to fly lower, and in a much more confined space, than a conventional helicopter.

Traditional airborne cinematography has evolved and while there is no substitute for the real thing, model helicopters, drones and multi-engined devices such as the Quadcam, Hexcam and SteadiDrone, capable of carrying a payload of up to 10kg, as well as providing exceptionally stable and relatively silent platforms, are becoming increasingly popular for applications where radio control will suffice.

Local company Motion Pixel offers the unique SteadiDrone, which they claim is unique in its ability to shoot fast low level shots and smooth jib shots. Brushless motors are more powerful than previous electric motors and work with far less noise, making devices of this nature ideally suited for aerial cinematography.

Conventional option

A wide variety of both local and overseas companies also offer conventional, single turbine and twin turbine model helicopters with multi axis gimbals able to carry payload of several kilograms and will comfortably carry a RED One camera or a conventional film camera.

These set ups generally require two operators, assuming the mounted camera is mobile. A vehicle is used which houses the camera RC operator, his RC transmitter, and all required monitoring equipment for the director. This vehicle will follow the model and the highly experienced RC “pilot’ as they track the flight of the model.
RC blimps are also used, and in this case the payload may top a hundred kilograms. Benefits of a blimp are long endurance, safety and superior stability and versatility. Many forms of gyros and stabilised camera mounts can be carried.

The obvious choice for unusual applications, such as taking seemingly impossible angle shots of buildings and inspecting inaccessible sites and structures like large chimneys and pylons, are RC cameras.

Real McCoy

But the real McCoy, the preferred choice for any application, must remain the full sized helicopter camera platform. Full size choppers offer complete versatility of use. Range and altitude are not an issue, poor weather conditions, while not ideal, are not necessarily a deterrent, and a huge variety of multi-axis, gyro stabilised remote heads and cameras can be used, mounted in front, side or under mounted.

The range of cameras is limitless, from a small Canon 5D for instance, right up to the large rigs required for both Imax and full 3D cinematography.

South Africa does not lag behind the rest of the world in this regard. Several local companies provide the expertise, the equipment and the helicopters to suit any needs of the film, television and broadcast industry. These systems are used regularly on both local and visiting international cinematography.

Our country has built a reputation for providing expertly trained pilots (some of who travel internationally on overseas projects in preference to their European and North American counterparts) and a wide variety of mounts and cameras with offerings on a par with their overseas competitors.

Cape Town-based HELIMEDIA supplies a wide variety of mounts and camera equipment and currently sources helicopters, although they have plans for ownership of a twin engine craft later this year. HELIMEDIA provided aerial services for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and won this contract against several international players.
The wide variety of equipment and expertise available will suit any demand for aerial photography, and indeed suit any budget.

Companies such as Airborne Camera Experts employ all the required specialised staff and equipment to undertake the most demanding shots, the Oscar nominated movie Invictus being a typical example. Indeed their chief pilot is internationally renowned and was trained by the legendary Ken Eddy.

Cape Town based CINESKY also offesr a complete airborne service, with UK trained Cineflex accreditation and all the tools required to handle any eventuality. Having recently shot in Qatar, CINESKY received accolades for the professionalism and world standard method of operation.

By Andy Stead

Screen Africa magazine – August 2012


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