Making Adventure Films from the air.
The noise was deafening as we crouched on the floor of the heli. All eyes were on our safety guy who was coordinating our attempt to reach a mountain peak by helicopter. The machine shook and rotors shuddered as they absorbed the updraft from the valley below. We were approaching a small, flat outcrop that would be our jump off point onto the side of a mountain, in the glorious Italian Dolomites. As my adrenaline started to peak, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ tune I’d been humming lost its edge as the reality of what was coming next sunk in. It’s not something you get to practice and there’s no margin for error. If we missed the slab we’d literally drop off the side of the mountain - game over!
I was about to leap out of a helicopter for a Discovery Channel series with Bear Grylls, called ‘Breaking Point’ where members of the public faced their phobias in the wild. This episode was about the fear of heights, so where better to film than the towering peaks of northern Italy.
My objective was to find an epic mountain peak for the show finale but climbing mountains with cameras is a difficult process and with a tight filming schedule, using helicopters can become an invaluable shortcut to accessing a remote spot.
This wasn’t my first time using a helicopter to make documentaries. They’re a glamorous way to get around but it’s not always an easy ride. A while back I directed a documentary for the BBC about wildfires in Australia. On the edge of the Blue Mountains, just north of Sydney, I joined a team of ‘Smoke Jumpers’ a bunch of elite firefighters that literally drop out of helicopters into wildfires. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world so we went in with full safety gear. Fire resistant, safety suits in the searing heat of the outback are not a great combination especially in a cramped helicopter but the rewards were immense. We got to put the camera tripod down on a pristine spot, miles from civilization, looking out across a vast wilderness. It’s one of the great privileges of the job to stand in a place where few very others have been before.
Aside from being a great workhorse, helis can deliver filmic visuals, and a bird’s eye view of the world that introduces the audience to the true scale and grandeur of a remote location. Your cameraman can hang out of the side of the heli or specialist helicopters with fixed cameras, like the Cineflex, can record stunning and rock steady visuals. Drones are now giving helicopters a run for their money and may one day make them redundant but drones simply can’t deliver the flight range and height that a heli can. Well not yet anyway.
Back in the Italian Dolomites our jump off point came into view and we were reminded that mountains are difficult places to fly as updrafts and cross winds bounce off the side of the slopes and without warning can fling a heli around like a paper plane. Our brilliant alpine pilot took each bump in his stride and literally parallel parked, at a hover next to the outcrop just below the peak.
The doors were flung open followed by a shout to get out. The safety team went first. I checked to make sure all my kit was in place, locked down and zipped up – a stray item of clothing could get sucked into the rotors, which would be catastrophic. Doing my best to ignore the sheer drop below I stepped out into what felt like empty space. You don’t get much time to process what is happening, your eyes are locked on the safety team while everything around you becomes a noisy blur and the downdraft from the rotors feels like the skies falling in on you and doing it’s best to knock you off your feet.
In a heartbeat, it’s all over and the heli banked off down the valley leaving the four of us standing in awe, looking out over the glorious mountain range as the peaks were bathed in the dawn light.
Without a heli this shoot probably wouldn’t have been possible, so love them or hate them, these amazing machines are an essential tool in making adventure films. They help you access the inaccessible but they also allow you to capture the majesty and scale landscapes like no other visual tool.
FINAL TAKE HOME POINTS
As someone who has used Helicopters on a fair few shoots now, there are a couple of must follow rules; Always bring a warm layer, even in the tropics riding in a heli with the doors open can get very chilly.
Don’t hold anything out of the window of a moving heli especially a camera! Early in my career, I was self-shooting some damaged Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, post hurricane Katrina for the Discovery Channel. The pilot had the doors closed so I decided to use my initiative and poke my camera and hand out of the small window. The force of the wind was immediate and brutal and slammed my hand and camera against the outside of the heli. Luckily it was strapped to me but if it hadn’t been, the camera would have flown back into the rotors and we’d be ditching into the Gulf of Mexico. I go white just thinking of that near miss and I’ll never repeat that rookie mistake again.