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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.

The “5 Ps” of Photo/Filming and Flying

When it comes to cultivating your aerial cinema knowledge, skills set, and best practices, keep these five “Ps” in mind:

  • Prior
  • Preparation
  • Prevents
  • Poor
  • Performance

Obviously, this maxim applies to all aspects of professional photography and video, but never more than in an aerial context. How many times have you set out for a shoot and realized you have forgotten something? Forgotten to format a card before a gig only to have the infamous “Card Full” warning appear in the middle of your award-winning interview? Forget to charge batteries? Forget to dialogue with your second shooter about duties?

Seemingly, the worst thing to happen in any of these typical location-shoot preparation fails is that you’re unable to produce what is expected of you. With aerial video, the potential for disaster (not to mention its consequences) enters another dimension.

In the world of flight, it’s been said that “takeoffs are optional, but landings are not.” Once your bird is airborne, many of your options and decisions will be limited by the constraints of not only your hardware and software but also the environment and your own flying skills. For this reason it’s imperative that you prepare before each flight. I suggest a checklist just as we use in the real world of flight.

Aerial Photo and Video: Two Scenarios

The best way to understand what you can expect in your first forays into radio-controlled aerial production is to sketch out some scenarios that illustrate the challenges involved, which vary based on what other skills and tendencies you bring to the table as you approach takeoff.

Let me introduce you to Carl and Steve. Both are talented photographers and cinematographers with a desire to add aerial work to their portfolio. While they are both very tech-savvy, neither has had any previous experience with radio-controlled aircraft. Carl taught himself photography and how to shoot video over the years, and fancies himself as somewhat of a technology guru. Steve, by contrast, is formally trained in the visual arts and tends to research and study before trying something new. From the perspective of Carl and Steve, let’s embark on two of the more typical aerial platform experiences.

Carl is a proponent of the “GoPro is good enough” mentality, and decides one day that he’s going to purchase a small quadcopter and GoPro gimbal from the cheapest online outlet he can find. His decision to purchase a particular model is heavily influenced by the number of users he sees in the various social media communities that he frequents. Many of his “friends” have told him that this is the best platform for him.

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Carl receives his quadcopter just a few days after ordering it. He quickly realizes that despite the “ready to fly” bluster on the website from which he purchased it, the quadcopter does require a bit of assembly after all. The directions are a bit fragmented and in some cases written in Chinese, but Carl is successful in assembling his quad and mounting his gimbal and GoPro. He quickly charges the battery that was included and briefly scans the guidance for operating his new sUAS.

Steve, however, has a different approach. You see, Steve doesn’t subscribe to the “GoPro is good enough” mentality. Steve wants to fly his DSLR camera and, ultimately, a larger-format camera such as a RED Epic. Steve puts in quite a bit of research time carefully assessing his options. When he’s ready to purchase an aerial platform, he chooses a relatively expensive pre-built airframe from a reputable dealer who has a knowledgeable support staff from which Steve can always call upon.

While Carl proceeds to his front yard where he will embark upon his first flight, Steve is attending a workshop hosted by his dealer. This workshop will provide Steve with the important information that he otherwise would not have been exposed to. He’ll learn about how his flight controller works, how to operate the multi-rotor in different environments, proper battery charging and discharging techniques, and the potential devastating consequences of improper battery care.

Additionally, Steve will understand the constraints of his radio transmitter and receiver as well as any legal requirements in his country to operate within the law. Steve receives actual hands-on flight training with an experienced pilot at his side to demonstrate, educate, and supervise his initial flights. Only after Steve demonstrates a base level of flight proficiency will he be exposed to hanging the gimbal and the camera under his UAV. When Steve returns from his workshop he’ll have a healthy respect for the battery technology, the variables that can adversely affect his flight controls, and his own pilot ability. Steve will make it a point to find a remote site from which to fly, such as a large park or school yard that offers him separation from people and obstructions. He decides that he is going to fly several times a week concentrating on the basic flight maneuvers he learned at the workshop before he decides to add his gimbal and camera to the equation and set out to capture aerial footage.

Checking back with Carl, we find that he has launched successfully into the air. However, he has attracted the attention of several neighbor kids who have come over to him asking lots of questions. Carl quickly finds that it’s difficult--even with automation--to carry on a conversation and concentrate on flying.

Once airborne, Carl seems to feel like the trees and houses around him quickly grow closer at a logarithmic rate relative to his altitude. What initially appeared to be plenty of space from which to fly has suddenly left Carl feeling tentative. No one ever showed him just how much he should expect to move the control sticks on his transmitter to get a desired reaction and so his quad is moving erratically as he struggles to control it.

After a few minutes of seemingly uncontrolled flight where he is reacting more so than commanding, Carl starts to feel a bit more comfortable. Rather than concentrate on basic flight maneuvers and stay in close, Carl decides that he’s got the hang of it now and embarks on an aerial cinema mission to capture footage of flying over the neighbor kids on their bikes. As his quad gets farther away from him Carl decides to turn back. He doesn’t even suspect it and is caught off guard when his copter doesn’t respond to what he believes he is commanding.

What Carl doesn’t know (but would have learned if he’d gone through proper training) is that when your aircraft is coming back at you, the controls appear to be reversed. When the nose of your copter is facing away from you, the controls are correct--left makes the copter go left, right stick to the right. When your copter’s nose is pointing back at you, left stick will make it go right and right stick will make it go left. Carl panics and quickly attempts to correct with more control input, which simply exacerbates the problem. The quad is flying in a dynamic environment where movement is constant in one form or another, and before Carl hits one of the kids or a tree, he decides it’s time to land.

The only problem for Carl is that he has never landed before, and because he has ventured further away, it’s difficult to see his aircraft. He reduces the power and the quad descends rapidly toward the ground. Just before it impacts the ground he boosts the power and the quad leaps into the air again in a seemingly uncontrollable fashion. Carl struggles a few more times to get his copter on the ground when suddenly it happens. He hits a mailbox and his quad falls to the earth. Fortunately for Carl, he broke only a couple of propellers and a landing leg.

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