Pilot/Cinematographers Rich Lerner and Brent Murrayby Nelson Goforth
Aerial shots have been part of the Hollywood lexicon for decades, but have been out of the ‘indy’ world’s price range, certainly in Colorado’s version of ‘indy,’ until recently. Advances in technology are allowing low-budget filmmakers and individual camera operators the ability to grab those epic aerials, and a lot more.
Smaller, progressively more powerful motors, lighter batteries, compact electronics and better sensors have caused a recent revolution in radio-controlled helicopters -- resulting in a number of small, light, multi-rotor machines. HD cameras, smaller and lighter themselves, have been paired with these ‘microcopters’ to offer a new tool to film production. Shots that were only in the realm of big budget productions are now within the reach of small filmmakers.
Radio-controlled helicopters have been around for many years, and have been used to fly cameras for almost as long, but changes in batteries and electronics have yielded multi-rotor aircraft that are both easier to fly, and provide smoother shots than more traditional single rotor craft. Gas-powered, single-rotor RC helicopters still have the edge in lift and flight duration, but the 4, 6 and 8 rotor microcopters are paving the way for a revolution in aerial photography.
Rich Lerner and Brent Murray are just two of several RC helicopter operators in Colorado. Mr. Lerner has been a cinematographer for many years, on features and documentary projects around the world. Mr. Murray came from an engineering background, took an interest in piloting the small helicopters for other cinematographers, at that time gas-powered single-rotor aircraft, and then in developing his own shooting skills.
Mr. Lerner and Mr. Murray each own several aircraft, sized for different purposes. A four-rotor helicopter can carry a GoPro, larger craft can carry more capable camera, such as their preferred Sony PJ-710s. Mr. Lerner is working on a larger microcopter that is capable of carrying a DSLR, and some larger birds can carry a Red Epic...if you dare.
Learning to Fly
Learning to fly a microcopter takes time and dedication. The multi-rotor aircraft are easier to master than the single-rotor models, with the help of electronic aids, but developing the skills necessary to fly and shoot requires a lot of practice. Mr. Lerner and Mr. Murray both estimate about a year is needed to become truly proficient. Mr. Lerner has been flying for six months, and still has time to go, but his reels shows that experience as a cameraman does make a difference; he flies for about an hour every day.
“They are not toys, there’s an element of risk in using them.” declares Mr. Lerner, “It’s really paramount that producer or directors hiring somebody to fly an RC helicopter, is hiring somebody who’s got enough experience to know what they can and what they can’t do.” A high-flying, fast moving aircraft, even a small one, represents a potential liability for producers, which needs to be taken into account in hiring, planning, and insurance. On the other hand, working with a full-sized helicopter also incurs risk and liability, and requires a lot of time and preparation to make it work.
Mr. Lerner describes a microcopter being able to transition from a seeming dolly shot into what looks like a crane, finally soaring above everything; “...and then it gets to a hundred feet in the air,” he says, “and that’s when it gets to be miraculous.” The clip “Littleton Farm Museum” from his aerial reels (see link below) has precisely this sort of shot.
Between the shots possible from a dolly or a jib, and those possible from a full-sized helicopter, is a “gray area,” as described by Mr. Murray, that really couldn’t be touched, except by cable camera rigs (such as Spydercam), until microcopters came along. The speed and economy of using an RC helicopter also offer a lot to producers, and can even be used in run-and-gun shoots.
“I’ve been in situations,” says Mr. Murray, “where I’m jumping out of the back of an SUV, getting my gear in the air, getting that shot in under five minutes, getting back in, driving ten minutes to get to the next shot.”
“You can take your helicopter and you can do a boom shot,” describes Mr. Lerner, “that booms up and then flies up and over a foreground object and then towards a client’s building, and you can do it in the context of your days work - whereas if you were trying to do that with a crane, that might be a $5000 day, just to get the crew, and the crane, and the remote head, and a crane operator and a remote operator.”
Mr. Lerner continues, “these helicopters have the ability to fly in that space between the ground and, say, three or four hundred feet in the air, and in enclosed spaces, that just can’t be done any other way.”
Rich Lernerhas served as Director of Photography on documentaries, features and commercials for thirty years. He shot the Oscar®- winning short documentary A Story of Healing (1997), and has photographed around the world for National Geographic, Nova and others. His website is http://richlernercine.com and his aerial reels at http://vimeo.com/conspiracyfilms/albums
Brent Murraywas a computer engineer who moved into flying RC helicopters for film and video productions. He saw the advantage of being his own cameraman, and developed his photographic skills. His company, Shutterbliss Cinemas, has a specialty in wedding videos, but shoots for many corporate and commercial projects as well. His website is http://www.shutterblisscinema.com,/a> and his aerial demos can be found at http://vimeo.com/shutterbliss