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Flight Plan: How to Produce Professional Aerial Video, Part 1

Surging in popularity thanks to affordable, unmanned multirotor copters comfortably paired with cameras ranging from GoPros to DSLRs to REDs, aerial cinema is proving as effective a pro video tool as it is a cool hobby. But regardless of what "ready to fly" advocates tell you, there's no shortcut to aerial cinema coolness. This 3-part series will provide an essential primer in the technologies, tools, techniques, legal and practical concerns, and hidden challenges you'll face in aerial cinema as you prepare for takeoff.

For centuries, humans have dreamed of flying like the birds. Myths and legends of Pegasus the winged horse, and the Greek engineer Daedalus and his son Icarus who flew on wings of wax and feathers are two of the more recognizable examples. However, it wasn’t until 10:35am on December 17, 1903, near Kill Devil Hills, N.C., that a young man by the name of Orville Wright piloted a plane weighing about 600lbs on the first “heavier-than-air flight” in history. After centuries of dreaming, humankind was finally able to fly!

That historic first flight served as the genesis for advances in aerospace technology as we have come to know it today. Likewise, during the remainder of the 20th century, advances in the world of electronics would reveal a sophisticated integrated circuit known as the “microprocessor.”

The same microprocessor technology that has fueled the proliferation of smaller-sized cameras with hitherto-unimaginable capabilities is the same technology that is responsible for the miniaturization of flight control systems that would ultimately control the many unmanned aircraft flying today.

Enter the sUAS

The marriage of flying machine and camera was inevitable. We now have an incredibly sophisticated tool available at a relatively inexpensive cost of entry that changes the way we as photographers, producers, and storytellers are able to communicate with our audiences. Recent electronic advances in camera, flight controller, and battery technology mean that the sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial System) is now capable of obtaining footage to what was only once obtainable by a manned aircraft.

sUAS devices are able to fly closer to the ground and nearer to people than a full-scale manned aircraft. It is for these reasons that they are quickly becoming a versatile tool popular among filmmakers and photographers across many genres. We are seeing the sUAS replace jib and dolly shots, especially those in awkward and challenging locations. They are being used for dramatic lift shots as well as zoom shots. Additionally, the sUAS can be used as a standalone creative tool offering a perspective unseen by the earthbound viewer.

I use the acronym sUAS instead of the more common term “UAV” simply because we are talking about something more than just an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The sUAS is a system comprised of many different components, including the UAV, communications, data/video links, camera stabilizers, and control stations. The “s” designates it as a “small” UAS which to date looks as though it will be defined as under 55lbs of weight. The sUAS provides us with the ability to monitor a shot from the ground, thus offering directors the means to communicate directly with the flight crew while viewing the shot in real time. sUASes are typically much less expensive to operate than manned aircraft, and in many cases offer a more attractive and efficient workflow.

I’ve been operating crewed aircraft for years as a pilot for a major airline, but when I’m not in the cockpit of an airliner, I am a filmmaker/professional video producer and a radio-controlled aircraft pilot. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to the world of radio-controlled aerial cinema and still photography. Building a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding of the technology is a great supplement to hands-on flight training.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Each day there appears to be another great success story revolving around some new technology that would lead you to believe you don’t have to know much to be an aerial photographer or cinematographer. I will agree, in principle, that technology is making the experience much less of a challenge, but at the same time your multirotor copter will not assemble itself or rebuild itself after a crash, nor will it instill in you a basic understanding of its components that will, in turn, enable you to exercise sound judgment when faced with a situation requiring your decision-making skills.

In this two-part article I’ll provide you with the necessary information to help you acquire a basic understanding of the technology and techniques required to operate your copter in a safe and proficient manner. Due to the constantly changing nature of the subject matter, be sure to reference and crosscheck this information with other current sources generally found on the individual manufacturer support websites.

First Things First: Learning to Fly

Regardless of whether your interests lay with photography, video, or a blending of both disciplines, the first thing you need to do is learn to to fly before you even think about strapping a camera and a gimbal to your copter. I can’t impress upon you enough just how important it is to develop solid flying skills.

There’s no denying remote-control aircraft are cool. Flying your cinema camera around the sky in a 3-dimensional world on a multi-rotor copter, and down-linking video to the client and DP on the ground in real time is about as cool as it gets, which is why so many of us are so eager to get into aerial cinema. But there’s no shortcut to this particular kind of coolness. Operating one of these multi-rotor copters by itself, not to mention with a camera-mounted can be every bit as challenging as it is exciting. Getting to the point where you can competently fly remote control aircraft with a camera on board without endangering your gear, yourself, and other people--not to mention getting usable shots--will take some thorough study and an honest appreciation for the amount of practice it takes in order to operate your multi-rotor flying camera safely and responsibly.

My hope is that this article will help you to identify areas of concern you need to address that you may have otherwise not been aware of. These multi-rotor copters are not toys; they require a significant financial, time, and training commitment in order to be truly successful with this new and exciting craft.

Choosing Your Aircraft

For the most part, the hardware involved with the aerial arts has been commoditized so you will find a wide range of options available to you at varying price points. Whether you decide to purchase a ready-to-fly UAS or choose a DIY approach with a quad-copter, hexa-copter, or octo-copter, there is almost an endless array of airframes from which to choose. Most of the features found on these copters are all very similar and will offer varying degrees of customer experiences depending on the task at hand.

Regardless of which type of craft you choose, for those with no radio control aircraft experience, seek help from others who are already proficient with the hobby of RC flying. Spend what may seem like an inordinate amount of time learning to fly your copter without the camera, gimbal and any installed extras such as video downlinks or FPV (first person view) gear.

Developing solid muscle memory skills that allow you to fly your copter without actually thinking about it will be the key to your success in the aerial cinema and photography industry. Practice, practice, practice! Once you’re able to fly with a good amount of proficiency, then add the gimbal, camera and other accessories.

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