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.
- 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.
- Set up a safety protocol which includes
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.