Archives For Video & Photography Workshops offered by award winning filmmakers / photographers David Wright & Cotton Coulson

Steve Draper and Dave Halton of AerialVue

 

Over the last year the sales of drones for aerial filming and photography have exploded. I may be one of the few people in my circle of friends that has resisted the temptation to purchase one. Many of my colleagues have made the investment with varying degrees of success in the results they are achieving. Over the last year I also had the pleasure of working on a new 20 part documentary series titled Big Picture Earth. It is scheduled to be available in March through the new online service Curiosity Stream. The series gave me a thorough education in the do’s and don’ts of aerial filming with drones.

We used aerials in many of the episodes, each showcasing an iconic landmark, during which time I mostly directed the aerial shooting or occasionally operated the camera gimbal, but never acted as pilot. I quickly learned that flying at a professional level takes a commitment and skill level that many owner / operators do not meet. Fortunately through some colleagues at the BBC, I started work with the team from a UK based company called AerialVue. The company is run by Dave Halton, who has an engineering background and an amazing understanding of how to build, maintain and operate what he prefers to call a heli-cam… drone has too many connections to the aircraft flown by the military for less peaceful activities.

In contrast to the AerialVue team, and with a few exceptions, I have also seen some horrors, both in terms of the lack of understanding of the film making process, lack of skill in operating the aircraft or just plain bad judgment that can be dangerous for the crew or innocent bystanders.

In the last twelve months I have witnessed multiple crashes, fortunately the drone being the only fatality, seen unusable footage due to technical issues with the camera and copter, as well as running into issues with no fly zones….  So as a filmmaker, how do you either become a good pilot or find someone else to work with to capture good aerials. My time working with the AerialVue team taught me a lot of valuable lessons of how to do it right.

Here are my ten points to look for if you want to be successful.

  1. Find a very skilled pilot to work with or spend the time to teach yourself, making sure you have excellent skills before flying on a real film project. Yes, you can buy a rig from a big box store like Best Buy, take it home and be airborne ten minutes later but that will end badly! The AerialVue team have tens of thousands of hours logged, made the rooky mistakes long before trying to become professional, skills that takes years to hone, but as the rest of the points will describe, many of the things you need to know can be implemented next time you fly.
  2. Set up a safety protocol which includes
    1. A designated take-off and landing pad that is clearly defined, is safe for the copter and has good separation from bystanders. That means the machine is not in danger of turning over and is clear of dust that will dirty the lens and over time damage the mechanics of your rig. Take a weighted blanket or tarp into the field for this purpose or even a folding table.
    2. Have a clear idea of your flight plan, which takes into account legal restrictions, permissions from property owners and is understood by the whole crew
    3. Know a clear a set of commands or announcements that are verbally given as the machine is powered up, takes off and lands eg “Spinning Up” “Taking off” “Landing”… this may seem obvious but it is essential so that someone does not approach the machine at the wrong time and this keeps people focused.
    4. DO NOT… and I will say again…. DO NOT fly the UAV out of visual contact, even if your system is equipped with a GPS map that appears on a tablet. In most places this is illegal, as well as being down right foolish as it is impossible to be completely aware of situations you may be getting yourself into. If you don’t crash into something, fly into a restricted zone, chances are you will lose reference of where your machine is, run low on battery and end up crash landing. I have seen this more than once with copters ending up in a lake, narrowly avoiding ending up in crevasse on a glacier or getting broken when the operator can’t get the machine back to the designated landing pad.
  3. In addition to the flight plan, have a good understanding of the shots you want to achieve before taking off. That means whoever is directing needs to communicate clearly with the aerial team before any flight and have direct and simple commands for them during the flight. If you fail to do this, half the battery pack will be spent before the camera starts to capture usable images on any particular flight
  4. Have enough batteries for the UAV and camera to complete the task. This seems obvious, but countless times I have been on shoots where the drone team has perhaps 4 packs, when the flights will require 12. Always check this at the planning stage and assume nothing… remember the golden rule of production, “assumption is the mother of all screw-ups”. Although most of my producer friends would word that a little more crudely.
  5. Make sure that the charging situation for the battery packs is carefully monitored. Many units from companies like DJI now have smart chargers, but other rigs do not and require chargers to be programmed every time they are used. A mistake can literally be fatal as if incorrectly charged, packs can easily ignite, burning with immense heat that can not be extinguished easily. There are countless example of homes or offices burnt to the ground thanks to mishandled batteries. If you are on a shoot and staying in a hotel and recharging at night, ask yourself if you want to be responsible for starting a fire with the possible loss of life and property being catastrophic! Stay with the batteries as they charge and keep monitoring them during the entire process. Never leave them unattended.
  6. Talking of batteries, don’t try to squeeze in one more shot when your batteries are low, towards the end of a flight. Have a defined cut-off point when you are something like 20% capacity and always return to the landing point at this time. First you are in danger of losing power and crashing but also this practice will damage batteries and mean they have to be replaced… an expensive day out.
  7. Not only should the pilot have visual contact with the copter, but they, along with the gimbal operator and director should have access to a video monitor that is showing the camera feed. Last year I worked with a pilot that refused to work with a monitor. He could not see his ground speed and how it related to the landscape we were shooting, couldn’t see if the framing was correct and wanted me as director to feed him this information as we proceeded. I heard panicked requests like “are we moving yet?” It cut down productivity to a fraction of what it should have been and wasted everyone’s time.
  8. Keep checking camera settings and the lens as you shoot, making regular adjustments as required. I try to avoid any automatic functions such as focus or exposure unless using a cheaper unit that is designed to be used with something like a GoPro. We were flying over Rome last year and despite requesting full manual mode, the operator thought he knew best and enabled autofocus on a Panasonic GH4. We were in low light conditions and the camera kept hunting for focus due to the lack of contrast in the image. In and out it went as the shot went on, and to compound the issue, he also had such a bad video downlink that you could not see this happening. Guess what he had to come back another day and redo everything. As an extra note about cameras & lenses, carry a polarizing filter and a selection of ND filters so you can maintain a filmic look by shooting at 1/50sec for 24/25p filming situations. This means you can shoot a mid range aperture (f5.6-f8) in sunny conditions. Not having to stop the lens down too much (f16-f22) as this means you will not being getting optimal sharpness from the lens. The polarizer will also give more saturated colors. This will also mean selecting a lens that can take a filter. Some wide-angles have dome fronts that will not allow this. In my experience using this kind of lens can also lead to more issues with flare when flying into the sun…
  9. Illustrated by this experience in Rome, make sure the downlink for video monitoring is solid and of good enough picture quality to judge composition, focus, whether there is dirt on the lens and whether the flight is of the correct speed, altitude and bearing.
  10. Bring spare parts with you into the field. That is everything from extra batteries, cables that might break, cable ties to secure loose wires, antennas… basically anything that might break or be lost. The team from AerialVue take no chances, not only do they have spare parts, they bring at least one spare drone that can be airborne in minutes should there be a problem.

 

Apologies if many of these points seem obvious but when you hire an aerial team assume nothing as all the things that I have described going wrong have all happened to me in the last twelve months when I have trusted operators will be well prepared. Of course with the exception of the AerialVue team (and a few pilots here in the US such as Matt Ragan of Birds Eye of Big Sky) who showed us how to do it right!

Dave flies a wonderful UAV called a Skyjib and that he has modified so that he has incredible control of the flights and camera positioning. The first time I flew with him I asked him to catch the rays of the rising sun at dawn along the top of a large ruin in Yorkshire. As a cinematographer, it was the dream shot to capture but most of the previous pilots I had worked with would have had a one in ten chance to getting it right… Of course Dave and his camera operator Steve Draper nailed it first time. And all thanks to them being more prepared than any other team I have worked with.

 

Dave Halton of AerialVue with the typical selection of heli-cams he brings to locations

 

Cotton Coulson

January 16, 2016 — Leave a comment
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Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson on assignment in the Arctic

Apologies in the long gap since I last posted a story. We took an unscheduled break after the tragic loss of colleague and close friend Cotton Coulson , who helped establish this blog. It is still hard to process the loss and perhaps the best tribute to our wonderful friend and  talented photographer is to post a selection of his images. In a following post I will link to a article about Cotton, which wife Sisse Brimberg helped to write and is a great tribute to our much loved friend and colleague.  God speed Cotton…

 

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Cotton Coulson died May 27, 2015, while on a diving expedition off the coast of northern Norway. See more of his and Sisse Brimberg’s photography at keenpress.com.

 

Support your camera…

February 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

We just had the pleasure of testing out some great products from Australian tripod manufacturer Miller. Here is the story in full. See below for a link to the story on their own website….

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I started out in the film business over twenty years ago, shooting wildlife documentaries for Oxford Scientific Films (OSF). From the 1960’s on, they had been at the forefront of developing specialist equipment to shoot stories that always pushed the limits of technical and creative innovation. This gave me exposure to the best and newest technology in the film and documentary business from around the world. One of the many talented people I had the pleasure of working with during this time was Australian filmmaker and lens designer Jim Frazier, who won many awards for his innovative inventions.

After four years working as a staff cameraman at OSF, I had the opportunity to move to Australia to work on a wildlife series that would see me taking adventures to shoot stories all over the continent. I soon realized what great contributions Australia had, and continues to make, to both creative and technical developments in filmmaking. It became obvious that from the Outback cattle stations that became the base for many of our shoots, to the highest levels of high-tech industry, this was a country where geographical isolation gave birth to a culture that demanded creative engineering skills. It didn’t matter whether it was using fencing wire to mend a broken down truck in the Outback or to have the imagination required for Jim Frazier to create his pioneering lens designs, this was a culture that values innovative solutions.

After selecting the appropriate camera and lens combination (at that time the Aaton LTR Super 16 film camera / Zeiss and Nikon glass), the next crucial part of the filmmakers kit is selecting a good tripod and fluid head system. This decision combines a need for smooth camera moves, a steady platform, but not so heavy that it restricts your ability to be mobile in the field.

Back at OSF I had been using solid Germany technology, an Arriflex camera and Sachtler tripod, both at the top of their field in terms of build quality, but to my mind, not designed for use in the extreme conditions that we often encounter shooting wildlife and adventure stories. When I went freelance and headed to Australia, this led me breaking the mould and to selecting the Aaton camera system. It was designed by a cameraman with an engineering skills, as opposed to a brilliant engineer, that had never spent long hours in the field with a camera in their shoulder.  I wanted a tripod built with similar design sensibilities.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, I was quickly exposed to one of Australia’s greatest technical contributions to the film business, Miller tripod systems. Originally built with wooden legs and uncomplicated fluid heads, these products were ideal for the independent filmmaker requiring a reliable and mobile system. Twenty years later, they have stayed ahead of the times, trading wood for carbon fibre and fluid heads capable of carrying anything from a video enabled DSLR to the heaviest of digital cinema cameras. For the last two decades, when given a choice, I have hardly used any other tripod system. This has included working on flagship TV series including BBC’s “Life”, “Life in Cold Blood” (featuring Sir David Attenborough), “Frozen Planet” and recently Emmy Award winning National Geographic series, “Untamed Americas”.

Today, I combine shooting stories for networks that include the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic, with teaching digital storytelling workshops for the world’s premiere expedition travel company Lindblad Expeditions, and their partner National Geographic Travel. My first adventure with Lindblad was in the Arctic outpost of Svalbard, a place I had called home for two years while shooting a story on polar bears. We sailed on the ship Explorer, along with other top National Geographic contributors that were invited to share their experiences of shooting films and magazine articles from all over the globe. I was lucky enough to travel husband and wife team, Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. They have shot over forty magazine articles during their careers. With many common interests and a shared love of wild places, Cotton and I soon decided to collaborate on future projects, culminating in Expedition Workshops. Currently based onboard the Lindblad / National Geographic fleet of ships, we offer dedicated digital storytelling classes to a small group of guests in some of the world’s most remote wildlife and cultural locations. These cover everything from video shooting techniques to editing a finished film.

For my broadcast work I still use a 100mm bowl Miller DS25 with double stage carbon fibre legs and Cotton uses a Miller 20 tripod system. But we both needed a light solution for the small camera and DSLR shooting we do for the workshops. The ideal solution was the Miller Solo DV and DS10 head. Both Cotton and I have the same camera support systems which we have tested everywhere from the Tropics to the Antarctic. In addition, for shooting human interest stories (as well as when shooting stills), we also both employ Miller carbon fibre monopods.

The DS10 heads have withstood the rigors of every environment we have thrown at them, from the muddy banks of the Amazon to the sea ice of the Antarctic’s Weddel Sea. Recently while shooting the king penguins in South Georgia, Cotton and I both spent many hours on our stomachs shooting images of the molting adults and growing chicks, as well as the many elephant seals populating the beaches. To make this possible we each used one of our favorite features with the Miller Solo DV, its ability to spread the legs out quickly so we can shoot just above ground level.

Capturing images at just 12” from the ground, it places you at the eye level of the subject enables you to better convey the environment in which they live and better enter their world. At other times you can extend the Solo DV to almost 6’, enabling you to capture high angles when that is more appropriate. It is truly a very versatile set of legs.

The tripod always holds fast in the high winds that sweep down from the glacial ice. These catabolic winds can appear in minutes, raising wind speeds from zero to gale force without warning. We also walked many miles up and down the high mountain slopes and thick tussock grass, and weighing in at less than seven pounds, the light carbon legs and compact head made our treks much more manageable.

The head is equipped with a simple but very effective counterbalance control which neutralizes the effect of the camera’s weight when it is tilted. The pan and tilt provide smooth movements and are each easily locked, plus the quick release plate allows the camera to be removed instantly from the head, as well as positioned to make ensure the whole system is balanced. The DS10 head is ideally suited to cameras weighing in at between 5 and 11lbs, with smaller or larger heads available to suite other camera systems. All simple, but very effective designs that you would expect from an Australian engineer! One of the other features that immediately sold me on Miller tripods was the placement of the levers for adjusting the height on my larger DS25 / Sprinter combination. Unlike other popular European designs, the double set of leg extensions can all be controlled from the middle of legs, making it very easy to adjust height without having to bend down…. something that save valuable seconds when capturing a scene.

The monopod has many advantages for the kind of shooting we are doing, which includes everything from old style street shooting of people, to shooting wildlife from the deck of the ship, where there is often no room for a tripod or the vibration of the engines cancels out the steadiness of the Solo / DS10 system. The quick fix to stop the vibration while shooting from the deck is to place the base of the monopod on your foot. This absorbs the motion and allows you to capture a steady shot. I also use the monopod much as you would a Steadicam system. When walking with the camera to track with moving subjects, you keep a bent arm, the monopod hangs down and acts as a counterbalance making it easier to keep a level horizon and more effectively track you subject.

Our students often arrive on the ship with more economical tripod and fluid head systems, but after demoing our Solo / DS10 units, order a Miller system as soon as the get home. After years of field testing many Miller products, I would definitely recommend them to everyone from the beginning filmmaker to seasoned cinematographers working on features or television projects.

Biographies
David Wright is an award winning director of photography and producer, with recent accolades including an Emmy for cinematography. He works on high profile television series, features and commercials, also specializing in shooting high speed / slow motion imagery. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the BBC, Discovery and PBS

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Cotton Coulson is an award-winning photographer who began his career shooting for National Geographic at age 21. He was the Director of Photography at “The Baltimore Sun” and Associate Director of Photography at “U.S. News & World Report.” Cotton was Senior Vice-President at CNET Networks where he managed the Creative Design and Product Development teams. Cotton is also a Contributing Photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Today his photographic and video work is focused on contemporary environmental issues.

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View the story as posted on the Miller website

During the summer of 2013 we sailed from Trinidad to Buenos Aires on board the National Geographic Explorer. Named the “Epic South America” voyage, we explored seven different countries and traveled more than 6500 miles. Along the way we taught a digital story telling workshop….

Lindblad just posted a short video about the program. Stay tuned for 2014 date and locations

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David shooting lynx tracks for the BBC series “Secrets of Our Living Planet” using his homemade camera dolly and ladder for track

There are a lot of camera sliders and dollies on the market but we were happy to try out a new offering from  www.trostmotion.com

Before our Trost review, I must say I was a little skeptical when I first saw the units. I have been using a small camera dolly running on a ladder or plastic pipes (2″ white poly pipe) and have enjoyed the flexibility and ease of setting such a system in unusual places. It also lends itself to long runs (6′-16′)

The smaller size of the two Trost units seemed less useful at either one metre or 1/2 metre lenghts. Then I got to try them out in the field and my opinion changed dramatically.

Rather than retasking skate board wheels like many sliders / dollies manufacturers, Trost have decided to go with a soild rail that can either mounted on a hihat, straight onto a tripod head, or even vertically.

The rails are on the heavy side, but this is required in order to make them sturdy enough and also means camera moves are smooth and positive. The cart that travels down the rail wraps around the unit, meaning that you can tilt and pan the fluid head as usual and don’t get any unwanted motion in the slider, other that the required left/right motion used to create great reveal shots. Systems that rely on a cart running on rails, and based on a wheel system, mostly have to be kept level.

David shooting in Wales Alaska

David shooting in Wales Alaska

We have tested the units in far north Alaska in the early spring when temperatures only reach minus 20 degrees C, as well as in the tropics of Brazil while shooting a recent music video with recording artist Luisa Maita, represented by Cumbancha Music.

David and Cotton working with recording artist Luisa Maita

David and Cotton working with recording artist Luisa Maita

We both love the versatility of having a short slider directly mounted on the fluid head. Not only can you do great reveal shots by combining a pan with a slider move to come out from behind an object to reveal a subject, but if an actor / performer does not quite hit their mark, you can subtly slide the camera to make sure framing works well. Then being able to add a tilt without fear of any unwanted movement or the system falling off the rails, is the a great way to keep the camera moving. The rig can then be picked up and thrown over the shoulder, in order to move to the next location.

Cotton and David working at Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Cotton and David working at Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

There are still times when I will definitely use the long rail system I have but the new Trost sliders are a very welcome addition the travel kit. We have already strapped one to my backpack and dragged it on a 6400 mile journey through South America and are departing today with it for the Antarctic. We both agree that we are VERY impressed with the build quality and reliability, ease of transport and we are still discovering exciting new ways to use a slider that can be combined with a fluid head to create three axis of camera movement. We would recommend it to anyone in the business or anyone just shooting for fun.

Can’t wait to see what other new products Trost come up with in the future!

Now off to the airport, first stop the Falklands, then South Georgia and the Antarctic on board the NG / Lindblad Explorer to teach another digital storytelling workshop.

Here is a better view of the 100cm version for our Trost review.

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Technical specs for the sliders

1 rail (100cm)
1 carriage with folding 3/8″ stud
Adjustable drag speed control
2 rotating baseplates
3 quick release collars
total dimensions     40.3 x 3 x 1″
024 x 76 x 25 mm
max carriage travel     31″
79cm
weight    15 lbs     6.8kg
temperature of operation    -31°F-212°F     -35°C-100C°
head compatibility     carries any tripod head with female 3/8″ hole or another Trost slider with Trost quick release collar
support compatibility     mounts on top of any 3/8″ or 1/4″ male screw or C-Stand end, or on tabletop.

David Wright’s independent feature Blind Pass

FILMMAKER DAVID WRIGHT TRUSTS ANTON/BAUER TO POWER INDEPENDENT FEATURE FILM BLIND PASS
Chooses DIONIC 90 Batteries and Other Anton/Bauer Gear for First
Turn as Director of Photography

David Wright

SHELTON, CT, JULY 30, 2013-After spending several years as an award-winning documentary filmmaker, David Wright recently took on the role of director of photography for Blind Pass, a new independent feature film. Shooting primarily in Ireland with additional scenes filmed on location in Florida, Wright faced unpredictable weather and a rigorous daily production schedule. To help him maintain power throughout each shoot, he chose a variety of portable power solutions from Anton/Bauer®, part of Vitec Videocom, a Vitec Group company and a premier global provider of batteries, chargers, lighting and other mobile power systems for the professional broadcast, video, film and healthcare technology industries, to help keep him powered up through the long 16 hour, tough days of shooting.The dark thriller Blind Pass follows Carrie, a young woman facing the fact that she will soon go blind. She and her therapist travel through Ireland to fulfil her wish of experiencing the country while she still has sight. The story also explores Carrie’s troubled relationship with her father, played by award-winning actor Armand Assante. In order to deliver high quality imagery on such a tight budget and without the funds for expensive grip and lighting packages to complement the RED MX camera selected for the project, economy of scale was needed. As a solution, Wright turned to the trusted, go-to gear he had employed for his documentaries, which included several Anton/Bauer DIONIC® 90 batteries, various Gold Mount® solutions, a TWQ charger and a back-up Tandem 150 charger.

For U.S.-based Wright, a major challenge was powering all of the equipment while overseas in Ireland. The schedule was made up of 16-hour days, often taking place at three different locations a day.

To read the full article, click here.

For more of the latest A/B news, click here.

I am often guilty of taking way too much camera equipment on trips and not only does that create problems when traveling, but it can get in the way of taking photographs…. The very thing I am trying to do. My iPhone has done a lot to change that, as I always have it with me, and consequently, it is the camera I have most available. While I love the shots I get from the phone, I crave for more control of the images I am creating. App’s have gone a long way to help in this respect, but the iPhone lens is also a major hurdle in creating photographs. While jpg compression is OK for photos for social media sites, I also want to have the ability to shoot RAW images and be able to process them through Apple’s Aperture to give me the best results. The camera must also be pocket sized, so it can be kept readily available. Nikon have just released a new camera that fits the bill perfectly, the COOLPIX P7800.

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The new camera offers great blend of design and technology, with the aim of capturing images of your next adventure that are of the best quality and yet easy to shoot. The camera combines an outstanding 7.1x Zoom NIKKOR ED Glass lens (angle of view equivalent to that of 28-200 mm lens in 35mm format) with an extra-large backside illuminated CMOS image sensor. This also means you can shoot Full HD 1080p videos with stereo sound. The accessories available for the camera also mean you can use a Nikon Speedlight, Wi-Fi® or GPS adapter.

In many ways the camera is very similar to its predecessor, the P7700, but with the addition of an electronic viewfinder. What is does offer in comparison to its main competitors is great manual controls and an articulated LCD screen, great for street photography or shooting low/high angles where looking through the viewfinder is a challenge. I would recommend this camera who needs a compact camera for travel and adventure, but still wants to capture top quality images.