Taking Aerial Cinematography to the Edge
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Shooting aerial footage for film or TV is exciting and stressful in and of itself. All eyes glued to the drone and the director often watching to give direction, the pressure is on for the pilot to get the shot the first time, with ease.
Add harsh weather conditions, 14,000 feet of altitude, and no fly zones popping up in real time, and you land in places many aerial cinematographers are not prepared to go.
Here are a couple stories of when our thrill-seeking pilots got in on the action.
World’s Deadliest Roads | Discovery Channel | Bolivia
“It was the most beautifully scary place I’ve ever been,” Eric Austin, Lead Aerial Cinematographer describes the location in Bolivia for Discovery Channel’s World’s Deadliest Roads. “It just looks so friendly with all the trees and clouds, but then you see the road and the 5,000 ft plunge and you sense a different story.”
The Yungas Road or “El Camino de la Muerte” in Bolivia is one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It is estimated to claim the lives of over 100 travelers each year. Buses from the south and from the north come to an impasse where they must scrape by each other, with one vehicle sometimes succumbing to the cliff. In 1983, a bus fell into the canyon taking the lives of 100 passengers.
“It was the most beautifully scary place I’ve ever been.”
In addition to the narrow road and no guard rail, the rainforest environment leads to dangerous road conditions, with water constantly washing out the gravel, rock plummeting from overhead, and limited vision due to fog and steam. At 14,000 ft of altitude, you’re operating above the clouds.
In the midst of all this, we took a heli-cam in a single rotor helicopter. The hardest part of getting the shot was the tuning of the helicopter to get stabilized footage. Having used a 6-foot rotor blade with a large tail rotor, all the moving parts caused low and high frequency vibration.
“Every time you’d move, the camera operator would lose his frame,” Eric explains. “We used hobby-grade gyros– rudimentary parts — that helped stabilize. Back then [in 2013], that’s all we had, but as is seen from the footage, it worked out pretty well.”
Although there were some scary moments when the helicopter was below the clouds with limited sight and the slightest miscalculation would have destroyed more than just equipment, the film crew was still happy to be in the helicopter and not on the bus.
2017 Hurricane Season | ABC News, Fox News | Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida
Providing news coverage for natural disasters means there is no time to prepare. When a storm hits, pilots must be on the next flight to get to the site of the storm.
In 2017, our team was uprooted three times as we responded to the three major players in the costliest hurricane season on record – Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida, and Maria in Puerto Rico.
The dangers of shooting a hurricane are numerous, if not obvious. Besides the apparent dangers of travel and flight in the midst of and even in the after-effect of the storm, there are unseen factors that can provide sketchy circumstances along the way.
For instance, we must get an Emergency Certificate of Authorization to be able to even fly in a disaster area to avoid inhibiting rescue efforts. But even with the certificate, safe airspace can be tricky. First responder activity is always priority and constantly evolving, so UAV pilots must keep tabs on the TFRs (Temporary Flight Restrictions) in the area.
During Harvey, we had two teams stationed to shoot in an approved location for FOX News. But per protocol, before we took off, we checked the TFRs again to be safe, and in just the few minutes it took us to setup, the safe area had turned into a huge no-fly zone. This meant packing up and driving further out to find a location to fly.
But amidst all the chaos and destruction, there are moments of tranquility.
Eric Austin had visited Puerto Rico close to a hundred times before Maria hit.
“It had always been on my bucket list to shoot a hurricane, and boy, did I get it,” Austin says. “I have a close connection to the island, so it was tough to be there for the storm.”
“…it was so rare to see Old Town with no cars or people, I had to take some beauty shots.”
But as soon as the hotel would let him out, Eric went to Old Town, where not a single soul was to be seen.
“To see this bustling area completely empty was sobering,” Eric remembers. “But it was so rare to see Old Town with no cars or people, I had to take some beauty shots.”
And they are, quite, beautiful.