The Short and Sweet History of Camera Flight

13 Black Cats

Note from the editor: This is a summarized version of a post we wrote for NoFilmSchool‘s blog. Check out the original post here.

Today, movie goers frequently encounter a god’s eye view shot on the big screen:

Shots like this one are usually taken by professional Los Angeles drone crews. Production companies only need to spare (relatively) small budget and three hours of time. But this wasn’t always the case.

This same shot once required a budget of over $50k and a stunt crew— but it didn’t stop filmmakers from pursuing the shot. From to planes, to helis, to drones, cinematographers have been attempting to tell stories with flying cameras since the beginning of the film industry. In fact, aerial shots were implemented before the invention of sound and technicolor in film.

Here’s a brief history of film and flight, and what’s next.

Wings of War Debut on Screen

The first application of aerial cinematography was to put audience members into the action of war. Flying cameras were necessary to capture flying subjects.

Wings contains the first— and many would argue still the best— dogfight scene in cinematic history. Bold aerial cameramen had to fly alongside the stuntmen to capture the scene which earned the film the first ever Oscar in the “Best Picture” category.

The scene was convincing, in part, because the stunts were dangerous. The actors weren’t pretending when they were jumping off the wings of a crashing airplane, and the cameramen were flying right alongside the action. These precarious scenes resulted in the tragic death of one pilot and the hospitalization of another.

The film was still a huge success, igniting a generation of war films with similar stunts. And the demand for both aerial stunt actors and the cameraman to film them established a film aviation sub-industry.

The Gimbal Expands Realm of Possibility

While a plane was the first device used for aerial cinematography, it was not considered a camera platform in its own right. Its speed and wind-induced shaking meant that it wasn’t conducive to capturing action on the ground. It was the invention of the gimbal that literally raised the ceiling for filmmaking.

A French camera operator named Roger Monteran, hired for the film, The Longest Day, designed the first camera stabilizer: a simple mechanical device that cushioned the camera with springs that dampened the vibrations from the helicopter.

This is one of the earliest scenes captured by a stabilized camera in a helicopter. You can tell the early stabilizer is still shaky.

This design served as a prototype for Nelson Tyler’s more sophisticated stabilizer, which similarly isolated vibrations, but also offered more control over the angle and discrete movement of the camera. The operator, hanging off the side of the helicopter, could now pan, tilt, and roll a stabilized camera shot. You can see it’s early applications in the 1966 Batman:

And, most famously, in the long-take shot in Funny Girl (1968):

The Tyler Camera Mount cemented aerial shots as a part of cinematography. An aerial shot no longer required death-defying aviation stunts and thrill-seeking talent. Filmmakers had more options for how a camera is flown through the air.

Camera Flight Becomes Accessible to All

It seemed as if aerial footage would remain a luxury in filmmaking— until Hollywood caught whiff of technological advancements to military drones.

In the mid 2000s, camera-equipped flying robots were making headlines for infamous Israeli reconnaissance missions and America’s capture of Bin Laden. But in the years following, technological advancements made these drones more accessible to other sectors:

  • LiPo technology improved the battery life of drones
  • GPS positioning technology improved precise control over a drone
  • Smartphone technology improved the quality of cheap sensors and computing power; and
  • Brushless motors improved the durability and safety of drones.

It became easier than ever to fly a camera.

Films like Skyfall, Oblivion, and Star Trek: Into Darkness were among the first to use drones as camera platforms abroad. When the FAA set up permitting for commercial drone applications in the United States, they opened up the floodgates. By the end of 2015, there were 1000 commercial permits and by the end of 2016, there were 20,000.

Initially, it was clear that the drone was a cheaper, safer alternative to the helicopter, but the technology has evolved to be much more. The quality of cameras found on DJI’s Inspire 2 drones and the stabilization equipment produced by manufacturers like Freefly has significantly changed what “flying a camera” means.

A drone isn’t just used to get high-and-wide aerial shots, it can be used on the ground, chasing a character through a house, diving off a cliff, or circling the perimeter of a circus tent. Dexter Kennedy, chief pilot of Los Angeles drone company Aerobo, explains, “A filmmaker can now essentially place a camera anywhere in 3D space. They can replace a crane, a dolly, and a Steadicam with drone— and spend no time setting up any sort of rigs.”

What’s Next: Returning Creative Control to the Filmmaker

We’ve come a long way from the precarious stunts necessary to pull off an aerial shot, and the journey is far from over. As drone technology improves, the technical and regulatory hurdles will decrease and more people will have the ability to get their hands on a flying camera.

According to Brian Streem, CEO of Aerobo drone services, drones will one day be part of any cinematographer’s toolset. He predicts that “A filmmaker will have a quadcopter case right beside his RED and his lens kit.”

[source for cover image]

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