What Is An Aerial Shot? & How to Create One
With the accessibility of drones, aerial shots have become very appealing shots to use. Even short films with low budgets have the ability to add an aerial shot in an attempt to heighten their production value. However, an aerial shot that doesn’t appeal to the themes or emotions of the story is pointless. So let’s clear up what makes up an aerial shot and how you can use its properties to serve your project better.
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What is an aerial shot?
An aerial shot is any shot elevated over the action, usually straight above at a ninety-degree angle. Its height varies from soaring high above a city or tight on a page. And with the use of common devices like drones, aerial shots are easier to create than ever before.
God’s eye or bird’s eye
The aerial shot is also called the god’s eye or bird’s eye shot, which usually applies to shots high up, overlooking a city, a mansion, a war zone, a fantasy land, or a body of water. These shots are larger than life and can convey an omnipresent view of a character or the world. It can be used as an establishment shot, but the best use of establishing with an aerial shot is to establish a situation rather than just the location.
Fincher style aerial shot
A few seconds before this particular video example from the film Zodiac, the camera flew over San Francisco in 1969. The radio is playing the news of the moment, the Zodiac Killer, the very person in the car driving through the streets of San Francisco. The Zodiac Killer’s identity is a mystery to everyone, so he blends into the city seamlessly. The aerial shot’s movement is cold and calculated, much like the killer’s actions. Contrasted with the radio playing in the background, the background to many of the people in that city and perfectly establishes the situation: no one knows where the Zodiac Killer will strike next, except for the killer himself.
Most aerial shots in crime, thrillers or action movies convey a sense of mortality, impending danger, and isolation. Which makes sense, considering it makes the character appear to be another person in the fold. In Zodiac, the killer is shot to appear like it could be anyone in the human population, and that gives him strength. Conversely, to look down on someone from that height implies a sense of vulnerability because they look like everyone else from that height; perhaps they are just as mortal as everybody else.
Tarantino style aerial shot
In this scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1, we see The Bride as mortal, vulnerable, and ambushed by danger. As the fight goes on, the bloodshed is visible on a bigger scale using that same frame. But the transition into the aerial shot is the most impactful part (other than the blood hose). She thought she had already won, so the shot begins from that mindset, low angled and largest in the frame. Then it moves steadily upward; she becomes a small yellow spec amongst the rest of the frame, crowded in by suited ninja-samurai. Not only does the use of the aerial shot here convey vulnerability, but it also conveys isolation – her against the world.
Another name for the aerial shot is the overhead shot. It’s in the same mindset of an aerial shot, only it’s close enough to allow for a specific character, location, or at this proximity even, prop details. With less distance between the camera and the subject, the feeling of danger remains present, like in this example from Hitchcock’s film Psycho:
It adds a sense of mystery to who the killer is while still very much showing the gruesomeness of the entire scene.
However, these overhead shots can also lend an intimacy to the space. Such is the case in the film, Paterson.
It is the film’s opening, but it is also the opening to every day that passes in Paterson’s life. This couple has cultivated their own little world in their cozy home. We stay in overhead and only cut when observing smaller details of the space that require a closeup. However, even those details stay visible in the widest frame. It creates the feeling of a bubble, and combined with the film’s naturalistic style; it mimics the everyday comfort of living.
Anderson style aerial shot
Wes Anderson is a director that has developed a style off of the overhead shot. Specifically while shooting props. He has objects become the center point of the shot, using the overhead shot to narrow in and isolate the item. It helps indicate that the item correlates to character details, and that’s true for all his films.
In Rushmore, it’s the typewriter case of a lonely and ambitious boy with “Bravo Max! Love Mom” stitched on it. In Moonrise Kingdom, it’s the runaway girl’s favorite books: The Disappearance of the 6th Grader and The Girl from Jupiter. In The Darjeeling Limited, it’s the perfume of an ex from a heartbroken and quiet man.
How to shoot an aerial shot?
Now that you know the different ways you can use an aerial shot, it’s easier to plan it adequately. Like any shot, you plan the lighting, the blocking, and the equipment you might need. The wider and higher the shot, the more expensive the equipment and the more time you will need to set aside to coordinate with other departments. There might be more action required from actors, stunt people, extras on top of the art required for the set, wardrobe, and props. The grander the shot, the more hours or even days it will take to get it perfect.
Equipment ranges depending on the scope of the shot. Are you tracking a car through a city for a while? Then you might need to set aside a chunk of the budget for a helicopter to shoot out of. For more grand sweeping movements in one space, then perhaps a crane or a drone will be more appropriate. It would take a specific rig appropriate for the space you are occupying for a static overhead shot.
Next time you’re watching a movie, keep your eye out for any aerial shots. The ways movies incorporate such a stylized shot is always fascinating to dissect. Happy shooting, and don’t forget to check out Peerspace’s database of unique locations for your next aerial shot. It’s a smart (and fun!) way to practice your aerial shot techniques in a private, stylish setting.