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  • Writer's pictureDarren Miller ACO

BBC - Vigil II Drones.

How we did it.

BBC Vigil 2 Military Aerial Drones and how it was done. Darren Miller ACO – Aerial DOP/Operator

Recently, DCMI teamed up with T Stop Aerials and Axis Aerospace to fly custom built military drones and provide air to air filming for the BBC’s hit Drama Series Vigil II.

The detail was to supply and meet the art departments specific requirements of 4 x drones, 2 that were made to fly and 2 ground based aircraft. Axis Aerospace worked in conjunction with Amalgam Models (Bristol) who made the body work to fit over a ‘base’ aircraft. The flying drones were designed so that they could be flown using pre- programmed routes thus allowing close formation flying and were sized at 1200mm diameter rotor hub to rotor hub with a maximum take-off mass of 24kg. They had a remote machine gun on them operated by the pilot and a dummy front mounted camera.

We test flew and filmed the aircraft weeks prior to shooting to provide the Director and DOP a visual reference of what we could reasonably capture and what might look realistic flying air to air.

Flying pre-programmed routes that could be repeated proved to be the most efficient way of capturing the footage required. This was particularly helpful for VFX in post where the Director could ‘comp in’ extra aircraft to the action sequences.

At one point during filming, there were up to 4 x drones flying in close proximity including the ‘in vision’ military aircraft. Our heavy lift aircraft flying a Sony FX9 Camera to shoot air to air material and 2 x Inspire Aircraft shooting the action.

This all required some precision flying from several pilots, co-ordinated via myself as Aerial DOP/Operator, the 1st Ad and the Director. The nature of air to air filming also requires a great deal of discipline and concentration to ensure that nothing happens until all the aircraft are in position, take off and land in a co-ordinated sequence and capture some sophisticated action occurring simultaneously both in the air and on the ground. This included explosions, gun fire and fast, low altitude approaches.

To make the military drones look authentic and menacing, Director Andy De Emony, employed the use of long lenses on our heavy lift aircraft which from an operating perspective, is very tricky. A lot of aerial filming consists of wide, epic vistas but when working with a Director like Andy who knows his drone stuff, the challenges and risk factors are raised and it certainly concentrates the mind. He was very patient with us and a joy to collaborate with, bringing his vision to the screen.

Angus Benson Blair and his Flying Machines

The synergy between the pilot and the camera operator is paramount to capture the action calmly and professionally and without incident. The skill of the pilot to determine the perception of distance that the aircraft are flying in proximity and my own operating abilities to keep something in the frame on a 100mm lens is a combination of skills that have developed over time.

Essential too is the patience and understanding of a camera friendly 1st Ad (Morris Milne) who had planned out dedicated aerial filming days that ensured we had the time required to properly prepare and rehearse the sequences safely.

Also, when you have several airborne machines whirring around actors like Suranne Jones and Dougray Scott, they need to have confidence in the crew operating around them and know what the contingencies are should anything go wrong. We operate a disciplined working environment focussing entirely on safety and all crew members and cast are given a full verbal safety briefing before the flights. Any deployment of an aircraft on a film set, requires the full focus and attention of everyone and each component has a roll to play in mitigating and therefore minimising any risk.

This is all multiplied greatly when there are several aircraft flying together, both capturing and starring in the frame at the same time.

Having the aircraft manufacturer also being the main pilot on set is an added bonus to production as well as the aerial unit. This meant that if there was a problem, it could be rectified and the days schedule could be achieved. There was a back-up Inspire 3 aircraft in the truck if we needed it.

The military drones could stay airborne longer than the heavy lift aircraft so they would be sent up to position first. However, they used twice as many batteries so battery management was a key element to maintaining fluidity and constant flying from all the machines as required.

Vulcan Raven X8 Heavy Lift Drone

The sequences with the military drones on Vigil II aired in December 2023 on BBC 1 and looked amazing. A fast paced storyline with plenty of ground and air action provided some exciting viewing and a rewarding experience for all of us that were involved.

Aerial Unit

T Stop Aerials / Axis Aerospace – Aerial Filming Facilities / Done Manufacturer

Heavy Lift Drone Pilot: Angus Benson-Blair BMFA

DCMI Ltd – Aerial DOP/Operator: Darren Miller ACO

Aerial 1st AC – Aaron Paul Champion

Aerial 1st AC – Sam Patterson

Military Drone Pilot – Ben Platts

Military Drone Pilot – Mike Foyle

Military Drone Pilot – Peter Maughan

Military Drone Pilot – Aaron Cole

Aerial Filming – Inspire 2 – Aerial Frontiers

© DCMI Ltd 2024

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