Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Aerial Cinematography Tips from a Professional Drone Operator

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Director of photography Matt Rodgers has worked on some of television’s coolest shows — his credits include work on episodes of The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Top Gear USA, and my personal favorite, The Last Ship. Matt, a Lake Tahoe, CA native, got his start shooting offroad action, like truck racing, motocross, and freestyle snow sports. Early on, he met a guy named Chris Schuster, a pilot with a company called Vortex Aerial. They were ahead of the curve — way before drones became the popular scourges of air space they are today, Chris was flying remote-control aircraft, like single-rotor helicopters, to get great aerial shots.

Matt and Chris started to work together, and things took off from there (pun definitely intended). When multi-rotor drones started to gain traction, Matt and Chris saw their potential. “I could see the vision and abilities that new drone technology was going to offer,” says Matt. He was fascinated with finding new ways to move cameras in space; multi-rotor drones were about to enable cinematographers like him to create shots like never before.

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Matt’ and Chris’ single-rotor setup
 

Choosing Your Drone

Drone technology is rapidly evolving. In the ten years Matt has been working with aerial platforms, he’s gone from using single-rotor helicopters to custom-constructed co-axial quad-copters (the ones with props above and below each motor). Most recently, he’s started to employ the FreeFly Alta 8, which he says is “capable of a lot.” But regardless of the platform, Matt says, “I always tell people that a drone is another tool in your bag of tricks — it’s not meant to take the place of a full-scale, a technocrane, or a dolly. I like to think of it as bridging the gap between all these other tools, from 0-100 feet.” That’s an important thing to keep in mind when you approach your own shots: Drones aren’t a silver bullet. They’re powerful tools that should be used wisely.

How many camera techs does it take to make a MovI gimbal work?
Setting up the MovI gimbal on set

Matt continues, “You’re limited to lens choices and cameras that can be carried on a drone setup versus a full-scale setup, which is a major difference and sometimes the deciding factor in the photography of the project.” What’s the difference between drones and real helicopters, I ask — is that technology so good now that you can basically do the same things with a drone that you could with a helicopter?

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Matt on set — this setup won’t fly

“No,” he says. “For example, we might want to be on an Angeniuex 24-290 lens to help compress the background and separate our subject. This lens would be far too large to carry on a drone, and we would not get the same effect with a smaller zoom lens. This would be an example of the capabilities of drones versus full-scale aircraft.”

FreeFly's Alta 8. FreeFly’s Alta 8

Since most commercially available drones can only carry a certain amount of weight, if filmmakers want to use specific camera setups, they may force themselves beyond drones for certain shots. “Another major factor is the difference in top speeds between full-scale aircraft and drones,” Matt explains. “The higher you take a drone up from ground level, the less you feel the sensation of movement and the faster you need to travel to feel it — especially when you start getting above 300 feet of altitude. A full-scale aircraft is able to fly much faster and therefore, when flying at higher altitudes, it can still give you dynamic speed while moving across a landscape.” So, if you’re wondering why your sweeping landscape drone shots might not feel quite as exciting as your cinematic favorites, maybe speed is part of the reason.
 

Working on Set

So, how does it work when he’s on set? Matt explains that with his team, “the pilot is in charge of moving the drone and executing the ‘camera movement.’ I’m on the sticks controlling the camera gimbal for pan/tilt/roll commands, along with start and stop, all while listening to feedback from the director and relaying that in real-time to our pilot during the flight.”

Sounds like it could get complicated — and sometimes it does. “The biggest challenge when using drones is deciding how to orchestrate a shot that is dynamic, safe, and feasible within your shoot schedule,” Matt says.  Orchestrating shots on the ground can be difficult enough — imagine putting a whole team behind the monitors to nail a shot with a remote camera that’s hurtling through the air, especially when there’s money on the line. (An Alexa Mini, like the one pictured below, is almost $50,000 for just the body!)

Alexa Mini + FIZ + Optimo 15-40.
Alexa Mini + FIZ + Optimo 15-40

When you’re on a professional set, time is precious. If your crew gets bogged down trying to figure out a shot on the day, it can be costly for the production and may result in losing some shots (or your job) altogether. “A lot of times, we’re asked to shoot very specialized scenes during the best lighting of the day,” says Matt, “and that only gives us one or two hours of shooting time. If we spend too much time trying to nail a shot and it burns too much daylight, then we’re not in a good position.” So, planning shots ahead of time is important — when there’s a ticking clock, there isn’t time for many mistakes.

“We treat aerial drone coverage the same as you would your main unit photography,” says Matt. “There’s always a tech scout with the director, producer, main unit director of photography, and the locations manager to discuss the intended shot and look at the obstacles or adjustments we may need to make on the day.” He adds that the more time you get for pre-production, the better. You can see how the stress factors start to line up on drone pilots in these situations — it takes nerves of steel to be a pro.

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Shot Selection

So how do aerial operators like Matt choose how to get their shots? Logistics and safety matters accounted for, “there are many go-to shots that work well with aerials,” he explains. “We can lead or chase, shoot front or rear three-quarter shots, converge with the subject, jib up or down, or do quarter orbits or top downs.” But, Matt says, the magic comes when you take characteristics of different camera movements and use elevation and speed changes during the shot. You can add some foreground movement or a reveal to layer your shot, which can help you create something dynamic and interesting. As a fun exercise, next time you’re watching your favorite movie or TV show, see if you can name the type of movement a particular shot is employing. HBO’s new show Westworld is a great place to start — check out those aerials!

Look, it's Westworld's corporate offices!
Look, it’s Westworld’s corporate offices!

Matt expects the near future for drone technology holds higher power-to-weight ratios, higher payload capacities, better flight times, and smaller overall platforms. In the meantime, whatever you’re flying, remember to plan your shots ahead of time, stay safe, and get creative!

Top image: Still from Vortex Aerial’s 2016 Aerial Demo Reel