Hovering around


The banning of camera-carrying drones by the South African Civil Aviation
Authority (SACAA) a few months ago caused quite a stir in the industry. There
are many options still available to the camera crew looking to create amazing
aerial footage – but at a cost.

When we talk aerial cinematography we are basically talking about aerial
camera platforms which in turn translate to one form of hovering device or

Fixed wing platforms, while still used for certain applications, have all but
succumbed to helicopters and more recently to the ubiquitous drone/ multi-rotor
or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) as is the preferred term. This phenomenon is
worldwide and as is usual with technological advancements, South Africa is right
up there and even has a local company producing extremely high tech UAVs
primarily for the export market.

Options large and small

So where does this leave the full-sized helicopter which, not so long ago, was
the default platform, together with its smaller cousin the highly maneuverable
radio-controlled professional model helicopter – some boasting twin turbo
turbine engines and capable of carrying loads of unbelievable size and weight?

Let’s examine the options. The UAV, which started out as basically a toy, has
rapidly developed into an extremely useful and capable platform for aerial
photography. With the latest multi-rotor devices the main disadvantage of low
weight capacity has been overcome and the latest octocoptor UAVs can carry a
Red Epic or even heavier cameras!

You can also take off from anywhere at short notice, be extremely cost effective
and relatively quiet. You are however somewhat limited in terms of the flight
time as more flight time equals more batteries, which equals more weight,
which, in turn, equals less ability to carry that load. There is little doubt however
that even in spite of the SACAA “ban’ on the flying of UAVs, these devices have
opened up an era of aerial cinematography which existed previously only in the

This does not spell the end of model helicopters however, and locally they
continue to ply their trade, offering the advantage of high weight lifting
capabilities and long endurance. Typically able to carry 12 kilograms and more,
they remain in the air for an hour and a half and are also able to cope with
strong winds.

Disadvantages? Well unless electrically driven, they can be noisy, and somewhat
heavy. Local companies such as Visual Air in Johannesburg and Big Bird in Cape
Town have a string of recent credits for their model helicopters. Generally they
are covered by third party insurance and a big advantage is that they use only
highly qualified pilots – some of whom have over ten years flying experience. In
spite of this the recent SACAA ban includes this kind of aerial cinematography.

The “big boys’

Now on to the big boys; the full-sized jobs that seem to offer it all – but at a
price. There are several companies in this category, notably Henley Air,
Helimedia and Helios Air Charter. Operating from both Cape Town and
Johannesburg full-sized helicopters for aerial cinematography would appear to
be unfazed by the UAV invasion.

Henley Air’s Andre Coetzee observes: “We have been operating for 16 years
and provide numerous helicopters to the industry. Commercials are popular at
the moment and we recently completed shots for a Hennessy advertisement in
Johannesburg using a Bell 222 with a Tyler side mount.’

“Helios has been in operation since 1998,’ says owner Mike Bissict. “I have
done aerial photography for many years, for news stations, movies and
documentaries both local and foreign, corporate shoots, motor sport aerial
shots, sports games, motor rallies, motorcycle grand prix and TV series.

“We have used gyro-stabilised cameras in the back of the helicopter, cameras
fitted on the skids and suspended from below the helicopter. We have primarily
used the Bell 407, Eurocopter AS350 B3, Bell 206 L Long Ranger, Bell 206 Jet
Ranger and a Bell 222.’

Helimedia has been in operation since 2007 and the company is owned by Skip
Margetts and Chris Bohnenn.

“We shoot live TV for SuperSport and SABC,’ says Margetts, “and we provided
all the filming helicopters (six in total) for the FIFA World Cup in 2010 (the
biggest combined aerial filming requirement ever; four helicopters in different
parts of the country at the same time). Our crew has won Emmys for their work
on wildlife documentaries and has worked on many feature films like District 9,
Chappie, Survivor, Fear Factor, the Argus Pick “n Pay Cycle tour and the
Comrades Marathon.

“We work in close collaboration with NAC and use full-size helicopters
throughout the continent. NAC have a huge footprint in Africa and as such are
able to deal with the very strange requests the film industry often has. Recently
NAC provided three helicopters for an up-coming Hollywood film that required
police helicopters.

“Helimedia has two Cineflex camera systems, one of which has a Red Epic
camera system installed, the first in the world, and one Stab C Compact that
was used during the 2012 London Olympic games. We are the only full-time
aerial filming company on the continent.’

These professional helicopters must surely provide the ultimate camera platform,
but at a price and with certain limitations in terms of proximity to buildings and
noise issues, so the SACAA ban notwithstanding, there is ample choice when
considering aerial cinematography but the interesting question will be – what
will the future offer?


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