Aerial footage is something that has eluded modestly-budgeted productions since the concept first came along. Smaller cameras and inexpensive radio control technology have brought the possibility of great aerial footage to within reach of practically any videographer. But cinematic shots are hard to get because shooting with an RC drone is not as easy as it looks.
So, you’ve got yourself a drone, expected great things, but what you end up with is what looks like home movies? Shaky, nauseating, and squiggly footage happens to the best of us. However, the likelihood of getting stunning, smooth and cinematic shots and being crowned a drone master goes up exponentially when keeping the following principles in mind:
Planning a Shoot
Although using a drone for commercial purposes used to be illegal until this Spring, the FAA has neither fined nor prosecuted anyone flying drones safely. The problem has been with people flying drones near crowds, over highways, landing on oil barges, etc; or invading the privacy of others (peeking at neighbors, etc.) With that all covered… plan your shoot to be safe. Remember that these multi-rotor drones are essentially flying lawnmowers. Don’t fly over crowds, make sure everyone nearby is well aware of the dangers and keep non-essential personnel away from the shot. All it takes is one motor failure, a prop flying off, or a guidance malfunction and you have a rogue Cuisinart flying around.
Don’t be afraid to cancel a shoot. Wind is not your friend. If it’s too windy out, delay the shoot. Even if your drone survives a high wind environment, your footage probably won’t (it’ll be too shaky.) Your priorities are to make sure everyone is safe, your equipment survives and you get great, stable, cinematic footage… right?
Finally, talk with the person in charge, whether it’s a director or client, in great detail. Make sure you know what they have in mind. Speak up and don’t be afraid to address concerns for safety issues. If you’re the director… ask yourself those questions. Review the shots using something like Google Earth to get an idea of the flight environment. Check out the area if possible and map out all the trees, electrical wires and obstacles. Then, go practice! There are several RC (remote control) simulators out on the market. RealFlight 6.5 comes with a USB RC controller and even has a multicopter. You can use such software to view as FPV (first person view) and practice your camera moves before the shoot.
To get cinematic aerial shots, you must use the appropriate equipment. You can’t shoot a large indoor shot with a giant drone, and you can’t expect good high-altitude footage with an AR Drone, although a DJI Phantom does both pretty well. When selecting your equipment, you should keep the following in mind:
The Drone: There are pros and cons to every drone. An AR Drone (sometimes called a Parrot AR) is great for indoor shots. It’s light and has guards around the props to prevent damage if it touches something.
A DJI Phantom is an unbelievable piece of machinery for a great price, and can get great outdoor shots at low altitudes, but you take a Phantom over 300 feet, and wind can be problematic. A big multicopter is amazing, but good luck in close quarters. Choose your drone wisely and if you are limited on how many drones you have, choose your shots to suit what you can work with.
The Video Camera: Unless you’re flying something big, you’re not putting a DSLR, nor Red Scarlet on your rig. So choosing a lightweight but great shooting camera is important. Smaller drones (like the Phantom) are designed to work with systems like the GoPro. However, if your drone can carry it, move away from CMOS cameras. Some CMOS video cameras are worse than others, but all have some degree of shutter roll. The high-frequency vibrations of a drone can make your video crawl with squiggles from shutter roll. A light CCD video camera will yield more stable results.
FPV: First Person View is a system for transmitting video from your camera and receiving it on the ground.
There are a lot of systems out there, stay away from goggle systems though. You want your eyes directly on the aircraft you’re flying. Hand the FPV screen to the director, or have it nearby to look at. If you wear goggles you must have another pilot on a buddy system for safety and landing/takeoff.
Camera Stabilization/Vibration Control: Not all camera gimbals are created equally. Steer clear of any gimbals that put your camera at the end of a horizontal arm. These will actually exaggerate any vibration and make for shaky video. Your gimbal should have no play in its rotational gears and tie directly into your drone control system. High-end gimbals suspend the landing gear and camera gimbal from soft rubber grommets to cut out virtually all vibration. However, if you can’t afford $1000 or more for a gimbal with all the goodies, there’s a great trick that they use on Mythbusters for their GoPros. Butyl sealant tape (like they use for car windows and car stereo speakers) is sticky, soft and amazing for vibration dampening.
Smooth and slow. These are the words that need to constantly be moving through your head. Big dramatic and fast moves lead to shaky footage, possible crashes and a nauseating viewing experience. Stay smooth and slow. At first, plan for only 3-7 second shots. A long shot coming from high above a city down to a front door is something that will make even the best pilots sweat. Keep your camera moving, keep it slow and make only minor adjustments.
Tiny Movements on the Sticks: You have to stay very gentle on the sticks or your shot will be useless (no matter how good your gimbal is.) Practice, practice, practice. In the days leading up to the shoot, get on your simulator and put in several hours practicing the moves you’re planning to do. If you use Real Flight, you can even record your FPV (using a tool like Fraps, a screen recording utility for Windows) and run it through your edit to see how it will look. By the time you get out to your shoot, you shouldn’t be standing around thinking “hmm, what shall we do?”
Fly through the shot: In animation and VFX we call it handles. Your shot should start well before you think and end well after you think. Just like when shooting with a dolly, you don’t abruptly stop when you think “done,” you continue the move for a few more seconds. That’s exactly what you need to do with a drone. Any editor who has worked with drone footage will tell you that their biggest pet peeve is when they see the perfect drone shot and the pilot swerves away just before the editor wants to mark an out, only to leave the editor with no room to edit. It seems obvious, but it happens…a lot!
Drone videography can be extremely rewarding and very impressive. Unfortunately, it can be very frustrating too. The only alleviation to frustration is lots and lots of practice.Drone videography can be extremely rewarding and very impressive. Unfortunately, it can be very frustrating too. The only alleviation to frustration is lots and lots of practice.
Aerial footage both is and isn’t like a Steadicam, dolly or jib. With all the traditional movement systems, there is something holding you in place… the ground! However, the same shooting techniques apply. Tiny movements, lots of practice and stay very, very stable and slow. There’s an even better reason to stay slow (besides just good footage) though. If you get your drone moving in some direction, there is no ground to slow it down nor stop (at least not in a pleasant way.) Once it’s moving, it is you who can make it stop, swerve, avoid obstacles, etc. Slow will keep your aircraft in one piece.
If possible, don’t shoot into the sun. In fact, don’t shoot in even remotely the same direction. Your props will cast shadows on your lens and do very strange things to your video. Also, dust on your lens from the ground on takeoff will shine like stars if the sun hits it. So, clean your lens before every flight.
Crane Moves: These are probably the easiest to do and provide excellent establishing shots. All you have to do is get your drone moving in a direction, then yaw (pan) to keep your subject in view, while you throttle to move your drone up or down. Remember though, tiny movements and slow.
Wellsfar: While a full orbit is extremely difficult, an orbit-by is fairly easy to make stable and smooth. Just start off toward your target, but slightly off to the side, and as you pass by, yaw to keep it in frame and end up moving away and backward.
Side-Slide: A gamer may call this a strafe. Start with the subject out of frame, and slowly (maintaining altitude) move to the side (in a straight line), letting the subject slide across your frame and out the other side.
Fly-Through: Although not the most difficult, these are the most dangerous. You must pilot your drone straight through a gap, or hole in an obstacle field. FPV is a must for this and you should also have excellent spatial relations. Keep it as slow as possible. Newton’s laws (object in motion stays in motion) can be your enemy here.
Orbits: This is by far the most technical move you can try. A great gimbal with excellent dampening is essential here. You’re going to be making hundreds of adjustments on both sticks. It’s important to keep a constant yaw rate and adjust your fore/back and side motions to keep the aircraft the right distance and speed from the subject. This takes tons of practice to get right and FPV can really help here.
Let’s preface this with: don’t ever say, “We’ll fix it in post.” Get the best possible shots you can for your raw footage. However, no matter how good your gimbal is, you’re going to need to stabilize your footage in post. We’ve tried Nuke, Avid Media Composer, Shake and the list goes on. The best way of stabilizing your footage is with Adobe After Effects’ “Warp Stabilizer” plugin. If you’ve shot decent raw footage, you should be able to just throw this on without any settings adjustments.
Drone videography can be extremely rewarding and very impressive. Unfortunately, it can be very frustrating too.
The only alleviation to frustration is lots and lots of practice. When shooting, moving the drone needs to be as automatic as flexing your hand. Get a simulator with an RC controller and practice hard. Practice every day. You may even consider entering the hobby of RC planes to keep your skills up on the weekends. This way you get practice without endangering your multicopter. Any way it goes, practice is the key to success (as it is in any art.)
Morals, Ethics and Staying Legal
Shooting video with a drone is a fun hobby but can get you into hot waters easily if you fail to understand the legalities of private citizens’ rights to privacy and FAA aviation rules.