They refused me a helicopter

Jez Cooper

by Jez Cooper

Thu, 10/11/2018 - 15:32


A brilliant idea about extreme elements flows so easily when you are at your desk with trusty pencil in hand. The ordinary laws of physics and space don’t apply in the sketched world, earthquake, volcano, supercell storms or floods! All completed in a few lines of carbon on pulped dead trees.

Back on earth, when the euphoria of a successful presentation has passed, reality kicks-in in the form of the planning stage, That’s when the icy hand of fate and expectation falls on your slender shoulders. It’s now you realise you may have bitten off more than you can chew! Fate always tucks one or two tricks up her sleeve to present a challenge.

Firstly, that great idea of driving a vehicle through a flooded landscape with a great bow wave and plume of water behind? Oh so simple. We all know the simple pleasure of ploughing through water at great speed and making a huge splash, whether on your old BMX or your first car, it’s got to be done!

Secondly, many markets in Europe have a rule that cars must always appear to be on a surfaced road. Most of the fords we came across were not like that and were made out of concrete or a similar hardy surface, from which the water cannot scour away the road surface, or simply just the hardened, over time, river bed.

Also, the shoot was going to be in the Dolomite Mountains in the height of summer, not somewhere water hangs about for very long (see alpine waterfalls). In fact, across most of southern Europe during the summer months there are a distinct lack of fords and, for that matter, water in general. So this put us in mind of tidal causeways such as St. Michaels Mount or Lindasfarne. Only they are nowhere near Italy, or our home base in Shenfield.

We remained undaunted, there was a solution. Step forward Mersea Island on the Essex coast, just less than 45 miles from the office!

Our recce revealed that we would need an exceptional tide to cover the surface of the road. Even on a pretty high tide we were still 30cm shy of cresting the surface. Taking into account our shoot in Italy, and the full moon required for an exceptionally high tide, we were looking at September for our shoot day.


Drone Circle


The next thing we had to work out was how to shoot the vehicle, which was to be towing a RIB (Riged Inflatable Boat) and driving through the water at high tide. Initially we thought we could use an industrial long reach cherry picker, but there was no safe place for it and we were not allowed to impede traffic. I’d already been refused a helicopter so the only choice was a drone.

The model of choice had to be a heavy-duty version as it needed to carry a Canon 5ds camera safely and would require its own CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) approved pilot. We would also need permission to fly above the only road leading to Mersea Island, a stipulation that came with its own limitations.

For someone used to working off tripods, or rigs attached to cars, this new type of 3 dimensional camera mount would mean being quite relaxed about particular angles, and having to talk to it. Luckily he was a great guy and we were able to do a camera test before the day of the shoot.

On top of this we were only allowed to shut the road, which we needed to do to shoot the vehicle and trailer, in 5 minute intervals using no more than 15 minutes in each hour. The stakes were pretty high now, even exciting! We needed to get quite practised in following the shoot car and so did a couple of dry runs without the trailer.

Now as well as an unruly tide to contend with, and a drone which was a first for us, the Mersea weather was not playing ball. It was a very blustery day and the wind blowing across the road, made it very hard to keep station with the vehicle. In addition the strength of the wind made it very difficult to land, reducing battery life for the drone to around 10 minutes.

Anyway, we thought we were OK to continue tracking the vehicle with the trailer. We used walkie-talkies to keep in contact with the vehicle and traffic control. One of the amusing things with using walkie-talkies we learnt, was that when using them near the drone pilot the drone would spiral out of control due to radio interference. Once we worked this out things became slightly safer.

Meanwhile, the tide was coming in very quickly. At this point we were being observed by a cyclist who we prayed would fall off in the flood water. I think he was hoping the drone would crash.

We made a series of runs and as the water got steadily deeper the main danger seemed to be that the trailer with the RIB tended to float away pulling our vehicle off course. However, we took a series of images that conveyed a great sense of wading through deep water with captured individual splashes, good wake action and achieved some very exciting results.

Bearing in mind that the weather could have been a lot kinder, I think we did very well considering the number of firsts we were attempting. And I didn’t notice any of the public getting particularly irate about the traffic control!

All in all, the drone proved itself a valuable asset. It adds bucket loads of options for location shoots. OK there’s a lot to learn, but this was first time out and the versatility of the technology takes some getting used to. Once in possession of the rules you can go places and explore ideas that you can’t with conventional photographic applications. Oh and cost-wise a drone slaughters a helicopter.

Jez Cooper

Senior Art Director