The Edit

The best aerial shots in film

Aerial shot

When it comes to capturing the perfect aerial shot, most filmmakers' minds will immediately swing one way: hiring a helicopter, loading it up with gear, and flying it over the beachfront or mountain in question. And power to them. Some of history's greatest cinematography has been pulled off doing just that.

But is that all that's on offer? Of course not. As modern creators, our tools have become far more varied, especially when it comes to taking our cameras to the skies.

Over the last couple of decades, the aerial shot has become a far more complex beast to work with: new technology has not only given us the chance to create stunning images, but also to let audiences experience the impossible. Here's my pick of the best aerial shots of recent years and, most importantly, how they were brought to life. 

Zodiac (2007, David Fincher): taxi ride

It's hard to talk about amazing aerial shots without mentioning this one. For many filmmakers, this was a breakthrough moment in using computer-generated images to create an inventive realism. Although our eyes are now trained to notice that, yes, this sequence looks a little bit CG, at the time, this was mind-blowing stuff. If you don't believe me about it being CG, check out the breakdown at the beginning of this making-of documentary.

Birdman (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu): flying to work

While this film's seamless blending stands out – the entire film essentially comprises one shot – its memorable flight scene is also a marvel of clever aerial work. Why? Because despite capturing the feeling of flying through the air perfectly, the cameras never actually left the ground. Using careful planning, clever compositing, and the right combination of static and mobile cranes, the illusion of using aerial photography in a busy New York City street is as perfect as the illusion of flight itself.

Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes): motorbike chase

Enter the drones! When I heard they filmed this hectic chase scene on the roof of Istanbul's iconic Grand Bazaar, I didn't believe it. There's simply no way you would ever be allowed to fly a full-size aircraft that low in a built-up area. But no. Thanks to drone photography now coming into its own, the previously-impossible aerial shots scattered throughout the sequence were brought to life with perfection, bringing with them a massive shot of adrenaline to an already action-packed scene.

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015): pteranodon attack

The terrifying moment when a horde of winged dinosaurs swoops down the main street of a crowded theme park is one of my favourite recent aerial shots, purely for its mastery of so many modern technologies. Apart from the incredible dinosaur CG work that dominates this series, the use of drones for this sequence (and across the entire film) made for some far more dynamic shooting than would have been possible in any previous Jurassic film.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015): desert escape

For us Star Wars nerds, seeing the Millennium Falcon twisting and turning through the desert landscape during the film's first teaser was everything. In the finished film, that dynamic aerial sequence is amongst the most exciting; as far as sky-high dogfights are concerned, this one takes the cake! While the scene is fully CG, what's important to note is how the visual effects artists blended a photographed/projected environment (sand, sky) with digital structures like the ruined destroyers. Stunning stuff! 

Whether they're CG or achieved by drones, getting an aerial shot right is still quite a feat. These are my favourites, but what aerial shots stand out for you?

Demis Lyall-Wilson is a London-based writer, photographer, and Hollywood visual effects artist, who enjoys blowing up planets for cash (and a line in the credits). 


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