Aerial footage is one of the most versatile types of footage you can use in your projects. In its most basic form, it establishes a location or gives a scope to the story; it can also heighten drama, help transition between locations or subjects, and can add physical and emotional depth to your productions.
The best aerial videographers maximize the utilitarian nature of aerial shots, but also try to push every creative boundary when it comes to dazzling viewers. Here’s how to shoot aerials and use them in storytelling.
Common Effects Of Different Shot Types
Just because you have the ability to shoot aerial footage does not necessarily mean that you need them in your video, or that they need to be used constantly. In many cases, less is more, and it’s more about maximizing their impact. As Pond5 contributor Colin Mills (username SkyworksFresh) puts it, “Aerials are brilliant at adding ‘punctuation’ to a video. Just like a piece of text, if you were to see the whole thing as a block, with no paragraphs, sentences or punctuation of any type, it’d be difficult to understand.” So, it’s important to know which effects (“punctuations”) can be created with certain shot types.
Show Scale: Unless you’re flying fairly close to an object or subject, it can be difficult to get a sense of scale for what’s happening in the frame if the field of view is really wide. This is where a slow zoom or push in/pull out can give a sense of perspective. A hiker in the woods or a ship out at sea can become very isolated with camera movement and composition together.
Pond5 Contributors Eric Carlsen and Joseph Guffee (username SceneLab) say, “Sometimes we start a story at the macro level and slowly back away to reveal the setting that our character(s) reside in…or maybe it’s just the opposite, we start in the big wide world and work our way to where and who they are.”
Heighten Drama: While showing the scale of a certain subject or situation can show some dramatic visuals, there are other ways to heighten the drama of a video with aerial footage. Flying low and fast, and flying close* are two of the easiest ways to create a dramatic look and feel to a shot, since everything is moving so fast in the frame. You can track a fast-moving object, narrowly fly by or through something in the frame, or hug tight against an object or boundary line in the frame to give viewers a real sense that something dramatic is happening.
Casper Diederik (Pond5 contributor Storytravelers) explains, “Often flying low creates more spectacular footage tha flying very high. As you are closer to the subject you can create more dynamics to your shot that just flying at high altitudes. Try to use a drone more as a giant rig/jib or rails.”
Techniques like aerial dolly zooms, aerial hyperlapses, and aerial timelapses also increase the drama just like they would if they were “regular” shots, but typically require more planning and can feel gimmicky if overused, so practice and plan to get them right.
Finally, If you’re getting close to objects, make sure you’re taking every safety precaution and that you are legally allowed to do so.
Transition Between Shots: Not only do aerials create new perspectives for and enhance the production value of your videos, they can also simply help ease transitions between shots or scenes. Using an aerial shot to establish the setting of a story or scene is a classic use, but with aerials shot in addition to the on-the-ground cameras, now you’ve got an extra angle to cut within a scene. As Pond5 aerial contributor and former “Eco-Warriors” Producer Gavin Garrison says, “In my storytelling, I’ve had several instances where ships making aggressive maneuvers have nearly collided, and in one case, actually collided. Cutting between cameras on the decks of the ships and the aerial really amps up the action.”
The transition doesn’t even have to take place in different shots! A drone can literally fly at eye level and then rise so far that it flies to the next scene location. As always, objects can take up the entire frame and be used for invisible cuts and other seamless transitions, so doing some planning on what you’re going to use in your transition shot can always help immensely.
Reveal An Object and/or the Crescendo Of A Building Story/Scene: This is exactly what it sounds like. You position the drone or helicopter so that the object or subject is obscured by an object in the foreground, and then reveal it by flying in a direction so it’s no longer obscured. You can also follow something along that’s on the ground or directly below the camera and tilt up to reveal where the final object is. These shots are great for giving importance to the item being revealed, and can also give more context to the scene as more and more is being revealed, like a waterfall being from above.
This allows the viewer to follow along with the shot as more and more becomes visible, and can be timed to epic music cues and voiceovers.
Tilts, pans, and orbit shots can all be used for reveals, but the important part is to make sure your timing is right. Too slow, and a speed ramp may be required, creating jerky footage. Too fast, and the reveal doesn’t have as much oomph, and may not work well when slowed down.
The important thing to note about shot types is that many of them can overlap. A reveal can give a sense of scale. Transitioning with aerials boosts the drama. A bird’s eye establishing shot gives scale and can reveal something interesting out of the frame as it slowly transitions to the next interview!
The key is that the shots are motivated, and serve a purpose to give them the most impact.
Drones VS. Helicopters
While both helicopters and drones are both great tools to capture dynamic footage, each one has strengths and weaknesses. Drones are obviously much cheaper and offer more flexibility to shoot on the fly, but they also require several batteries due to the limited flying time. Drones can get in closer than helicopters, but move relatively slowly by comparison and can’t cover large distances. Drones are outlawed at US National Parks, while helicopters can be flown instead. You can also use much higher end cameras while using a helicopter.
Regardless of their differences, it comes down to two main factors. “In both cases, what you can achieve is completely governed by the quality of your equipment” Mills says. He goes on to say that “both tools are only as good as their operators and pilots. Even if you have the best technology, it is the skill and vision of the operators that will deliver the excellent shot on either platform.”
It’s important to know what you’re capable of as a shooter and/or pilot, and knowing if you can get the shot. As Garrison says, “it’s all about choosing the right tool for the job and budget. I use both, they each have their strengths, and neither replaces the other.”
There is one extra benefit to using a drone, and that is the ability to use the drone by holding it, since most have built-in gimbals and can act as a stable rig. “We can quickly go from capturing wide establishing aerials and tracking shots of the actors to handheld closeups using the drone as a handheld gimbal,” explain Carlsen & Guffee.
Permits & Regulations: How To Stay In the Know
No aerial videography shoot is complete without knowledge about what you’re legally allowed to do. As a drone user, you need to make sure you’re not shooting in restricted airspace, and that you’re not exceeding the FAA limits for altitude, as well as the legal proximity to certain buildings and objects. Caspar Diederik says, “Before you fly, make sure you read the local rules. Check the area on Google: Stay generally far away for airports and military bases. There’s apps available where you can learn about no fly zones.”
Garrison adds, “It’s also critical to check FAA bulletins for changing restrictions in any given area. Wherever you are, never fly during air rescue operations, near airports, or during active wildfires.”
Lastly, be respectful so that you don’t ruin it for others. Mills lays it out plainly: “We often find that movie makers have damaged the reputation of aerial videographers, especially in areas sensitive to wildlife. For that reason we always try to move through swiftly and cause a minimum of disruption – after all, you may be coming back!”
The last step in working aerials is finally bringing it all home in post production to make it pop. Diederik has a tip: “It’s a whole other skill to get the most out of your clip as for the color grading. I always recommend shooting in a non contrasted, non sharpened and non saturated profile so you can work better on the colors in post.” After that, it’s time to create some dynamic projects that create effective ways to engage with the audience.
Shooting and using aerials can be an exciting way to up your filmmaking game. From planning out your shooting location to shooting amazing shots to finessing the final look of the footage in post production, you can really blow the competition out of the sky and create stories and visuals that have a profound effect on viewers.