Helicopter Film Services (HFS) recently relied on the Aerigon, an aerial remote camera head (ARCH) from Intuitive Aerial, to shoot aerial footage used throughout Avengers: Age of Ultron. The stability of the Aerigon platform meant that footage captured could be fed directly into ILM’s VFX pipeline.
“The Aerigon drone was able to fly at lower altitude than the helicopter, giving us more dramatic sweeping camera moves than we’d have been able to get otherwise,” said Christopher Townsend, overall production VFX supervisor on Avengers: Age of Ultron. “It was quick and efficient to get it flying, with real-time visual feedback. The resulting footage was great, stable and clean, which was an absolute necessity as we were using it as background plates, into which we added CG VFX elements.”
HFS captured aerial footage on set in Hendon, U.K. for 10 days during the production of the film. Its three-person crew flew the Aerigon carrying the RED Dragon.
“We had to get a stable shot the first time and the Aerigon let us do this,” said Jeremy Braben aerial DP and founder of HFS. “Drones can leap about, but the Aerigon is the most stable drone we’ve seen without depending on post-stabilization. There isn’t the buzz or vibration with the Aerigon gimbal.”
HFS created aerial view plates of a town before and after its destruction. The camera was aimed to cover off the set in tiles, so the plates would cover more space than the camera’s field of view. The VFX team built up a 3D model of the town using these plates.
“There were shots that we could only do with the Aerigon,” Braben said. “For one shot, we flew it from the top of a building, passed it through a portico and brought it out the other side. You can’t really do that with a wire cam.”
Braben depends on a small team of experienced pilots. Pete Ayriss, who flew the Aerigon on the set of Avengers: Age of Ultron, is an RC championship pilot who has been piloting camera drones for five years. A camera technician assistant rounds out the crew. The Aerigon can carry over 20 lbs. of camera equipment, meaning that HFS can carry the camera equipment Braben favors, such as the latest ARRI Alexa Mini.
“It’s when we add a zoom lens to the camera, that the Aerigon becomes the only cinema drone capable of doing the job,” explained Braben. “The weight shift of adding one of these lenses to the camera doesn’t affect the balance. With the Aerigon we can choose lenses that fit, are light and that productions like.”
Braben relies on three lenses: the Angénieux Optimo 15-40 mm zoom, the Zeiss lightweight LWZ 14.5 to 45 mm and the Zeiss Master Anamorphic Primes. Whatever lens and camera he chooses, the Aerigon gimbal and controller give him full FIZ (focus, iris, zoom) controls.
Braben was a ground DP for years before becoming an aerial cinematographer. He also had a love of aviation and got his private helicopter pilot’s license. Combining his two passions – flying and cinematography – led to the creation of Helicopter Film Services in 1993. It was seeing the shots that could be obtained from drones that made him want to include them in his business.
“Because we’re at the top end of film production, we work with high-end cameras and need a professional cinema drone that provides stable images,” Braben explained. “The Aerigon is that drone.”
With decades of experience using helicopters, wire cams, tracking vehicles and, now, drones, Braben has thought a lot about how drones can best fit into production shoots. From this knowledge base, he is able to provide impartial advice about which equipment to use on a production.
“Because we can do any or all of these things, we can offer an unbiased opinion about what is the right piece of equipment for a particular shot,” he said. “On production, we assess whether a drone is a viable option.”
While other systems have their benefits – for example, a helicopter can go longer distances, fly at higher altitudes, carry heavier camera payloads and hover – a professional cinema drone is flexible and can be operated for a fraction of the cost of a helicopter. It also moves in three dimensions, overcoming the limitations of using a crane, dolly or wire rig.
“Drones are definitely having an effect on lower-budget productions that require an aerial shot,” Braben said. “You’re seeing this happening in television. There’s definitely an artistic advantage to getting some shots with drones that, until now, have been almost impossible to get.”