Production Pros Weigh Pros and Cons of Helicopters vs. Drones

It’s hard not to hum Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from “Apocalypse Now” as Kevin LaRosa II of Helinet Aviation carefully lines up the Airbus AS350 B2 helicopter he’s piloting behind the company’s newly acquired Sikorsky Black Hawk.

DP Hans Bjerno, controlling the camera from a seat in back, grabs a shot of the former military chopper silhouetted against the big orange morning sun.

The convoy is traveling north of L.A. to Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif., to film a sequence for the upcoming CBS series “SWAT” in which star Shemar Moore will stand in the open door of the Black Hawk, firing a rifle at hostage takers below.

Originally, producers planned to use a drone for the scene. But after consulting with LaRosa, it was determined that the downwash from the Black Hawk’s rotor blades would be too much for a drone to withstand, so the scene was reconfigured for a trailing helicopter, which opened up a horizon of possibilities, according to LaRosa. “I can be doing 120 knots with a helicopter, a 90-degree bank and following something in,” says the pilot, a second-generation movie chopper operator who serves as Helinet’s VP of aerial film production. “You can’t do that with a drone — at least not yet.”

Nonetheless, drones play a major role in today’s moviemaking. They may not be as strong, fast or Wagner-evocative as a helicopter, but they can do things larger craft can’t, like fly through trees and tight spaces. They can execute hybrid camera moves, sweeping down like a crane, circling the subject like a handheld SteadiCam, then rising into the sky like a helicopter minus the hurricane-level winds.

“If you have an alley that you’re doing a foot chase through or a tight motorcycle chase that doesn’t have a lot of speed, a drone’s great,” says veteran stunt coordinator and second unit director Andy Gill. “But if you’re using cars like we do on ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ you need a chopper.”

The cost differential is steep. A used AS350 runs around $1 million on the low end, and that’s before it’s outfitted with camera controls and Helinet’s Shotover F1, a gimbal-like device. A DJI M600 drone (top speed: 40 mph) equipped with a Ronin-MX gimbal that can hold digital cinema cameras such as the Red Epic and Arri Alexa Mini can be purchased new for $6,000. And a DJI Inspire 2 with a built in 4K camera (top speed just under 60 mph) retails for $6,200.

Top aviation companies can charge a production anywhere from $10K to $25K per day for a helicopter and crew, and roughly half that for their drone services. But there are independent drone operators with insurance and FAA clearance who charge $100 to $300 per hour. Yet producers who try to save money with a drone sometimes end up paying for a helicopter as well.  “I’ve had a lot of calls for reshoots where they can’t get the shots with the drone because the wind is too high,” says Bjerno. “There are no wind conditions that really will shut down a helicopter.”

The reason helicopter shoots are so pricey is clear when LaRosa touches down on set. A Teamster-driven water truck sprays down the landing area to reduce debris kicked up by the rotors’ downwash — but not so much that crew members don’t take cover behind vehicles whenever the choppers take off or land — and a refueling truck is on standby to refill the AS350’s 143-gallon tank and the Black Hawk’s even thirstier 363-gallon tank. By contrast, a drone runs on rechargeable batteries that fit in the trunk of a car.

The convenience and affordability of drones has also created a glut of people offering to fly them for productions. “There’s so much competition, you’ve got to keep the prices down [on drone work] or you don’t get any jobs,” says Helinet production coordinator John Burton.

If something goes wrong with a copter, the destructive potential is greater. Drones, too, require a serious degree of professional vigilance. “You still have to do the same safety lockups — what we call sanitize the streets — and make sure there are no pedestrians around,” says location manager Eric Hooge. With pro-level drones now carrying redundant battery systems, their crash risk has been reduced.

While choppers may still rule the skies in the eyes of some production pros, others are discovering new uses for drones, from location scouting to 3D modeling.

“When we get the technology in people’s hands, a light-bulb moment happens and they say, ‘This is perfect for X, Y and Z,’” says Michael Perry, managing director of drone maker DJI North America. “And often that X, Y and Z aren’t what they thought it was for originally.”

Watch the video “Choppers vs. Drones: The Battle for Cinematic Air Supremacy” below. 

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