Drones edging out helicopter film pilots

Helicopter drone

The helicopter has long been the go-to to get epic aerial shots. But lately, the mighty flying machine has been losing business to drones. (Doug Husby/CBC)


Transport Canada thought he couldn’t do it. But Jim Filippone was eager to fly a helicopter through downtown Vancouver, squeezing between all of the soaring glass towers on Georgia Street.

After all, the film needed it.

He got the OK after plotting it out with his safety co-ordinator (and wife) Wendy, pledging to fly with two engines and stick to the yellow line in the middle of the road.

Filippone hovered his helicopter just above the street lamps, zooming up and down the road until the cameras got what they needed. He did it again for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day, this time at night with no light.

Filippone’s precision made him the go-to pilot for these low-level helicopter shots. But drones, which can get the same shot at a sliver of the price, have forced the Filippones out of business after more than 30 years and 13,800 hours in the air.

Jim Filippone

Jim Filippone flew helicopters for films and television shows for more than 30 years. You can even spot him in the opening for the old CBC show Danger Bay, for which he once had to don this blond wig. (Jim Filippone)

“We’d call up people, production managers, and we would say, ‘Oh hey do you have any aerials on the show?’ … every time they say yes, we would have a job. They would hire us. But it’s, ‘Oh yeah, we have an aerial but we’re using a drone,'” he said.

The couple worked on the X-Men movies, Tron: Legacy and the old CBC show Danger Bay, among many others.

“We’ve gone into retirement because of this,” Filippone said about the drones bumping out his work.

‘Tipping point’ for drones

The drone has stolen gigs and taken a hit on Canada’s small but mighty pool of film pilots and aerial videographers.

It can squeeze into tight spaces and get shots the helicopter can’t — quicker, without much setup, and clad with high-quality cameras. There’s also less at stake if something goes wrong. Helicopter crashes have killed more than 30 people on film and TV sets since 1980, according to Deadline.com.

Chris Bacik

Chris Bacik, right, runs Sky Eye Media out of his parents’ garage near Barrie, Ont. He has flown drones for Hollywood movies and hit TV shows like Orphan Black and The Handmaid’s Tale. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

But the biggest drone draw may be the price point. Drones are substantially cheaper to fly for film — even when decked out with fancy equipment.

The cheaper price has won Chris Bacik a bunch of film jobs — he has flown his drones for Hollywood movies and hit TV shows like Orphan Black and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Price points: Drone vs. helicopter

Here’s what CBC News was quoted for a helicopter film shoot with Chanda’s Aerial Camera Operations and a drone film shoot with Bacik’s Sky Eye Media.

  • Helicopter: Chanda said a twin turbine helicopter is needed for film-style shoots ($2350/hr). Plus a full day on the camera for prep/install/shoot adds another $5,750.
  • Drone: Bacik flies with three operators (a pilot, camera operator and safety person), charging $1,600 for eight hours. The rental price for one of Bacik’s mid-sized drones is $1,800/day. Bacik said productions usually provide their own camera and lenses, but others rent from him, which costs $1,500-$2,500/day.

“When we get the opportunity to show these [to] people, their eyes just light up,” he said of drones.

Bacik runs Sky Eye Media in Midhurst, near Barrie, Ont. He works out of his parents’ garage, packed tight with shelves of drones. Some are as small as tubs of margarine, others as big as office chairs, with tentacle-like arms to help it fly.

Drone view

The drone can go places and get shots the helicopter can’t, like this one of a man on a backyard deck looking out over the water. (Sky Eye Media)

“Finally there’s been this tipping point in last 12 months or so now where we are shooting twice a week, and now we’ve become profitable and things are just escalating,” he said.

“We’ve definitely come across a couple of helicopter operators that aren’t as friendly to us because they realize yes, we’re here to stay and we are affecting the way they do business.”

‘You can’t take it for granted’

Still, the helicopter has its advantages.

It can fly faster, longer and higher than any drone can, able to get those striking big-city and mountain shots. The helicopter works in any weather, whereas drones can’t fly in the wind. And some drone pilots fear Transport Canada’s proposed changes to drone rules, which could crack down on what they fly right now.


The helicopter can fly a lot faster, longer and higher than a drone can, helping helicopter cameraman Chris Chanda, left, stay airborne. (Doug Husby/CBC)

All this is helping helicopter cameraman Chris Chanda stay airborne. He has been filming from above for 23 years, and now runs Aerial Camera Operations.

“From our side of the fence, we think [drones are] a great tool, but they’re certainly not capable of the full-on production value we can provide,” he said.

“It’s kind of like giving your kid a skateboard and telling him to go play on the highway.”

But he too admits he’s lost some business to drones, something he thought would never happen.

Chris Chanda

Chanda, who runs Aerial Camera Operations, outfits a helicopter with his filming equipment at a Brampton-Caledon airport hangar. (Doug Husby/CBC)

As technology gets better, industry experts predict it won’t be long before drones can do what helicopters can — with longer and higher flights and even better, more stable aerial shots coming soon.

“You can’t take it for granted,” said Chanda, who has considered adding drones to his fleet. “You certainly can’t say no to advancing technology.”

Jim on Danger Bay

If you look closely, you can see Filippone at the helm of the helicopter as a stunt is performed for the ’80s CBC show Danger Bay. (Jim Filippone)

Others, like Filippone, want nothing to do with drones. He likens flying one to playing a video game.

“I’m the worst video-game operator in the world. We’ll leave those to the kids.”