Case Studies Interviews Production Features

Game of Drones

Today, the sky’s the limit when filming – literally. Once used only to capture wide-angle and establishing shots, aerial filming has grown into a dynamic industry.

Contributing to the growing success of using drones for the entertainment and media industry is Hatim Saleh, founder of ChopperShoot, who has just wrapped up a sequence for a Pierce Brosnan film called The Misfits. The project was shot in Abu Dhabi and Saleh helped shoot the drone footage.

Besides The Misfits, Saleh has also worked on other Hollywood and Bollywood biggies in the last year. His love for filming in the skies led him to start ChopperShoot in 2005 in Dubai.

Growing up in Dubai in a family that owned a video production company, he had early exposure to film-making. His family’s main business came from producing films related to the oil & gas industry, and it was while working for a similar project that Saleh identified his calling.“While flying in the helicopter to oil rigs for ground filming, I used to do some aerial filming before landing; it was during one of these projects that I saw an opportunity and decided to open a dedicated aerial filming company,” he shares.

“At ChopperShoot, we started by using RC helicopters for filming until 2007, and then switched to large-scale helicopters. Today we film with both drones and helicopters. Helicopter filming continues to be a large part of our business, but since 2014, when we trained in flying drones, our drone filming business has grown significantly year on year. We specialise in filming for broadcast of special events and sports, filming of television commercials, television series, feature films and tourism-related projects. We are fully equipped and experienced with large-scale broadcast events, with in-house crew, equipment and a dedicated permits department.”

Drones are redefining aerial filming by offering greater flexibility and control for the filmmaker to create breathtaking, awe-inspiring shots for features and films. Saleh, however, is quick to add that anyone trying to get into the drone industry must train and plan well while maintaining the highest standards of safety.

“Just like any form of filmmaking, drone filming also requires years of experience to get that precision shot. Anyone can fly a drone, they are easy to fly, but to fly it with precision and provide the shot that the director wants, along with offering your individual input, can only be achieved with a lot of practice”.

“Anyone can fly a drone, they are easy to fly, but to fly it with precision and provide the shot that the director wants, along with offering your individual input, can only be achieved with a lot of practice”

Almost every outdoor production uses drone shots now. The use of drones will increase in the coming years, says Saleh.

Saleh stresses the importance of planning well before the shoot. “We plan our drone filming projects depending on the location and size of the area. We start by visiting the site and checking Google Earth to identify the finer aspects like exact location, angle, proximity to any potentially sensitive area and proximity to any airport, and direction of sunrise and sunset. Good planning and clear communication are very big factors to successfully shoot with a drone. We identify safe take-off and landing zones and ensure that the flight path is as per the safety regulations laid out by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA)”.

It is interesting to note that the UAE is among the very few countries to have laid down detailed guidelines to regulate the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) domain. For aerial filming enthusiasts, the authorities have a permit process in place.

“Aerial filming required less paperwork 10 years ago, but now drone filming regulations in the UAE are streamlined. Considering how busy the airspace is, it is still fully supported by all federal and local civil aviation departments to accommodate drone flights safely,” explains Saleh.

The Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) has laid out drone filming regulations well, with a step-by-step guide on how to obtain a permit in Dubai, while the GCAA offers drone filming permits for the other emirates in the UAE.

“The UAE is among the top countries that implemented drone regulations as soon as the technology was available. The rules are clear and straightforward. All involved departments provide complete support,” says Saleh.

A report by TechSci Research forecasts that the UAE drone market will reach $122m by 2023. It is believed that nearly 80% of all outdoor shoots now require drone filming, as it adds a unique and dynamic perspective to any film. Filming through drones is getting popular globally, and the UAE is no exception.

It is believed that nearly 80% of all outdoor shoots now use drone filming, as it adds a unique and dynamic perspective to any film.

“Almost every outdoor production uses drone shots now. The use of drones will only increase in the coming years. It is important to understand that with the permit process getting simpler, we will see more demand among filmmakers to employ drone filming techniques in the coming years,” Saleh points out.

2018 was an important year for Saleh and ChopperShoot. The company worked on five films in the UAE, including an as yet unreleased Hollywood movie. Other key projects included Bharat, starring Salman Khan, and a sequence for the movie Zero, which was shot in Abu Dhabi.

ChopperShoot just completed a five-year contract to film Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi, and has an ongoing contract with Abu Dhabi Airport to film it every month. The drone specialist also visits the Expo 2020 site biweekly to document its construction.

Construction used to be a large part of ChopperShoot’s business, but as drones became more easily accessible and requirements became purely information-based, construction companies took to hiring their own teams and drones to document construction progress, to keep budgets down. In the meantime, ChopperShoot moved to new verticals to grow the business.

“We are in this business because we have the knowledge, training and the passion to shoot from the sky,” says Saleh.

“2018 was one of our best years. Overall, the year was difficult for smaller companies, but we were able to grow. I believe that growing up in Dubai gives one an advantage, as it is easy to find your way around. Many new companies struggle with that. We worked on broadcast as well as non-broadcast projects last year. We feel privileged to have been associated with some prestigious projects, like the Year of Zayed celebrations”.

2019 has been just as exciting for Saleh and his team, having just concluded the sequence for The Misfits.

“The project was shot in Abu Dhabi, and ChopperShoot helped shoot the drone footage for the movie. The sequence was shot using the ALTA 8 drone, which is often the first choice for big-budget movies as it can lift cinema cameras like the RED and the Alexa Mini with various lens combinations,” explains Saleh.

“We primarily use the RED Helium and Alexa Mini on the Freefly ALTA 8 for shooting footage for feature films and TV commercials”

ChopperShoot was also commissioned to provide a live drone broadcast of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the UAE in February this year. The team, along with Go Aerials, provided the broadcast range at 3km in Abu Dhabi for the event. The airspace was shared by security helicopters, a broadcast helicopter and the ChopperShoot drone. The complete preparation required meeting with the Abu Dhabi Air Wing safety committee and ensuring detailed planning of communications, flight times and safety parameters. Saleh lauds the meticulous planning the Abu Dhabi government carried out for this project.

Offering a glimpse into the firm’s 2019 work line-up, Saleh says: “2019 has opened on a good note for us, and I hope we can associate with more prestigious projects in the coming months. Business is booming and getting better with each passing year; we are making more connections. Our filming process is very solid. We see ourselves at the heart of larger projects. While more people are entering this industry with access to drone technology becoming easier, we continue to innovate in this space. We are not in this business because the technology is now available, accessible and relatively cheaper. We are here because we have the knowledge, training and the passion to shoot from the sky.”

In the meantime, ChopperShoot is continuously investing in new drones. A BFD S8 is a new addition to its inventory of two ALTA 8 drones, one ALTA 6, two M600 Pro and seven Inspire 2 systems, all registered and well-documented. The BFD S8 is especially significant, owing to its ability to carry up to 25lbs while remaining under 55lbs in total weight.

While availability of drones in the market has increased, Saleh has some criteria before investing in a drone:

“We would consider investing in new equipment only if it has a big demand in this market or if it has obvious advanced features that will improve the overall filming experience and picture quality.

The industry is flooded with new cameras at the consumer level, but high-end equipment is not launched as often. If we see constant demand and major technical improvements in new gear, we invest in it right away. We also firmly believe that a less technically advanced camera in the hands of an experienced photographer will produce far superior results than a high-end camera in the hands of an amateur.

“We primarily use the RED Helium and Alexa Mini on the Freefly ALTA 8 for shooting footage for feature films and TV commercials. We also use DJI Inspire 2 for TV commercials and on projects that do not require film cameras. We fly the DJI M600 Pro for long ranges of up to 4km of live broadcast. We have all the cameras and lenses for DJI Inspire 2 and a RED Helium,” comments Saleh, adding that the company also has the regular fare – the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, a number of X5 and X7 cameras, and so on.

While drones have made it easier to shoot aerial footage, the use of helicopters for filming also continues to grow, according to Saleh. They are still widely used for aerial filming and are here to stay. Many projects cannot be done with drones, he points out.

ChopperShoot uses the Freefly ALTA 8 to shoot footage for feature films and TV commercials.

“Helicopters are great for capturing large landscapes, and for high-altitude filming. Filming over long distances can only be done with a helicopter for now. Also, helicopters make it possible to carry larger camera and lens packages, and this has an impact on the quality of the footage,” he points out, adding that helicopters with a single engine are only permitted to fly during the day. “The regulations mandate that only a twin-engine helicopter can be flown at night”.

Drone filming is good for filming within close range and under 400ft. Compared to helicopter filming, drone filming is more flexible to reschedule, requires less logistics and planning, and is at least 70% cheaper. A drone shoot usually only requires a three-member team – a drone operator, a camera operator and a technician.

“Almost every outdoor production uses drone shots now. The use of drones will only increase in the coming years”

Saleh can’t underline the importance of safety and maintenance enough. “We have a very strong technical team and we maintain our drones very well. Before every shoot, we have detailed safety checks. We operate like an aviation company when it comes to our pilots. Just like a pilot is expected to be well-rested before a flight, we ensure that the drone pilot is well-rested prior to any shoot.

“A drone can be quite stressful to fly. It needs a lot of concentration and control; otherwise it can fly off track. The time of the shoot also matters, especially in this region, where the temperature can really soar. There is always a possibility of getting fatigued by the sun. Just like an airline complies with the GCAA regulations, we comply with all GCAA regulations. In a recent GCAA audit, we topped the list. We have everything as per their expectations, as we maintain safety and incident records along with pilot and drone flight hours and equipment maintenance reports,” Saleh concludes.