On November 18 (2012) at 5:30pm I flew over Atlanta in a 4-seat helicopter with Mike from Aperturent.com. The goal of the shoot was to capture dramatic video footage of Atlanta’s skyline while testing some new equipment. I wanted to learn how one goes about capturing smooth video from a helicopter and I needed some aerial footage of Atlanta’s skyline.
How much did you spend on the shoot?
Most of the money I had went towards flight cost which was $250 for 1 hour with Prestige Helicopters. I also rented a Ken-lab KS-4 gyro stabilizer for $50 from another outfit in town (but Aperturent might be getting one soon). Then I spent about $10 on cables and carabiners (from Lowe’s) to secure the various camera rigs. So in total, I guess we spent $320.
How did you pull this off for $320?
The Universe gave me 3 things that made the shoot a success:
1) a helicopter pilot named Ann Marie (who I met at Sky Gym aerial dance studio). She offered to take me up if I covered the flight cost. You’d be surprised how many pilots are willing to do this for flight hours.
2) Aperturent provided some nice gear to test out (Canon 1DX, Canon 24-70 f/2.8 II, Go Pro Hero3 Silver, and the Redrock EyeSpy shoulder rig). You can rent cameras and lens from Aperturent locally in Atlanta or through the mail if you live out of state. www.aperturent.com Mike and I sat in the back seat with the doors off (not as scary as you might think). I sat behind the pilot so she could see what I was looking at, for reference.
3) One beautiful November evening that wasn’t too windy and wasn’t too cold.
How did you prepare for the shoot before hand?
The most informative website I found on the subject was “Basic Helicopter Filming” on www.Cinematography.net … pretty much a collection of tips and advice from professional cinematographers who have successfully filmed from choppers and lived to tell the tale. Much of that blog post was about safety. No shot is worth dying for and helicopters can be dangerous if the right precautions are not taken. (thus extra safety cables were bought to secure the camera gear so nothing fell off and hit the back tail rotor).
What went right on the shoot?
Well, like I mentioned earlier, the sunset was beautiful but we didn’t have much control over that. The Ken-lab gyro stabilizer (screwed into the bottom of the Redrock plate) did a good job of smoothing out the jello effect caused by the helicopter engine. The EyeSpy shoulder rig helped me keep the shot smooth, for the most part because my body was absorbing most of the helicopter’s shake. I had good communication with the pilot and co-pilot before and during the shoot so they knew what I was trying to achieve, as far as angles and distance (this is important because the pilot actually controls the shot more than the camera operator). And lastly, we didn’t break, lose or damage any gear or anyone.
What would you do differently next time around?
Next time I would definitely want to use a gyro stabilizer in WITH a bungee cord rig of some kind instead of just the gyro stabilizer on a shoulder rig. It was very difficult to keep a steady shot for more than 4-5 seconds which is not good enough if you want to speed up footage in post production, for effect. Secondly, I would bring a beachtek mic adapter to boost the level of headphone radio communication for recording purposes (we were all wearing headsets so I could hear what the pilots were saying and they could hear me). I attempted to record the conversation with a Zoom H4N recorder plugged directly in through a quarter inch cable but was unsuccessful because the signal was too low. All I got was rotor noise.
We were only testing 2 things with the GoPro HERO3 Silver. First, we successfully used an iPhone 5 as a video assist monitor LIVE with the wifi enabled GoPro HERO3 Silver mounted in the front (inside) of the chopper, directly suction-cupped to the window. The footage was too shaky however since it was mounted directly to the glass of the chopper with no stabilization. The second thing we tested was the difference in imagine quality by mounting the GoPro onto a shoulder rig with a gyro stabilizer. Footage showed a dramatic difference between the two GoPro cameras. As you might have guessed, the GoPro mounted to the shoulder rig with gyro stabilizer captured usable footage (as seen in the video at the top of this page). *also you will notice that the GoPro footage is very grainy because the ISO capabilities are not a prime feature of this camera. The GoPro is best used in bright sunlight. Originally we were scheduled to take off around 5pm but we ended up taking off around 5:30 so we had lost a lot of light by then.
Canon EOS-1D X
The reason I chose to use a Canon 1DX was because it captures 60fps at 1280 x 720p (like the 5D mkIII) and over-cranking (slow-motion effect) is recommended for aerial filming. I was curious to see the video resolution of the Canon 1DX and was pretty happy with the image quality (I shot at ISO 640 and 1250) after running the clips through FCP7’s “smooth cam” filter. See a 7 second demo of the final product in the video below.
Ken-Lab KS-4 Gyro Stabilizer
Although I did not shoot any DSLR footage without the gyro stabilizer I am quite certain it made a difference because I had little-to-no “jello effect” or micro vibrations in the footage. Plus, after we landed I unscrewed the gyro from the shoulder rig and held it in my hand (it was still spinning) and I could feel how it created a sensation like there was a mini-carnival ride in the palm of my hand … like it had it’s own center of gravity. Hard to explain. I would definitely use this gyro stabilizer again except next time I would add a bungee cord rig to it. If you do use this Gyro stabilizer make sure to turn it on 10 minutes before you need it because it takes that long to calibrate.
I hope you found this blog post informative and helpful.