Streaming Media

Streaming Media on Facebook Streaming Media on Twitter Streaming Media on LinkedIn

How to Produce Professional Aerial Video, Part 2: Choosing a Gimbal and Capturing Stable, Usable Shots

In Part 2 of our 3 part series on mastering aerial video, we'll explore the challenges of choosing and assembling a gimbal system--ranging from DIY options to fully assembled kits--to ensure smooth and successful flight operation and capture stable, usable, professional-quality aerial shots, and also look at monitoring approaches and options.

Brushless Gimbal Basics

As with many things, you get what you pay for, and gimbals are no exception. Whether it’s a DIY or turnkey gimbal you decide upon, you need to understand some of the basic features that accompany the different gimbal solutions.

Brushless gimbals come in two configurations: 2-axis or 3-axis control. The 2-axis gimbal will stabilize the camera along the roll-and-pitch axis. Typically, the roll access stabilization is automatic and not pilot-controlled while the pitch access can often be manipulated by the pilot to adjust the tilt of the camera. Should you wish to pan the camera left or right you’ll need to actually fly the copter along the desired path. This approach often requires above-average pilot skill level to render usable results void of numerous stagnation points.

Two-axis gimbal video is recognizable by the absence of smooth panning and tilting while flying from point A to B. It often lends itself to relatively simple flyover, stationary (hover), and dolly-type shots as well as still photography.

Three-axis gimbals have the ability to take things to a much higher level of production value by adding dynamic control of the pan access. You’ll add a second person to the crew as a gimbal operator and that operator will now have the ability to control the gimbal along its 3-axis independent of what the copter is doing. This enables compound gimbal movements that provide for much more interesting camera angles when flying.

You don’t get something for nothing, however. Fielding a 2-person copter/camera crew requires not only more financial resources, but practice to hone their skills and the need to develop a mutually understandable means of communicate to get the desired shot. Some gimbal controllers will offer a “follow me” mode that allows the gimbal to initially tilt and/or pan in the direction of copter movement. This mode is useful for providing a more sophisticated movement at times without the need for a second gimbal operator.

Just as the copter has a maximum payload that it can carry safely, so does a gimbal. The motors are often the limiting factor for the gimbal. It’s important to pay close attention to the dealer’s notes as to what size camera a particular gimbal is capable of carrying.

Balancing Your Gimbal

Gimbal satisfaction can be summed up into one word: balance. If your gimbal is not properly balanced then you won’t have a satisfying aerial video experience. You need to balance your camera configuration along each axis of the gimbal. There are many videos available on the internet to teach you how to balance a gimbal. If your gimbal wants to tilt forward then you need to slide the camera back until it balances. If your gimbal wants to tilt left or right then you need to slide the camera left or right until it sits level.

The pan axis is a bit trickier to envision but requires balancing as well. Basically, when tilting the gimbal up slightly, take notice of any side-to-side movement. If the copter does display any unwanted lateral movement, you need to move the entire gimbal forward or backward on the mount until there is no movement when tilted up. With a properly balanced gimbal, the dynamic stabilization provided by the motors will become much more precise and deliver better results.

It’s important to understand that, in many cases, with the smaller, lighter-weight gimbals (smaller motors), there is simply very little margin for being out of balance. In some cases, just adding an ND filter to a GoPro may compromise the gimbal operation. HDMI cables from the camera need to be as lightweight (thin) as possible to prevent the gimbal from being overpowered by the heavier cable.

You can avoid damage to your gimbal by assuring there is always a camera mounted to it when you turn it on. When powering up your gimbal, it’s important to let it sit still for about 5-10 seconds so that the gyros can initialize. It should then right itself and assume a level position without your help. When using some 3-axis gimbals, be certain that you have inhibited the panning ability for takeoff and landing to prevent your copter from having a mishap. The first sign that you have not inhibited the pan axis on some gimbals is that your copter will be spinning prior to takeoff.

Free Fly and DJI

Each week it appears there are new entrants into the brushless gimbal world, but two of the more popular manufacturers offering a turnkey solution that will provide you with a relatively pleasant out-of-the-box experience are Free Fly Systems (Movi MR) and DJI (Zenmuse). Free Fly is clearly the undisputed leader in the pro cinema world, providing the Movi MR, a 3-axis camera gimbal capable of flying small consumer cameras up to the larger pro rigs such as the RED EPIC and Sony F55.

Cinestar 8 with Movi MR

Free Fly has recently released their new gimbal controller that is not only able to control camera movement but also pull focus, adjust aperture and other camera attributes, and let you make changes dynamically to the Movi MR software on the fly, so to speak. The R & D put into the proprietary electronics, software, and testing make the Movi MR a great solution for the cinematographer who doesn’t want to fiddle with the DIY experience.

Free Fly Movi MR

DJI offers the Zenmuse brushless gimbal that has been well accepted among the aerial video community, especially with its smaller GoPro version fitted for its smaller Phantom quadcopter. Both of these solutions will provide a relatively pleasant turnkey experience with a level of support that’s pretty much non-existent in the DIY world. There are many gimbal solutions from which to choose, all with varying price points and all with different degrees of difficulty.

DJI Zenmuse H3-3D with the GoPro Hero3+

If something seems too good to be true, there is probably a good reason why. Lastly, keep in mind that the heavier your gimbal and camera, the shorter your flight time will be for any given battery/motor/prop combination.

Related Articles
This article will introduce you to many of the areas that you will need to be versed in to assure safe and proficient operation of your aerial camera platform. Learn what you need to know before you fly, and fly safe!
The Atomos Ninja Star is more than just a simple recorder and playback deck; it's a way to bypass the highly compressed codec of your camera and record straight to 10-bit 4:2:2 Apple ProRes, all on a device roughly the size of an iPhone and weighing in at just under 300 grams including the up-to-5 hr battery.
The MoVI Controller is purpose built to provide for a true two-user MoVI stabilizer setup by letting a second operator control pan, tilt, roll, focus, iris, and zoom of a MoVI-mounted camera while the first operator holds the system
Launched at NAB, the Ninja Star is a must have for film creatives who need to "Record Apple ProRes on Board" camera rigs, such as Drones, RC Helicopters and other UAVs, or recording post production quality from the world's best camera makers, Canon, Sony, Nikon Panasonic and GoPro
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.