Greenland from Above: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Helicopter Cinematography

There’s something magical about the moment the ground falls away as we soar into the air. The helicopter’s engines start to whir, and everything begins to shake. Cameras are ready, everything taped down, lens hoods removed.

Ahead lies the vast expanse of Greenland’s Søndre Strømfjord. The absence of trees and the remarkable visibility render the vast landscape below scaleless. What seems a mere few miles away could easily be twenty or thirty.

Filming should be straightforward amidst such epic views, with a helicopter at our command. Yet I discovered obtaining usable footage from helicopter shoots is anything but simple.

Be Calm, Tape Everything Down

The excitement of being in a helicopter can lead to mistakes. The last thing you want is to find out everything was shot out of focus or with excessive motion blur. The solution? Bring out the gaffer tape. Unless you’re aiming for detailed shots of the helicopter’s interior, you’ll likely be focusing on infinity, a setting you can fix and lock, along with the zoom, to ensure optimal lens performance.

Shutter speed is crucial. The constant movement means what would normally be a usable shutter speed won’t suffice. I set my cameras to manual before takeoff, opting for a shutter speed ideally faster than 1/1000th of a second and an aperture between F4 and F5.6, letting auto ISO manage the exposure.

Doors Off

To achieve an unobstructed shot, having an open door is often considered essential. However, this is not always possible, such as when filming in the Greenlandic winter with temperatures as low as -45°C (-49°F.)

The compromise often involves shooting through glass or, if lucky, a small side window next to the passenger seat. It’s just enough space to poke a lens through, but with a gimbal in a moving helicopter, it’s far from simple.

When filming through glass, a fabric lens hood that physically sticks to it is handy for canceling reflections. The pilot almost certainly won’t let you obstruct the front window with this so it’ll be filming from a side window. If nothing else, removing the standard hood lets you get closer to minimizing reflections. When shooting outside, moving at 100mph, it reduces drag and the chance of it detaching and testing the durability of the tail rotor.

Even with an open door, the rotors tend to intrude into every shot. This is less problematic for stills but for footage, it’s a major issue. This is why drones and news helicopters typically mount the camera low and to the front, keeping rotors out of the frame and enabling forward shots. There is no perfect solution here sadly, outside of ‘fixing in post’. You can instruct the pilot to execute a right bank maneuver to angle the rotor blades up and out of frame. The problem is it quickly takes you away from the subject and cancels out any other interesting movement.

Rolling Shutter

While capturing stills is relatively straightforward, filming adds complexity, especially without the luxury of a $200k+ Shotover gimbal. Filming directly ahead requires the pilot to stop and yaw around, a request that can only be made sparingly. Despite a gimbal’s stabilization, everything shakes, and a ” jello” effect in the footage is a common problem. To combat this, my tip is to capture stills at the camera’s maximum frame rate using the mechanical shutter to avoid rolling shutter, facilitating more effective post-stabilization. I’m curious, however, about the performance of the Sony a9 III and its global shutter in these conditions.

To Drone or Not to Drone

Helicopter filming is increasingly rare, given the expense and the efficiency of drones. Yet, in the vastness of Greenland, far from any person, helicopters are irreplaceable. Until drones come with a passenger seat, helicopters remain unparalleled.

Enjoy It!

I find going into shoots with a positive mindset is crucial. Take time to tell yourself how cool this is and how lucky you are to have this opportunity. On shoots, there is a lot of pressure, most of it self-created. With so much beauty all around and mastery of the skies, the possibilities are endless. There are trade-offs; dwelling too long on one scene might mean missing another, even more, spectacular one.

As the beauty of the scenery intensifies, so does the sense of responsibility. I’ve returned from shoots almost traumatised by what I could have done differently. It’s often when reviewing the footage that I truly appreciate the experience. That being said, flying along Paradise Valley as a rainbow formed in the distance was an unforgettable moment.

About the author: Rob Whitworth is a BAFTA-winning, Emmy-nominated filmmaker. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Whitworth’s unique flow motion works are instantly identifiable. You can find more of his work on his website, or by following him on Facebook and Instagram.