Aerial filming in the Scottish Highlands

The Highlands of Scotland lends itself very well to aerial filming with its array of beautiful landscapes. A recent video produced by freelance filmaker John Duncan demostrates this to its full potential and can be seen by clicking here.

To find out more about aerial filming in the Highlands please take the time to read the article below by Filming Services Manager Dave Brown who following his work on big budget films such as The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and the Harry Potter series, explains how he’s helped bring Hollywood to the Highlands over the years.

I started out as a helicopter pilot in 1989 but I had a passion for aerial filming and seemed to have a knack for it. When I was a little boy I wanted to be a helicopter pilot when I saw a James Bond movie and thought ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up’.

There is a skill to aerial film work. You can get a good cameraman that’s no use in the air and you can get a fantastic helicopter pilot that doesn’t have an eye for a shot.

I’ve been with PDG Helicopters, the UK’s leading on-shore helicopter operator, for around 14 years and was flying up until five years ago. My current role is as a Filming Services Manager, meaning I help sort out all the logistical problems for film crews. My aerial filming background means I know what I’m talking about and what’s going on out there.

Once I’ve dealt with enquiries they go over to our Ops department, who probably do more than anyone else because things on any film job change so quickly from day to day. Anything from the weather to something going wrong with a camera system.

We do everything from marathons to triathlons and recent films such as World War Z and Cloud Atlas. We doing some segments of the new series of Coast and various promotional films. We also do a a lot for foreign countries and we’ve done a Bollywood movie.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises came to us when I received a phone call in January 2011 from an aerial film pilot called Dave Paris. He called me from America and said that although they had the stunt for the opening sequence, involving on plane attacking another plane, set up for filming in Arizona he wondered how the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK might react to them staging it here.

That was because the grants on offer in the UK made filming in Scotland more appealing. It was possible to do as long as all the boxes were ticked and it took a month. Dave Paris came over to fly one of our helicopters; when you get to that level of budget there’s only a certain few pilots they allow to fly. For a film the size of The Dark Knight Rises it costs around £100,000 a day to film with full cast and crew, so they only use known pilots.

Our Inverness office dealt with moving the various aircraft around, some carrying the crew and others the film equipment. They had to bring in a C130 Hercules in from Scandinavia which they couldn’t get in the UK. Once everything was in place the camera crew came in and away they went.


Filmmakers will normally phone us looking for locations and I’ll ask what they’re looking for, which is what happened for Prometheus, which was filmed on Skye. They’ll say they need rocks or a battleground or whatever and because I’ve flown over the country for so many years I can generally find what they’re looking for in the area. They go out and have a recce and generally the director will be here for that and they have a good look around.

They wanted to do this shoot in one day and they had 120 cast members and crew that needed to be lifted onto the Storr on Skye. We worked how to do it, we had to airlift in bog mats so we could land helicopters, generators and everything, then the actors and crew. There is a lot of organisation.

There’s a camera attached to our helicopters and for film work it’s been 35mm and that’s a large ball that goes on the nose or the side of the aircraft, the smaller balls are broadcast cameras. On the aircraft there’ll be a director, camera operator and pilot.

Choosing the right location

Where I take people depends upon what they’re looking for. We’ve more or less got everything out there and it’s split into four quarters. If you’re looking for extreme, remote and rugged there’s the top northwest corner. If you’re looking for somewhere between rugged and slightly gentler you come east. If you draw a line between Inverness and Glasgow, with the Cairngorms to the east side, it’s less rugged. If they need water and it’s coastal then go west.

No job is too small

I’ve done everything from big budget blockbusters to a little man holding a camera on his shoulder. I once had a superb day gliding around the coast for a small budget project I remember it being a beautiful day and there was nothing better than this in the whole wide world. The next week I was back to Harry Potter. Hard work, extreme pressure but great fun. Like anything, if you’re good at it it’s a real sense of achievement.

I have to give the people with a small budget exactly the same help as those with a big budget because that small budget is huge to them. That’s all they’ve got to make that film and I have to work with them to realise what they need.

Memorable moments

Anyone who says they didn’t enjoy the first time they saw their name on a credit is lying. Anyone who, when they see their own work doesn’t have a feeling in their chest, is in the wrong job. I still see my work pop up and my wife recognises my work, the way I turn the camera a certain way, fly a bit closer or a bit lower.

When I was over at Universal Studios a few years ago for the opening of the Harry Potter ride, I had to queue with my kids for ages before we got in. When we did get inside I saw my footage being used in the ride and I was quite tickled by that, even if I did have to queue to see my own work!

Find out more about Dave Brown in our Production Guide.

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