Aerial shots have been used in filmmaking and photography for decades to add an extra dimension to storytelling. They provide a unique perspective that can’t be achieved from the ground, giving audiences a new understanding of what they are watching. We’ll go through all you need to know about aerial photography, covering its history, the different equipment and techniques involved.
Aerial photography has been around since the late 1800s. One of the most renowned photographers in Paris, Nadar was known to have captured the first aerial photographs from atop a hot air balloon. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that aerial shots started being used in movies. One of the earliest examples is the 1918 silent film The Airship Destroyer, which features several aerial shots of an airship being attacked by fighter planes.
Since then, aerial shots have become an essential tool for filmmakers, providing a unique way to showcase landscapes and action scenes. They can also be used to create beautiful establishing shots that give audiences a sense of place.
What is an Aerial Shot?
An aerial shot is a camera angle captured from an elevated vantage point. Aerial photographs present a deeper understanding of the action happening below from a bird’s eye view. This requires specific camera equipment, which usually involves the camera placed on an elevated platform, floating object, or aircraft.
Since the introduction of drone cameras, aerial shots have grown in popularity. These were previously taken using helicopters, costing a fortune.
Some great examples of aerial shots in films include the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope, the Battle of Hoth scene in The Empire Strikes Back, and the final battle scene in Return of the Jedi. In each of these scenes, the aerial shots were used to great effect to showcase the scale and scope of the action taking place. Other notable examples include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. These films use a variety of aerial shots to create an immersive experience for viewers.
Aerial shot is alternatively also known by names such as God’s eye view shot, birds eye view shot, elevated shot, raised shot, overhead shot. But there’s a difference between an aerial and an overhead shot. The difference between both is the height. An aerial shot is taken from a considerably greater distance than an overhead shot. It’s similar to looking down from an airplane.
The idea of this shot is to focus on the scale and magnanimity of the setting. It’s frequently used as an establishing shot with the subject completely out of focus.
History of Aerial Photography
The first aerial photograph was taken in 1858 by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, popularly known as Nadar, who captured a view of Paris from his hot air balloon. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that aerial photography really took off, with the development of more sophisticated cameras and aircraft.
Aerial shots were first used extensively during World War I by both the Allied and Central forces. The purpose of aerial photography was to help commanders make better strategic decisions by giving them a bird’s eye view of the battlefield. Aerial shots were often used to identify enemy positions and track troop movements.
The technology continued to develop throughout the war, with new cameras and aircraft being developed specifically for aerial photography. In 1917, the Royal Flying Corps started using reconnaissance planes equipped with cameras to take aerial photographs. These photographs were then used to create maps and intelligence reports.
In 1918, the first silent film about an airship, The Airship Destroyer, featured several aerial shots of an airship being attacked by fighter planes. It is considered to be one of the first war films to use aerial photography.
Aerial Shots After World War II
Aerial photography became more widely used for civilian purposes after World War II. One of the first major uses of aerial photography for civilian purposes was in mapping and surveying land. Aerial shots were used to create detailed maps of cities and towns, as well as to track the progress of construction projects.
Aerial photography was also used for advertising campaigns in the 1950s. The first commercial flight advertisement was shot by American Airlines in 1949. The ad featured a plane flying over the Grand Canyon.
In 1957, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik program captured the first satellite imagery, which led to the development of satellite photography. Aerial shots are now often used in movies and television shows to create realistic landscapes. One of the most famous examples is the opening scene of Steven Spielberg‘s movie Jurassic Park, which features a helicopter flying over a fictional island.
Aerial Shot Examples In Films
Aerial shots have been used in movies and television since the early days of cinema. One of the first movies to use aerial footage was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which features several aerial shots of ancient Babylon.
In 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis featured some of the earliest helicopter footage ever filmed. The movie tells the story of a futuristic city, and many of the aerial shots are used to create a sense of scale and scope.
One of the most famous examples of an aerial shot in a movie is the opening scene of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The scene features a ship flying over the icy planet Hoth. The final battle scene in Return of the Jedi also features several spectacular aerial shots.
Here are some more examples of the best aerial shots in films.
1. 8½ (1963)
In Italian maestro Fedrico Fellini’s semi-auto biographical film 8½ we discover at 2:45 minutes that the protagonist Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) in his dream is flying in the sky free from all the anxieties of life. But his moment of pleasure is short lived as he is pulled down by his associates for collaborating on a project. This particular aerial shot works in context to the film as it symbolizes the present condition of Guido. The shot was achieved by using a helicopter where the cameraman used a film camera to shoot this shot.
2. American Beauty (1999)
In this scene from American Beauty through the voice over of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) we enter into the neighborhood of the protagonist where he’d lived for a good length of time with his family. The beauty of this shot lies in the fact that it is told from the point-of-view of a dead person. So, a bird’s eye view of the shot works in accordance with the aesthetics of the film. This shot was achieved using a drone.
3. Skyfall (2012)
In Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, the first action scene of the film is nothing less than an adrenaline rush. Bond (Daniel Craig) chases the antagonist of the film through different alleys and locations of Istanbul. In order to add an element of anticipation and excitement to the entire action sequence Roger Deakins adds aerial shots. This helps the filmmaker to not only capture the beauty of the location but also make the action scene very energetic. The camera mounted on a drone follows the characters in a manner as if the viewers are participating actively in those scenes.
4. Sicario (2015)
In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), when the convoy of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI Special Agent, enters the Mexican border, the aerial view captures the calmness of the terrain. It symbolizes that the region itself has a beauty and identity of itself which is disrupted by the violence unleashed by human greed and corruption. This particular scene is soon followed by a deadly shootout. This shot was also achieved by using a drone.
5. The Eagle Huntress (2016)
The Eagle Huntress is a Kazakh-language documentary narrating the tale of a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who prepares herself for a competition that will crumble the age-old gender divide of her tribe. As seen in the trailer, the documentary deals with eagles, the aerial shots naturally become a part of the aesthetic of the narrative. The aerial shots achieved through the use of drones not only capture the panoramic view of the Altai Mountains but are also symbolic of the young girl’s feats.
6. The Revenant (2015)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s philosophical epic traces the journey of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he survives through various odd circumstances to avenge the death of his wife and son. In this particular clip the aerial shot achieved through using a drone brings a kind of sublimity to the shot. From a bird’s-eye-view shot the camera captures Hugh making his way through the snow signifying the hurdles in life he is about to encounter.
7. Drive (2011)
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive the opening sequence introduces us to the world of the Driver (Ryan Gosling). He is a getaway driver and an expert in his job. After his introduction and before the car chase scene, there is an aerial shot of the city of Los Angeles. This particular shot achieved by mounting the camera on a drone gives us an idea of how crime has been thriving in the city’s underbelly. It gives us a sense that the entire narrative will revolve around various characters living within the big bad world of the metropolitan.
Tips To Shoot an Aerial Shot
Whether it is a low or big budget project, a clear vision of the filmmaker is key to execute a shoot in a disciplined manner. The idea of the filmmaker should be expressed to the crew in a way that allows everyone to focus and get down to work. Such a professional attitude gives the crew a set idea of what lies ahead so that not only time but money is also saved resulting in an efficient shoot. Let’s now get to how you can achieve an aerial shot for your professional projects:
An aerial shoot requires a lot of labor and hard work from the team members. So, it’s extremely important to plan it accurately. There should be a reason behind using an aerial shot. It should add meaning and value to the narrative. One should have a rough visualization of how he/she wants to look in the edit of the project. So, plan it well.
Planning also includes the logistical elements to prepare for the shoot. A certain amount of budget needs to be collected before executing the shot. Depending on whether the project is low or high budget, one must fix the hours of shoot to achieve the vision of the film with the resources at one’s disposal.
2. Position of Sun
Since an aerial shot is executed by flying the camera above the ground, the position of the sun plays a very important role. Your crew will need to figure out the perfect time to shoot the scenes, where they’d be shooting, and the number of shots they’ll need to capture in a day. Remember you can’t light your scene artificially during an aerial shoot, the available natural light is all you have. So time is a valuable resource, especially when you’re dealing with elements like daylight or weather. Make sure you keep these things in mind when planning the production as well as the shooting schedule.
Once the preproduction phase before shooting the aerial shot commences, go for a rehearsal. This may appear to be an extraneous step but in the long run it’ll come very handy. Operating a camera for aerial shots is a specialized and expensive job. For times when one can’t afford a professional operator due to budgetary constraints, a rehearsal will help the filmmaker, cinematographer as well as the camera operator gain confidence. Besides, rehearsals also help figure out the emotional and physical logistics of a scene. So in the final prepping stages while working with the production coordinator such rehearsals will ensure that all the pieces are in place.
4. Choosing the right camera
Now comes the most important part of the shoot. The camera. One can opt for cameras ranging from the basics such as DSLRs like Sony, Nikon, Canon to high-end ones such as RED. It entirely depends on your budget and how crucial the aerial shot is to your story. Keep these things in mind when choosing the camera. If you’re looking for an answer to what is the right kind of camera for you, I’d say that totally depends on your aesthetic choices as a filmmaker and your collaborating cinematographer. Remember, it’s the technical knowledge and handling of the camera that will get you quality shots besides knowing what camera works for you.
5. Camera Lens
The next important decision is the choice of lenses because the magnification of an aerial shot determines its aesthetic value within a narrative. The knowledge of the aperture of a lens is very important for capturing an aerial shot. Every lens has an opening known as aperture that controls how much light hits the imaging sensor. F-stop denotes aperture measurements on the camera. Here are various F-stop values and their purpose:
f/2.8 – An aperture with this opening is useful for capturing landscapes. It also adds beauty when capturing a subject in close shot.
f/1.4 – Helps capture a wide landscape in low light during the magic hour that is before sunrise or after sunset.
f/1.2 – Helps capture a tight landscape in low light during the magic hour that is before sunrise or after sunset.
f/4.5-5.6 – Helps capture distant subjects and add texture
6. Cards and Batteries
Lastly, have memory cards as well as fully charged batteries at your disposal when doing an aerial shot. Since shooting an aerial shot is sometimes done in difficult circumstances, an ample number of cards and batteries will always be helpful in executing the shoot without stress.
In contemporary filmmaking practices, the role of aerial cinematography is no longer limited to filler or B rolls. Aerial shots capture the energy of the scene and help evoke the right emotion and feeling in the heart of the viewer. They’re used in films as subjective shots, or personal shots that demonstrate a character’s view of the world. At the same time, they can also be used as objective or impersonal shots that demonstrate a “god-like” presence. Aerial cinematography is the reason for some of the most beautiful, notable scenes in film. Over time, aerial shots have evolved and, with advancing technology, are pushing the scope of filmmaking.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.