Helicopter Camera Operating - Tips and Advice
Published : 2nd July 2007
I will be operating from a helicopter for the first time. I have worked with Tyler Mounts as a camera assistant but never had the opportunity to operate until now. I will using the Tyler Middle Mount System with the Panasonic SDX900 camera. We will be filming a rush hour traffic jam on the interstate. No gyros. Probably a 18x Fujinon zoom lens. The pilot is a pro and has been flying news cameramen for many years. I am interested in any tips to make the actual operating so smoothly. Any advice or tips would be appreciated. Primarily what should I be ready for as a first time operator?
Any operating tips to make go it smoothly?
class="style3">>>Any advice or tips would be appreciated.
You will find that the Pilot will be as much an operator (if not more so) that yourself.
If you are using a joy-stick control seriously consider having the Pilot bring his buddy who is familiar with the system and direct/ dp from a monitor or get on that thing and practice as much as you can before rolling. Joy-sticks are EXTREMELY difficult and vary from system to system.
Enjoy the ride!
Steve Speers wrote:
class="style4">>> No gyros
Why not? Is it not in the budget?
Steve Speers wrote:
class="style4">>>I will be operating from a helicopter for the first time.
>>I will using the Tyler Middle Mount System with the Panasonic >>SDX900 camera. We will be filming a rush hour traffic jam on the >>interstate. No gyros.
First things first. What is the end use of the footage you are shooting?
Documentary? Commercial? Feature? Record of an event? You need to make the producers aware so that they do not have unrealistic expectations -- or at least no more than usual.
class="style4">>>The pilot is a pro and has been flying news cameramen for many >>years.
Depending on what you wish to achieve, there can be a world of difference between an experienced "news" pilot and a "film" pilot. A news pilot may simply be uncomfortable or unwilling to fly you as close as you might need to be in order to get the footage you desire. Find out before you go up. Many news pilots assume you can simply zoom in to get what you need. With an 18 X you can, but without gyros and your minimal experience, the footage you get on the long end might not be what you want to see.
Unless there is a good reason for not getting get close -- e.g., imitating news footage -- you will want to work the wider end of the lens for several reasons -- the camera movement will be more dramatic, the image won't be compressed, it will appear steadier, etc., etc.
class="style4">>>I am interested in any tips to make the actual operating so >>smoothly. Any advice or tips would be appreciated.
Allow yourself plenty of time to rig the camera. Do it at least the day
before so you can get whatever accessories you find you may need, even if you have to take the camera off and put it back on. It's good practice..
Pick a good day -- with as little wind as possible. Early morning or late afternoon generally brings the smoothest conditions and the best light.
Be sure the mount is properly balanced. If you or the pilot do not know how to balance it properly, get in touch with Tyler, and again allow plenty of time for phone calls to Tyler.
The SDX900 is a lighter camera than the Middle Mount was designed to accommodate. You may need additional weight on the camera end, be sure the Mount provider has the weights. These weights go in the arm and under the camera between the handles. Not every Tyler dealer has all the accessories -- find out in advance and get the weights.
The next problem is the viewfinder. The viewfinder on all ENG type cameras is too far forward in the camera to be able to balance the camera and still have the eyepiece close to the pivot point on the mount. There is no easy solution to this problem. If the eyepiece is forward of the pivot, and you try to pan right, or look to the rear (I'm assuming you're working on the right -- pilot -- side of the helo, so the pilot can see.) you will be rapidly panning the viewfinder away from yourself and will not be able to see through it, and the back end of the camera will be in your face. The simplest way is to remove the viewfinder from the camera, and remove the mike from the viewfinder, then use the mike clamp to clamp the viewfinder to the camera's carrying handle.
You may have to first thread the viewfinder through the handle, then plug it in and then clamp the viewfinder to the handle.
Or simply place the viewfinder under the handle. You may have to disassemble the grips from the carrying handle to do this or ty-wrap the VF in place. This will get you in the ballpark. You will then need to stabilize the viewfinder. Some small pieces or tubing or aluminium angle (1/2" x12" or so) can be ty wrapped to the handle and triangulated to the VF eyepiece. Depending on your skills this can be easy or not.
This brings up the next important item. In flight communication.
Repositioning the VF places the viewfinder far enough away from the camera body so that you can wear a two ear headset. A lot of helo companies have single ear headsets for camera work, but IMHO with the door off the helo, single ear headsets are next to worthless when it comes time to hear what the pilot is saying. It cannot be over emphasized how important it is for you to have "Vox" (Voice activated) intercom with the pilot. It's very difficult to use a PTT (Push to talk) intercom and still operate the camera.
To get VOX it may be necessary for you to use the co-pilot's intercom position, if that's the case you'll need a headset extension cord. Even it there's a rear seat intercom position, an extension is handy to keep the headset from being pulled off your ears.
Remember the viewfinder is B&W. So if you need to follow a "Red" Camry, you may have a very hard time. Some ops use a Transvid monitor as a viewfinder. This is a good solution, but finding a good steady mounting point is tricky, as is being able to see the image in bright sun.
class="style4">>>Primarily what should I be ready for as a first time operator?
Be ready to be have your hands full. If things are not going well, don't be afraid to land to correct what's wrong.
Good luck and good shooting.
IA 600 DP
class="style4">>>Allow yourself plenty of time to rig the camera. Do it at least the day >>before so you can get whatever accessories you find you may need, >>even if you have to take the camera off and put it back on.
Man, I could not agree more. Was AC on a shoot this past November, brought in for one day of shooting on the coast. Plan was for helicopter shot at golden hour. As we have in the Pacific Northwest in November, it was windy, storming, raining and cold, with breaks of bright sun splitting the clouds then back to stormy, very beautiful and incredibly dramatic. Except when you are standing on the tarmac, trying to figure out how to rig and balance a Varicam on a helicopter mount none of us had ever worked with before. As we struggled, the light dissipated. The DP had to crank the gain full just to get any kind of image once we got the rig worked out.
Practice, practice, practice beforehand, and know exactly how the rig is balanced and how it is attached to the helicopter.
One thing people usually forget about helicopters and which turns to be VERY important for shooting (and usually VERY annoying, especially for the camera operator) : Helicopters, as opposed to planes, have a third axis of rotation, the Pan axis (planes are only tilt and roll). So, without gyros, practice a lot to compensate this and be "helicopter independent" because with the slightest gust of wind, you'll have unexpected pans all the time.
Always look on the bright side of life !
Toronto Film College
36 Eglinton West, Ste 707
Make sure they have the fairing fitted to the heli. I did a shoot a couple of years ago with a Tyler mount in Holland. I didn't know there was supposed to be a fairing, so didn't question its absence...it was almost impossible to operate at anything over about 30 knots. We managed OK, but I wish I'd known....
Oh, make sure you wear some thermal underwear - your legs get pretty cold up there.
Stuart Brereton wrote:
class="style4">>>Make sure they have the fairing fitted to the heli. I did a shoot a >>couple of years ago with a Tyler mount in Holland. I didn't know >>there was supposed to be a fairing, so didn't question its >>absence...it was almost impossible to operate at anything over >>about 30 knots. We managed OK, but I wish I'd known....
On this side of the Atlantic, it's known as the windscreen or wind shield.
Get the manual from Tyler; it may -- or may not -- come with the mount. This will tell you the basics of how the mount should be set up.
class="style4">>>Oh, make sure you wear some thermal underwear - your legs get >>pretty cold up there
Unless it's a hot day
I believe there's also some pertinent info in the CML Archives.
IA 600 DP
If you are going to be setting up a Tyler for the first time, I'd skip it and go for the Aerial Exposures mount. It'll save you money, time, and learning curve. Plus you'll be using gyros. Nelson Tyler by the way saw the mount at NAB and thought it was a good solution.
The real key is to get some practise time on the mount – whatever you decide to use - and be able to communicate well with the pilot. As for warm clothes - my last two times shooting aerials have been in 0F/-18C and 20F/-6C before factoring in windchill and height. Layers, layers, layers. And gloves.
In addition to the camera operation tips....let's not forget the safety
bulletins related to Helicopter safety.
Robert Goodman wrote:
class="style4">>>Nelson Tyler by the way saw the mount (Aerial Exposures) at NAB >>and thought it was a good solution.
To what problem/problems?
IA 600 DP
I could tell you to read the review in American Cinematographer but I'm waiting for people to return phone calls so here goes:
Portable - easy setup in any helicopter, car, boat, plane – no restrictions because it does not attach nor modify the helicopter /plane which does require FAA approval and installation certification.
Installation time - 1 hour working very slowly. Under real working conditions - one person 40 minutes to rig mount, camera, monitor, pilot monitor, controls.
Produces excellent results - as good as a Tyler mount - at 1/4th the cost.
Flexible - any camera up to a weight of about 35-40 lbs can be used. Gyro size and number of gyros is adjustable and easy to do.
Negatives - no remote controls for pan, tilt, roll. Doesn't replace a Wescam, SpaceCam, Flir, Gyron. No 360 degree roll.
Neutrals - Like any mount it takes some time to become proficient. One advantage is you can place the mount in a car and practise with a camera mounted on it. The rental price is inexpensive enough to allow for such things.
Hope this helps. I don't work for Aerial Exposures. Just have tested their stuff over the years. The guy who is developing the mount is a pilot, photographer, aerial videographer. Another person building something for himself that can be useful to others.
Robert Goodman wrote:
>>I could tell you to read the review in American Cinematographer but >>I'm waiting for people to return phone calls so here goes.
I read the review, thanks, but my original question still stands. Just what was the problem that Nelson Tyler was referring to when you said he said the AE Mount was a "good solution". I wasn't challenging you, I'm just curious. What problem is this a solution to.
Robert Goodman also wrote:
class="style4">>>Produces excellent results - as good as a Tyler mount - at 1/4th the >>cost.
With all due respect, I beg to differ.
From my understanding, there is no focus control at all on the Aerial Exposure Mount -- a serious shortcoming IMHO --and the AE system relies on the lens' zoom control unlike the Tyler's Heden type zoom. Whereas, the Tyler gives the operator touch sensitive fingertip control of both focus and zoom, as well as fingertip start and stop control without the operator even taking his or her hands of the mount.
The Tyler also provides the operator with an extremely stable and not terribly uncomfortable seated position with a foot rest. Aerial operators often spend hours at a time operating -- I would hate to be positioned in any of the camera operating positions shown in the AE website for even a fraction of that time. Or more importantly attempting to operate from those positions with even mild helicopter manoeuvring going on.
Furthermore, the AE's's position further inside the helo limits shooting
forward or straight down or directly to the rear, which are easily accomplished with the Tyler Middle Mount. Also, the AE Mounts further positioning inside the helo with no provision for sliding out, makes it that much more difficult to keep the helicopter's blades out of WA shots.
As to cost : Tyler rents the Middle Mount with Gyros for $1000/day. The Aerial Exposure mount seems to be renting for $500/day with gyros. I make that to be 1/2 the cost, not 1/4.
I'm not sniffing at $500, but when a production is spending thousands of dollars on a helo time, pilot, camera, and operator, not to mention what else might be involved on the ground, etc., when it comes to aerial work, trying to save $500 may be a false savings. It doesn't take very much airtime to eat up $500.
IA 600 DP
The cost of purchasing the AE unit is 1/4 the cost of Tyler Middle mount. With maximum sized gyros it's 20K. Rentals - well that's up to the facility. Yes - no focus control - you have to use a remote zoom/focus control cabled to the lens but then it's 20K.
Having flown 300 miles shooting across the state of Pennsylvania in all kinds of conditions I am well aware of the operator issues from long flights. However the Tyler MM puts you in the wind more than this one does. It's not uncomfortable though not perfect either. And of course, on most shoots you're not airborne for 12 hours given the cost of helicopter flying time these days.
The unit can be easily rigged and positioned differently than the AC
article. I didn't notice the blades interfering in the wide shots (though a 3.9mm prime would present some challenges) but I will re-look at the footage when I have an opportunity.
As I said it won't replace.....
As for exactly what excited Tyler - I think the footage he saw and the cost of the system. Others who have flown with the unit suggest that the footage is smoother than the Middle Mount footage they've shot (owners of Tyler MMs) and was easier to learn.
And as I often say not right for every job
Robert Goodman wrote:
class="style4" >>The cost of purchasing the AE unit is 1/4 the cost of Tyler Middle >>mount.
AFAIK, Tyler mounts are not for sale. If you know of a Middle Mount for sale, please let me know.
IA 600 DP
class="style4">>>AFAIK, Tyler mounts are not for sale. If you know of a Middle Mount for >>sale, please let me know.
The insurance value on Tyler's site indicates a "value" of $125,000 for a Middle Mount. Like Chapman long-term leasing deals are what they do.
The type of Helicopter can affect how you shoot. With a helicopter mount in a Jet Ranger, because of the small door, you tend to be restricted to shooting out sideways and to the rear.
With a Squirrel the door is much larger, so you can shoot a more forward angle. It also has 3 rotor blades and seems to be less choppy.
DP & Steadicam
Brian Drysdale wrote:
class="style4">>>The type of Helicopter can affect how you shoot. With a helicopter >>mount in a Jet Ranger, because of the small door, you tend to be >>restricted to shooting out sideways and to the rear.
class="style4">>>With a Squirrel the door is much larger, so you can shoot a more >>forward angle.
It's certainly nice to have the room, but in my experience, shooting forward is not a function of the helicopter type, but rather of extending the mount out the doorway and holding the camera into the wind, which is necessary to clear the windscreen in just about any type of helo. More importantly, it is a function of the flying ability of the pilot in order to 'side slip' whatever helo under the prevailing atmospheric conditions.
class="style4">>>It also has 3 rotor blades and seems to be less choppy.
This is one of the great "Urban Myths" of helicopter filming. The operating 'smoothness' of any helicopter is totally dependent upon its
maintenance, especially the balancing and tracking of the main rotors. The actual number of blades is of relatively minor importance.
As an aside, the humble two bladed Bell Jet Ranger has the best overall safety record of any aircraft type -- rotary or fixed wing.
IA 600 DP
Robert Goodman wrote:
class="style4">>>The insurance value on Tyler's site indicates a "value" of $125,000 for >>a Middle Mount. Like Chapman long-term leasing deals are what >>they do.
My point was that since Tyler mounts are not for sale, it is incorrect to say that a Middle Mount cost four times what an AE mount costs.
Given that most people would rent a helicopter mount, it seems to me that, in this case, list price rental rates are a far more valid basis for comparing costs. And given the Middle Mount is, IMHO, a far more versatile and capable mount, paying more to rent a Tyler makes good business sense.
As far as comparisons of footage is concerned, IMHO, no comparison has much validity unless it's using the same pilot and the same helicopter under similar conditions. BTW -- and also IMHO -- the footage on the AE website is remarkably mundane.
IA 600 DP
>>IMHO -- the footage on the AE website is remarkably mundane.
Arnie is a better inventor, pilot and air traffic controller.
As a beginning videographer with 2 years experience he's doing okay.
The pilot is key, he's flying the camera.
The helicopter does have to be well maintained. Regarding the model of helicopter, I guess I just prefer to use the Squirrel if there's an option. Here, it's mostly the Jet Ranger.
If you are planning any hovering shots, make sure that the camera is mounted so that the helicopter can fly into the wind, otherwise you'll drift forward with the wind.
DP & Steadicam