I will be doing other posts about the gear we used following on from this, but this shortish post is about drones!
Drones are easily the greatest and most exciting technology to come along filmmaking in 10 years. With all the huge advances we have had in that tine, coincidentally the same amount of time I have been freelancing (after 17 years on staff at Sky News), that is saying something.
There are countless amazing production devices now that I never used until I went freelance, but it is drones that have truly blown me away. Not literally of course, a helicopter has almost done that a couple of times but no drones…yet! What we have is a flying very high quality camera. We can get angles we never would have dreamt of and of course movement and shots we could never dream of.
The problem with drones is they are still very new, and many countries won’t let you fly them there commercially. We had this issue during Season 1 of The Wonder List but also in Season 2. Out of the 6 episodes this year, only 2 feature drone shots. The rest do have aerial shots, but they are all from a helicopter.
It is a real shame and quite frustrating, but we had to live with it. The production department at CNN NY do all the negotiating and permits. We came so close to using drones in all the episodes except the one down the Colorado River due to the National Parks restriction. Unfortunately we had to abide by the rules and not bring them. There is no point sneakily bringing them and using them, because you aren’t going to get away with it! When the show goes out with lots of drone shots in a country where they forbade us, then CNN will get into a lot shit obviously! By the book is frustrating but essential.
The drones I used this season were the DJI Inspire 1 with the X3 camera and the Phantom 3. Both terrific drones. Last season was the Phantom 2 and then on one episode a pre-production Inspre 1.
The Inspire 1 was the main one due to its incredible stability in the air even if windy, but the Phantom 3 has longer battery life and is better for shots which require something more nimble. All the shots were done in 4K 24p or 1080p 60p, mostly 4K as it was the better quality. It was all single operator too, my 1st ACs Holly Cochrane in Iceland was my spotter as was Jack Daniel Mills in Bolivia/ Peru. I have never flown dual operator, and whilst it is tricky to do those fine control circling shots, it is possible with practice and I have done a lot of practicing!
The Peru episode, I would say, has the most traditional drone shots. Mostly what I would simply call aerials. They gave us a perspective of the Incan ruins that we couldn’t see from the ground.
The Iceland episode though contains by far my favourite drone stuff I have done. There were a number of “aerials”, but mostly I used the drones to get proper defined shots that are like dollys, jibs, MOVIs on steroids!
I am a firm advocate of doing defined moves with drones; something with a beginning, middle and end to the shot….preferably motivated too. Rather than just moving the camera because we can, it was way better when our host of the show, Bill Weir, was walking to drive the movement. These principles are good things to try and stick to, but like anything they aren’t to be stuck to rigidly.
One thing I cannot do still is fly commercially in the UK. That is being fixed finally, as I’m about to start my certification with Heliguy. Although most of my work is abroad, it will be good to be allowed to fly here for work finally!
There is a season 3 for the show, although I haven’t signed on yet. If I do it, then I will bring with me the Inspire 1 Pro with the better in low light X5 camera (not the raw one) and the lovely new P4. I am really impressed with this little drone. So nimble, great features like front-on obstacle avoidance which you can see below (don’t try this yourself!) and you can also track and define moves. I will still mostly likely do most of the moves myself for now though!
The montage below was cut back in August last year just after we filmed there. I made it for myself and for the team to watch. Bill loved the Sigur Ros track so much they licensed it for the show, which was great. They even opened and closed the show the same way I did in this montage. It is long, but that is because I didn’t cut the track up, still it is kind of relaxing in a way! There are loads of shots not in this of course, plus there were quite a few really lovely shots I did on the Movi M5 and Sony A7S out of the side of a helicopter. A few are so low and slow they look like a drone!
The edit was graded with the lovely Film Convert using the Inspire 1 profile, although I did heavily modify it. The audio is all done in post, mostly from freesound.org. We aren’t at the point of having silent drones just yet! You can get 10% off FilmConvert by using the code bloom at checkout or clicking the banner below. There is also a short extract below the main montage which is a nat sound extract I posted to tease the episode last week.
You can see the amount of post production foley I used in this screenshot of my Premiere sequence:
Flying the Phantom 4 straight at me***PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS YOURSELF!***How much do you trust technology? Well I tried flying at some bushes first (a soft crash at worst) then I decided to go for it by flying at full speed at myself with the DJI Phantom 4 in P mode which has the obstacle avoidance…it worked well. I didn’t let go of the throttle, it pulls up hard when it gets close-ish. Although on one of these tests it did just zip past my head for some reason and didn’t stop! Weird…Once it has seen the obstacle once, when you back off it is very hard to go back fast at the object. Spin around first then try again. You can of course turn this off! The sensors are only at the front though, so you can easily crash into stuff if you fly into an obstacle in reverse, or left and right! I guess that will be the Phantom 5??
Posted by Philip Bloom on Sunday, March 27, 2016