Choosing the Right Tool for the Right Job: Aerial Cinematography

Choosing the Right Tool for the Right Job: Aerial Cinematography

March 12, 2024

In 1927, Wings premiered as the first true aviation film and shocked the world by allowing audiences to experience flight while sitting in a theater. With cameras rigged onto the engine cowling of planes and operated by the actors as they flew, Wings set a standard of aviation realism that was astonishing not just for its novelty, but also considering the limited technology of the time in which it was filmed. Deprived of, and one could even argue unburdened with, endless technological options, Wings set a precedent for depicting the reality of flying in film that took nearly 100 years to reemerge. It was not until very recently that Wings’ artistic descendants began to be born. Films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joseph Kosinski’s Top-Gun: Maverick mark a reemergence of aviation realism in the film industry.

In 2024, we no longer need to risk the lives of cast and crew in order to capture realistic action. As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, the options available for aerial cinematography continue to expand. While this has undoubtedly enabled the creation of wildly successful works like Top-Gun: Maverick, it also raises a new set of challenges and questions: With all this new technology available, how do we pick the right tool for the job?

Let’s focus on three major platforms available for aerial cinematography today: helicopters, jets, and drones. One size certainly does not fit all and depending on the requirements and resources of the job, it can be difficult to determine which platform to use. Each has its own benefits as well as limitations. Understanding how the technical requirements of a particular shot fit with the capabilities of the aircraft is the essential first step.


Helicopters have been used for most of aerial cinematography throughout its history. A tried-and-true aerial platform, helicopters remain a compelling choice for capturing aerial footage. Helicopters offer unparalleled agility, making them ideal for dynamic shots requiring more intense maneuvers. Unlike drones, helicopters have higher speed capabilities and a range capacity of 300-400 miles; this means multiple hours in the air without having to land and refuel, allowing more flexibility in capturing the perfect shot. Helicopters are an incredibly versatile platform for aerial filmmaking. They have a high operating ceiling of 8,000 – 30,000 feet and can conversely be flown as low as is deemed safe in order to capture dynamic and fast-moving targets. Helicopters also have the capabilities to carry heavy loads (both equipment and crew) of between 3,000 and 5,500 pounds, allowing more advanced and larger camera systems and other equipment to be used in aerial filming, as well as allowing for larger crews to participate in filming from the sky. Helicopters are also capable of handling tougher environments than drones in terms of altitude, weather, and location. Helicopters are designed to handle intense natural environments and they are able to maintain their versatility even in many harsh conditions.

While helicopters have always been the preferred choice for aerial cinematography, and because of these extensive advantages are likely to remain the most versatile option, there are drawbacks that might make using other platforms more desirable depending on the job. Helicopters have a limited maximum cruise and climbing/descent speed when compared to jets, and their proximity to the set can introduce noise disturbances. Helicopters can also be very expensive to operate, especially if you don’t need to cover a wide range of filming locations. They also come with stricter liability considerations and requirements than drones because the monetary cost and risk factor is higher for using a helicopter. The risk factors will always be greater when you have human beings in an aircraft vs. operating from the ground, so the process of ensuring highly trained and highly qualified crews should also be considered when determining which aerial platform to use.


Drones, with their smaller form factor, lower operating costs, and precision flight capabilities, offer a compelling alternative for aerial cinematography. The reduced risk when operating in close proximity to cast and crew, coupled with the ability to navigate extremely confined spaces, makes drones suitable for capturing intimate and intricate shots. Drones can get into spaces helicopters simply cannot, and at a lower cost, with less training, and with less potential risk than helicopters.

Drones have only been legal as an option for aerial filming since 2014, and while drone technology has hugely improved since then, they still have significant limitations. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) restricts drones to a maximum ceiling of 400 feet and limited range puts constraints on their utility for projects requiring extensive coverage and endurance. The heavier the payload, the less time the drone can spend in the air, so if you want to put a heavy camera on heavy-lift drone, you only have a limited amount of time and chances to get the shot you want. The novelty of drones as a filming method also means that regulations can be harder to navigate depending on the country, where laws can vary, and extensive research is essential to remain in compliance with local laws. But, despite these constraints, drones provide filmmakers with a cost-effective and versatile tool for achieving creative aerial perspectives, especially in scenarios where a smaller footprint and precise movements are required for capturing the desired shot. And it is important to remember that we are still in the early days of drone technology, and these platforms are only going to become increasingly advanced in the coming years.


Although, as is evidenced by Wings, airplanes marked the earliest applications of filming in the sky, it was not until recently that they became a viable option for capturing aerial footage. Jets bring a distinct set of advantages to aerial cinematography, with an operating ceiling of up to 45,000 feet, raw speed to overtake picture aircraft, and endurance lasting up to four hours. The impressive range of up to 2000 miles makes jets suitable for capturing expansive landscapes and following high-speed subjects. The ability to accommodate at least a Director of Photography (DP) on board, along with additional film crew members (depending on the aircraft), provides a unique advantage for collaborative filmmaking. Multiple camera system mounting points on the nose, tail, or wings further enhance the versatility of jet cinematography.

However, high operational costs, limited airports for takeoff and landing, and a smaller pool of SAG-carded jet pilots present challenges for filmmakers considering jets as their aerial platform of choice. Jets also lack the maneuverability, not to mention hover capability, that has historically made helicopters the preferred option for aerial filming. While jets are an excellent platform for the air-to-air filming of fast-moving subjects (Top-Gun-Maverick is a perfect example of this), jets are unable to fly low to the ground and might not be the best choice for air-to-ground filming.

The ever-evolving landscape of aerial cinematography offers filmmakers a diverse array of choices amongst helicopters, drones, and jets. Each platform brings its own set of advantages and limitations, requiring careful consideration of the specific demands and resources of each project. As technology advances, the decision-making process becomes more nuanced, emphasizing the importance of aligning the technical requirements of a shot with the unique capabilities of the chosen aircraft, ensuring the seamless integration of art and technology in the pursuit of captivating and realistic aerial footage.



Written by Michaela Purwin for the Society of Camera Operators Website and Newsletter