Remote Controlled Helicopter Camera – See No Evil 2012

01st October 2012

Over the summer we threw ourselves into production of the film for this years See No Evil, the international street art festival in Bristol.

We’ve done other blog posts on the event but I wanted to write about a specific part of the project. When we were asked to make the film last year we decided to make a documentary about graffiti in Bristol, and set out to make something that really stood out visually –  “Who’s Lenny?.

Here’s a link to the final film, and below is a film showing the camera system, as well as some of the shots we got from it.

In the 2011 film we used lots of gear to get new shot angles, including a massively successful cable dolly from Moving Picture Hire. This year we wanted to go one better, and with support for the film from Red Bull we started exploring the alternatives. As a producion company with proud roots in Bristol, we wanted to show off the city, and quickly realised we were after smooth high aerial shots, and long tracking passes of the street, so the best option was going to be a camera on a helicopter.

Aerial filming has many limitations, traditional helicopter mounted camera systems would never have got close enough to the buildings to get the shots we wanted.  We turned to exploring what we could do with a smaller, more agile, remote controlled helicopter system.

The solution we settled on was an 8 bladed helicopter camera, fitted with a GPS system, able to operate at heights in excess of 500 feet or as low as 2 inches off the ground.  Sometimes known as an “Octocopter“, it’s a beast of a machine and needs to be piloted by someone with a license from the Civil Aviation Authority

So what were the considerations when filming on a system like this.

First up, safety.  The new generations of RC helicopter cameras have many built in safety systems; they fly back to a pre-determined point when the batteries are low, and if they lose contact with the controller they go straight up out of harms way and return to a safe place. These controls reduce the risk of crashes but they don’t totally eliminate it. We wanted to film at an event with thousands of people in attendance. With 8 spinning blades and a large weight at height, we were left with no option but to film first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrived.  We had a closed street and marshals on the ground to make sure people didn’t walk underneath the helicopter.

In terms of composition, pilot and camera operator have to work as team to deliver the right shots, one controlling the helicopter, the other controlling a 3 Axis gimble with a Canon 5D DSLR.  It takes a lot of work and planning to pull this off, we had a really experienced team from Sky Power but we faced an unexpected issue. The helicopter camera is fitted with GPS to ensure that it’s stable but as we were filming amongst high buildings, we suddenly found that we couldn’t get a GPS lock.  This meant that the pilot was faced with every shot on full manual control. The knock on effect of this lack of gps control was more pitch and roll in the shots than we would have liked.  No major problem but it required more prost production work. We solved most of these issue with a pass through SmoothCam in Final Cut Pro.

Weather is the big one hurdle, and the one that’s be the demise of many aerial shots.  Remote controlled helicopters are sensitive to winds and can’t do anything in the rain, we had to cancel two days filming before the right conditions came up but we snatched our chance at a clear patch on the last day of the festival.



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