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Drones vs. Helicopters: Which to Use for Your Aerial Shots

In 1858 Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, also known as “Nadar”, flew a hot air balloon over Paris, taking the earliest known aerial photographs.

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Nadar was looking for a new perspective. His goal was not to fly but to capture footage that no one else had seen. Nadar, like many filmmakers today, cared about the shot, not about what was flying the camera.

Filmmakers have used hot air balloons, fixed wing planes, helicopters, and even kites to get their cameras airborne. The artistic value that these shots add to film projects is uncontested.

But recently, there’s a new tool on the market, and we’re being led to believe it’ll usurp them all.

The introduction of drones to the commercial market in 2014 spurred a debate as to whether they would replace helicopters in aerial cinematography altogether. Drones can reach new heights, carry cinema-grade cameras, and are even more maneuverable than helicopters.

Limitations in drone technology, however, are keeping it from replacing the helicopter altogether, while some aspects of drone filmmaking enable it to execute shots that were never before possible by any piece of film equipment. The drone is carving out its own space in aerial film.

Here’s a deep look at which camera platform to use for your film or commercial project. 

Advantages of Aerial Film

For the past few decades, the helicopter has dominated the aerial film market. The drone has disrupted this offering a cheaper option compared to the helicopter, which could easily cost above $10,000. However, these two are not the same option.

The drone and helicopter offer the best options to fly a camera for filmmakers. The following shots can be completed by both vehicles, however, they will be slightly different. A drone and helicopter offer different advantages on set yet they both offer one thing in common: an effective way to gather aerial footage.

The Follow Shot

The follow shot is a classic shot in action films. The camera keeps the moving object in the center of the frame. A drone or a helicopter, carrying the camera, will track the subject on the ground, adding to the visual effect.

This follow shot from the 2007 film Zodiac shows what an aerial perspective can add to a composition. This example specifically uses the aerial view from a helicopter. The distance between the shot and the vehicle helps the viewer feel as if they are moving with the car. 

A drone could accomplish this exact shot, but it would have the flexibility to get closer to the car and transition into a different closer-range shot.

The difficulty, however, would lie in the execution. This type of scene could only be pulled off by an expert drone team, who would have to use a follow car to keep the subject in the frame. You could achieve the same exact shot, for about half the budget. However, the DP may want to track the car from higher up, meaning a helicopter team would be their only option.

The Establishing Shot

The establishing shot is an extremely useful scene for a viewer. The shot encompasses the surrounding of a plot and gives the audience context for the story. Take a look at this establishing shot.

The establishing shot in this example comes from The Shining and is executed by a helicopter. The helicopter allows this scene to be shot continuously across a vast distance. Although these clips were cut together, they were recorded in a single day. The helicopter’s fuel capacity makes it perfect for this kind of establishing shot, allowing for these clips to be recorded in one sequence.

Using a drone for this shot would be much harder. The pilot of the drone would continuously have to move with their device as to not lose signal. The battery on the drone would have to be changed many times since this kind of filming takes place over great time and distance. A drone could produce these shots, but it would be much more difficult.

The Flyover Shot

The flyover shot is very similar to the follow shot. The camera is moving but is not focused on one particular thing. This can give an audience an idea of an area as a whole, rather than focusing on one single aspect.

A helicopter is used for this scene [00:25] but a drone could have also been used. At the end of the scene [01:16], there is a cut and the scene resumes inside the bus the camera had been focusing on. The helicopter used to film this scene has to keep some distance from the bus, but a drone could have gotten closer.

Using a drone you can create similar aerial shots to a helicopter but help the viewer feel closer to the action. Sometimes it is good to keep a distance from the action, and helicopters are perfect for those moments. However, when you want the viewer to be immersed into the scene, a drone is a better option.

Advantages of a Drone

A drones payload must weigh less than 55 pounds to meet FAA requirements. The small size and flight power of the drone allow a drone cinematographer to move a camera on set in ways never done before. Compared to the helicopter’s bulky size, a drone is like a fly on the wall in comparison.

The drones size allows the camera to be flown in traditional and new ways. This device is able to not only take shots that the helicopter can take, but the drone can also take shots that require other technology, such as the dolly or a crane.

Flying Low

Unlike the helicopter, the drone does have is the ability to legally fly under 400 ft. This allows filmmakers to record closer to their subjects. Flying at low altitude allows the camera to naturally cut out parts of the scene. This can be used with techniques like the “look down” shot.

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The emphasis with this shot is that the camera is encompassing part of the picture. The end result feels like something is missing. If this was shot from a helicopter the camera would be much higher in the sky and would include more of the scene, and would not produce the same feeling.

Replacing the Dolly

The Drone’s unique characteristics can be a director of photography’s best friend on set. Dolly shots can be shot with a drone, increasing the usefulness on set. The drone takes away the need for extra equipment that would be used to move cameras. Instead of mounting a camera and tripod on a track, the drone can simulate the motion of a dolly shot in the air.

The drone can also be used to “dolly” in other ways.

Here we see the drone moving laterally using a similar technique to the dolly shot. The drone is able to be multifunctional and open up new ways to move a camera.

On Set Advantages

The drone revolutionized the way we can fly cameras. The drone is excellent at capturing traditional aerial footage, like the establishing shot. The small size allows a camera to fly through movie scenes in ways that traditionally required extra equipment and multiple shots.

The beginning of the clip would have required a dolly. Then, as the band gets to the first chorus [1:05] a shot is performed that is a traditional crane and jib shot. The entire video is shot in one take, one of the biggest advantages of shooting with a drone. Rather than cutting together multiple shots, the drone offers the option of shooting continuously with the ability to mimic many traditional camera movements.

Advantages of a Helicopter

The helicopter’s size and fuel capacity are great assets on a film set. The helicopter is able to fly above 400 feet, unlike the drone. While the drone is flown down after 20 minutes to change the battery, the helicopter is still in the sky recording footage.

Filmmakers know that a helicopter can get the job done. Helicopter pilots have been working on film sets continually proving the efficiency of using a helicopter for aerial film. Helicopters are established, the pilots are dependable, and are proven to get the job done.

Extreme Long Shots

In an extreme long shot, the subject is a very small portion of the screen. The camera is very far away to show the subject within the background. The helicopter, perfect for this, can fly above 400 feet, unlike a drone.

An extreme long shot is a tool that filmmakers can use to show where a character fits within a storyline. In this case, the car is the character in this Chevrolet commercial. The use of the helicopter allows the camera to fly close to the car, showing off its beauty. Then, the camera flew away showing how the car stands alone as a unique standard.

Filming in the Weather

The drone is limited to flying on beautiful days. The helicopter is able to capture aerial footage in much more situations. Rain, extreme cold weather, and snow are just a few of the many weather conditions that will stop a drone from taking footage.

 

If you fast forward to the 44-second mark, you can see aerial footage being recorded in the rain. The helicopter allows a filmmaker to include aerial cinema that is not recorded during a sunshine and blue sky day. This opens doors for a creator, like in this scene as the camera moves up in the sky as rain falls down on the character.

On Set Advantages

When a project has multiple aerial shots across different locations, filming can be very difficult. Having a helicopter that can not only take the videos but transport the crew as well makes things much easier. A drone team must land their gear, pack back up, and hop in a car to switch locations.

The drone is also handicapped by a very short battery life. Most drones will only be able to stay in the air for 20-30 minutes. The helicopter is able to stay in the air on average more than 2 hours. The helicopter certainly has advantages on set.

Capture your footage

The drone will not replace the helicopter any time soon. For this to happen there would have to be many moving parts. Drone laws would have to change, technology would need to improve to give drones more battery life, and drones would need to be able to ship people! Even at that, people would need to be comfortable flying around in a drone.

The helicopter is sticking around… or hovering… or whatever.

 

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