Some of the most iconic shots in history have been taken from the air. The elevated vantage point that we rarely see in day to day life creates a unique experience for any movie-goer. From war films, to thrillers, to action movies, aerial cinematography has created some of the most iconic shots in cinema. These shots were originally only available to big budget Hollywood productions that could afford helicopters and large cranes. With the rise of drones, aerial cinematography is now accessible to all filmmakers. That being said, it’s important to understand the value of aerial cinematography. So what is aerial cinematography? And how can it literally and figuratively elevate your film? Let’s find out.

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Aerial Cinematography Meaning

Aerial cinematography defined

With technology evolving at an incredible rate, it's important to understand what qualifies as aerial cinematography. Although there are various ways filmmakers achieve aerial shots in movies, there are certain techniques and considerations that aerial filming require that standard cinematography does not.

Aerial Filming Defined

What is aerial cinematography?

Aerial cinematography is the photographs or video from an aircraft or other flying object. The main tools used to achieve aerial photography are through helicopters and drones. Aerial cinematography is typically used for establishing shots, follow shots, and action sequences.

Aerial cinematography provides a very high vantage point and is perfect for both logistical reasons in being able to capture more within a frame as well as psychological reasons in how the perspective of aerial photography gives the audience a unique perspective of a story unfolding.

When is aerial cinematography used for?

  • Establishing shots
  • Chase scenes
  • Landscape shots
  • God’s eye view

As mentioned in the definition, aerial cinematography can be achieved through different methods. Before we dive into how the advancements in drone technology have completely revolutionized aerial cinematography, you might be wondering “What is aerial cinematography used for in film?” To answer that, let’s take a look at some examples from some of the most iconic aerial shots in movies.

Aerial Filming Examples

Establishing shots

Because aerial shots in movies are taken from so high up, they are perfect for establishing shots that show off the scenery of a film or scene. A wide shot from using helicopter cinematography can capture the most expansive landscapes. This is perfect for stories that heavily revolve around the geography of the film such as in one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films of all time, The Shining.

The Shining First Shots

Kubrick uses the aerial cinematography at great speeds to establish how far from civilization this story takes place. This is an important factor to creating the cabin fever that overcomes the film’s protagonist. Being that The Shining was created far before the use of drones in film, Kubrick’s choice in using a helicopter to capture this opening aerial cinematography sequence was extremely unique for the film’s time.

Drones in more recent years have allowed all filmmakers to capture amazing establishing shots like Kubrick’s that can shoot expansive landscapes and settings. This type of drone shot is one of the most common and most practical that can immediately level up your film’s production value.

Aerial Cinema Examples

Chase scenes

Aerial shots in movies are perfect for chase scenes that move far and fast. While there are a plethora of amazing car chase scenes that utilize aerial photography and its high vantage point, one of the most impressive cases of aerial photography for chase scenes has to be the helicopter chase scene from one of the best action movie Mission Impossible: Fallout

Although it does not utilize a high vantage point to capture the ground per se, the aerial cinematography was the most engaging way to capture what happens in the air. Check out this behind the scenes video of the movie to understand just how much went into the scene.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout  •  Helicopter Cinematography BTS

While this chase scene is significantly more complex than the average car chase, this behind the scenes video shows the rigging and setup involved in executing any great helicopter shot.

Aerial filming examples

War scenes

From Platoon to We Were Soldiers, aerial cinematography of a helicopter fleet has become iconic within the war film genre. While aerial shots in movies typically capture the ground below, they are perfect for shooting the epic helicopter fleets of war scenes. And few helicopter shots are more epic than the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now.

Aerial Filming in Ride of the Valkyries  •  Apocalypse Now 

Helicopter cinematography is the perfect device for shooting these war film helicopter scenes because they create subjectivity for the audience, basically showing a point of view from one of the helicopters of the fleet.

Drone Filmmaking

God’s eye view

Cinematography can create perspectives in film that most people do not experience in their life. The extremely elevated vantage point of aerial cinematography is very unique to the human experience. For this reason, it is perfect at capturing the god’s eye view. This is a shot that is extremely high up peering down on action happening on the ground. This is a common device used in the thriller genre. Check out this video by We Need to Talk About Film in which they break down the use of the god’s eye view from the best movies from the crime genre.

God's Eye View  •  Aerial Videography Tips

As described in the video, aerial cinematography in the god’s eye view does more than create an aesthetically unique visual, but also serves as a storytelling device that elevates the narrative of a film. With the advancements in drone technology, god’s eye view shots can be taken in more unique places and much closer to a subject. This flexibility has opened doors for filmmakers to become more creative in where they place their god’s eye view shots.

What is aerial cinematography with drones?

The era of the drone

Aerial cinematography in the past has only been accessible to those who could afford the use of helicopters or large cranes. They were an immediate bump in a film’s production value for this reason. What is aerial cinematography looking like today? With the dawn of more advanced and more economical drones, filmmakers have had more access to aerial cinematography than ever before.

In fact, big budget films utilize drones because of the enormous maneuverability and efficiency drones have in capturing aerial photography. Drones are also able to capture shots that other aerial cinematography tools cannot. The maneuverability and size of a drone has resulted in various types of drone shots that cannot be achieved by any other means.

Check out Time’s video on how drones have revolutionized aerial cinematography and how filmmakers used different types of drone shots in some of the biggest movies of recent years.

Cinematic drone shots in blockbuster movies

Since drones have no intention of slowing down in the world of cinematography, let’s explore some drone shot techniques and tips that will help you elevate your aerial filming with a drone and give you a better understanding of how to shoot drone footage.

Drone filmmaking

Drone cinematography tips

Once you get your hands on a drone and learn how to pilot and operate it, there are a few key drone shot techniques and tips that will instantly improve your drone cinematography.

1. Shoot at the right time of day

Because aerial cinematography typically is used for exterior shots, utilizing golden hour will provide the best lighting for your drone shots. This is one of the best aerial cinematography tips to know before taking your drone out for a shot.

2. Use an ND filter

Using an ND filter will allow you to shoot a cinematic shutter speed that will help you match drone shots to your other shots taken with another cinematic camera.

3. Use slow movements 

Don’t make the mistake of whipping your drone around for fast moving shots. Typically this will result in jolty and jarring camera movements that look amateur and may not even be usable when cut together with other shots. A seasoned aerial director of photography typically uses slow movements for smoother more cinematic drone shots.

4. Color grade to match 

Shooting on a drone within a project will inevitably mean that you have footage from multiple cameras. Be sure to match the color grading of the footage taken from both cameras so that the cut between the two will be seamless.

5. Try adding a zoom

Adding a zoom either in camera or in post-production can add a layer of depth to a shot that makes it more engaging. This can be especially helpful when shooting a specific subject that appears rather small in the frame. Adding a zoom toward the subject will draw the audience’s eye to what matters in the drone shot.

These tips are great to apply to nearly all your drone shots. What types of drone shots are there? This is where filmmakers have become extremely creative. Shots that have been achieved through other mechanisms like dollies and stabilizers can now be achieved through some drones such as pull outs, reveal shots, and even overhead shots.

To learn more about different types of drone shots and drone shot techniques, check out this video that covers specific drone movements and compositions.

Drone cinematography techniques

With the rise of drones, you can expect to see more aerial cinematography in both blockbuster films and low budget films well into the future. Drones have made aerial cinematography more accessible to all filmmakers than ever before. Hopefully these tips and methods of aerial and drone cinematography will encourage you to continue to learn how to shoot drone footage as technology progresses and to find opportunities for aerial shots in your next project.


Epic Drone Shots Mashup

Aerial cinematography has created some of the most iconic and memorable shots in cinema. Earlier filmmakers have used helicopters, planes, and even cranes to capture aerial shots in movies. But what is aerial cinematography progressing to? Drone shots. Check out some of the best drone shots we’ve seen up next.

Up Next: Epic Drone Shots Mashup →
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