Interview: How F1's helicopter footage was brought to a higher level

The ever increasing quality of Formula 1's helicopter camera work has made it an indispensable part of the broadcast. We went behind the scenes to find out how F1's spectacular aerial shots come together.

Interview: How F1's helicopter footage was brought to a higher level
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First free practice of the French Grand Prix has just ended when we get invited to Paul Ricard's airport. The man we're meeting is Belgian Lieven Hermans, who started working as an aerial camera operator for Formula 1 in 2007.

In one of the hangars sits a helicopter with an impressive camera system mounted underneath. Next to the pilot seat, the other front seat inside the cockpit has been modified to accommodate a large controller containing a joystick and a respectable number of buttons and switches, which Hermans uses to operate the Shotover F1 camera, which he can monitor on the screen in front of him. 

Hermans had been working as an aerial cameraman for several years until he ended up in Formula 1, more or less by coincidence. "I've always had a passion for video and helicopters," Hermans tells Motorsport.com. "Helicopters always seemed like something that was out of reach until I found out that I could bring my passions for the camera and helicopters together in aerial shooting. 

"Before I started in F1, a colleague of mine did the Formula 1 races. At the time it was about five, six or seven races a year which Formula 1 produced themselves. All other races were still handled by local TV stations.

"I replaced my colleague once, followed by a second time, and before I knew it, I was the regular aerial camera operator for F1. The number of races then quickly increased to around thirteen per season, and has only grown ever since." 

The Shotover F1 camera, which is operated by Lieven Hermans, Aerial Camera Operator for F1

The Shotover F1 camera, which is operated by Lieven Hermans, Aerial Camera Operator for F1

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Gone are the days of helicopters cameras just chasing the leaders around, though. In Hermans' hands, F1's aerial camera has played an instrumental part in making the broadcast more dynamic and bringing the fans - literally - closer to the action.

"In the past the aerial camera was actually only used to follow the drivers at the front," Hermans says. "You stayed on top of them like a personal bodyguard, so as not to miss an important moment in the race. 

"But we have now shown that you can do much more. You can make shots that are much more dynamic shots by flying lower and playing with the foreground and background, bringing even more speed to the whole thing. And that is how we improved year after year. The images we manage to produce now are, in my opinion, much better compared to what was done fourteen years ago."

Working with a rotating cast of pilots

For Hermans the grand prix weekend starts on Thursday. "Thursday is set-up day for us. We start in the morning with checking the equipment, locating the helicopter and installing everything. 

"There is also a lot of protocol involved, so we have lots of meetings. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours before we’re done shaking hands and finally arrive at the helicopter.

"Then we do the installation of the camera and go out for a test flight. We have a look at the first images and try to recall how we did things in previous years. 

"On Friday, the production schedule starts, so we cover all the F1 sessions. Of course, we arrive in time every day to check the camera and the helicopter one more time and do a briefing with the pilot. Then we roll the helicopter out of the hangar and get to work."

Although F1 works with a permanent aerial camera operator, the pilots are usually different as helicopters are now rented locally.

"There was a time that we worked with the same helicopter and the same pilot within Europe, but that's expensive and with the need to reduce CO2 emissions is also becoming a difficult story. 

"But because we come back to the same places every year, we now have a pool of pilots that we employ every year. That means that most of the pilots we work with have some experience. 

"It also happens sometimes that you get a pilot next to you who has no experience at all with aerial shooting. Then you really have to start with the basics and sometimes even explain some of the maneuvers. Then it is really important that we grow step by step over the weekend.

"The advantage is that we cover every Formula 1 session, so we have two hours on Friday and one hour on Saturday to get used to each other. By qualifying, but certainly by the race, the cooperation is guaranteed to be in order."

And a good understanding with the pilot is key to delivering the right images. "Absolutely," Hermans replies. "The pilot makes for roughly 50 percent of the end result. It's definitely a team job. It is important that they have a feel for and see what I am doing, as there is no time to explain everything. 

"They also have a monitor so they can see which images we are making. Some pilots have more experience flying and looking at this than others. But they are really watching the footage and flying along with it, they are fully involved in the rhythm and the patterns. If they don't follow what I’m trying to do or don't understand what I want, things become very difficult."

If there is almost no talking in the cockpit by Sunday, then that's a good sign.

"There are pilots to whom I hardly need to say anything on Sunday, because we are perfectly in tune with each other. If I say I want to do a long shot with one car, the pilot immediately knows what needs to be done. 

"Of course, you often get confronted with different scenarios that you can't rehearse beforehand, but generally speaking, the less communication there is on Sunday, the better."

Chasing the perfect shot

Naturally, Hermans has a preference for photogenic tracks that are located in hilly or mountainous areas, such as the Red Bull Ring in Austria and Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. "They are much more fun for me because you can play more with foreground and background, and with the height difference. In that respect I also really liked Portimao. I think they should put that one back on the calendar. I'll tell [F1 CEO] Stefano Domenicali that the next time I see him!," he jests.

Circuits that are compact are also pleasant to work at. "Because then you can go from one side of the track to the other side more easily. Circuits like Jeddah and Baku are very difficult in that respect, because those are basically one long, extended line. You can't just cut a corner to pick up a car further down the lap. If a car is at a certain corner and you are on the other side, you have to cross the whole track, which can take a while. But on a circuit like the Red Bull Ring, you can go to the other side of the track in no time." 

With F1's push for more street races, urban environments like skyscrapers and other obstacles can make the helicopter crew's task quite tricky.

"In Singapore we have buildings right next to the track. And Jeddah is difficult not only because it's a long and fast track, but also because there are a lot of tall buildings and cranes on towers around," Hermans adds.

"And what often happens at Silverstone is that you suddenly come across a helicopter with tourists, so you can't do exactly what you had in mind.

“You can nail a particular shot ten times in a row, but if the eleventh time is not perfect for whatever reason and that moment ends up in the world feed, then it is really frustrating, as we strive for perfection." 

There are plenty more variables involved in chasing the perfect shot and - much like aviation in general - the weather is perhaps the most crucial aspect.

"There are countless factors really and they all have to work together to get that perfect shot," says Hermans. "The weather is certainly a major factor, because we often have bad weather. Just think of Spa last year. I think that was the worst I have experienced in F1. The showers just kept coming, but there was also a lot of fog.

“And because Spa has a lot of elevation and the conditions in the Ardennes can change very quickly, it can happen that visibility is perfect one moment but you can hardly see at all the next. We then got to the point where we said: now it's not okay to work."

While a lack of visibility can lead to dangerous circumstances, the aerial camera is well equipped to deal with rain. "We currently have a rain spinner over the camera system, which is a glass cover with a motor down below. The glass spins incredibly fast, a few thousand revolutions per minute, which makes the water droplets fly off.

“That allows us to film perfectly through the rain, which is quite a difference from the images we used to see. There are times now when I can see better through the camera than through the window of the helicopter." 

Lieven Hermans, Aerial Camera Operator for F1

Lieven Hermans, Aerial Camera Operator for F1

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Last lap in Abu Dhabi

It's not just the helicopter crew that needs to gel. If the crew wants to have any chance of capturing the most important moments of the race, then it also needs to have good communication with the TV crew on the ground to understand what is happening on track. And with the delay involved in positioning the helicopter to capture the next big moment, Hermans needs to be able to look ahead.

"I'm in constant contact with the TV director and there is a producer who speaks to me," Hermans explains. 

"I can look outside, but of course miss the overview of the race that one has on the ground, with all the graphs and data. However, I always have the F1 app open and can sometimes follow the action on the screens that are at the side of the track. So I combine a lot of sources of information and then I filter out what is important for us in the helicopter.

"I might be hearing that they are following a particular battle, but if the action takes place at the other side of the track, there is a good chance that by the time we get there or the cars get to us, they are talking about something completely different. So, it's important to have an idea of where the story might be going and what the next story can be, and not to act on what's going on at that very moment."

Hermans is well aware that he has the best seat in the house and while he might be concentrated on getting the perfect shot, he still gets to enjoy the sport.

When asked if any battles he filmed stand out for him, the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix comes up. But not for the reasons you might think of. 

"In Abu Dhabi we actually have to fly back two laps before the end to capture the fireworks from a distance. But I was so absorbed in what was going on and then suddenly I realised: Oh, this is the last lap already but we are still hanging above the track! We then made sure we got out of there very quickly..."

Musing about drones

Formula 1 is constantly looking at new ways to enhance its TV coverage, including experiments with helmet and pedal cams. In Barcelona this year, FOM first tested shooting with drones. As F1 aims to be net zero carbon by 2030, drones could be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly method of capturing aerial footage, but Hermans does not fear that his job will move from the cockpit to an office any time soon. 

"I think there is definitely a future for drones, but I do not agree with the idea that they will take over the work of the helicopter camera," says Hermans. 

"I rather see it as something complementary. In my view a drone can be used as an extension of the camera crane. You can get lower to the ground than a helicopter and play more with the foreground. But I think a helicopter is better at giving the bigger overview and offers more dynamics and speed to the images.

"So, I don't feel immediately threatened by it. On the contrary, I think we can work perfectly side by side. We are both in contact with the producer, who can switch from drone to helicopter and vice versa. There doesn’t need to be a conflict there."

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