Though still in their relative infancy as a technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones) are already essential tools in the kits of filmmakers, documentarians, and journalists. To content creators, small quads — like the DJI Phantom, for example — may in fact be the single most powerful camera-support tool in our kits, dollar for dollar. Can anyone fly? Sure. Can anyone fly safely and legally, get the shot(s) they need, and recover their flying $1,000+ investment? Maybe.
Here are some helpful tips to get you thinking about the types of shots you can get in the world of unmanned aerial cinematography. If you’re new to drones, I highly recommend spending time at an official R/C flying field to practice your skills. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) can help you start your career in remote flying — I joined when I was 11 years old, and have always found them to be a dependable resource.
Choosing a Platform
I travel constantly, often with two or three complete camera and light packages, not including UAVs — so, when choosing a drone, some of my most important criteria are size, weight, and portability. I don’t often need to fly a RED or an Alexa, or even a DSLR for that matter, so options like the Phantom 4 or 3DR Solo are sufficient for me. I’m going to focus on the DJI Phantom platform here because it’s what I use most often, and it is, by most accounts, the most ubiquitous quad out there.
The DJI Phantom 4
Every manufacturer is always adding new functionality to their platforms, and companies like 3DR have a lot of innovation going on around them that promise the addition of new sensors and other accessories for your aircraft. With the release of the Phantom 4, DJI has recently added a lot of native functionality to the platform that can help you get even better shots. When choosing which one to use, make sure to familiarize yourself with the most recent capabilities of the ones you’re considering.
The most important part of flying consistently and flying well is flying safely. A cursory web search for “drone preflight checklist” will yield several examples of good lists to consult before every flight. You can even buy preprinted ones on eBay for a modest fee. Mostly, these preflight checks pertain to looking over your aircraft and checking the various battery levels on the mobile device(s), transmitter(s), and craft, as well as checking your surroundings, including wind speed and weather.
Before every flight, you must also ask yourself if you’re flying legally. If you’re being paid, you’re flying commercially, and will be subject to the rules of commercial operators, which in the United States are set by the FAA. Many countries differentiate between commercial and hobby flying, so be sure to read up on local rules. In some places, flying illegally can event result in prison time. At the time of this writing, if you’re flying in the United States for commercial purposes, you will need what’s known as a 333 exemption and a licensed pilot to be able to fly.
If you’re flying for fun, then the rules are much laxer, but still numerous. Be cognizant of the regulations of the country, state, county, or city you’re in. Cities like Austin, Texas, have their own drone regulations; sometimes these aren’t published and require a call to the FAA or a local police department for further detail. At last year’s SXSW in Austin, the city passed a drone ordinance right before the festival began that forbade UAVs from flying in Austin’s city limits (much to the dismay of everyone that was there with their drone).
Once you’ve combed through the legal confusion and are ready to fly, do so by the common sense rules: Don’t fly near airports or crowded places, like stadiums, concerts, or highways. Be aware of obstacles in your flight path or below it, like people, power lines, curious pets, curious children, and big objects like buildings, which can cause total signal loss. Also remember to keep an eye on the weather, especially wind, because strong gusts can ruin otherwise good flights. There’s a great mobile app called Hover that will alert you to the flying conditions at your location.
Pimping Your Craft
There are endless mods for drones on the market, but there are just a few that I consider key. For every UAV package I own, I purchase at least four batteries (and label them), custom gimbal holders for protection while traveling, and a custom-fit hard case (you never know who’s going to be handling your gear). I install adapters on the transmitter for aftermarket antennas, which I value not only for their range increase benefits, but also for their ability to increase the robustness of the signal at close range. (Though according to antenna-lovers I know, increasing the size of the array doesn’t necessarily increase the robustness of the signal.)
I invest in a nice lanyard for the transmitter, a dedicated mobile device, like an iPad Mini 4 or a Samsung S7, short USB cables for connecting the mobile device to the transmitter, and PolarPro ND and polarization filters. Note that if you do modify your aircraft in any permanent way, it will most likely void your warranty. Also note that the DJI Phantom transmitters do not have GPS chips (like the Inspire series do), so if you use a mobile device without a GPS chip, like a Wi-Fi only iPad, you won’t get to take advantage of some of the tracking functions available, like dynamic return-to-home or follow-me.
Getting the Shot
Alright, so you’re legal. Time to fly. A few basic shots, practiced until they are second nature, will make your aerial footage sing. I’ll explain each of the shots listed here in detail below, but first, do you need crazy skills to pull them off? Practice makes perfect, and some of them are technically complex, requiring you (if you’re flying a UAV that only supports one operator) to execute several inputs (and sustain them) simultaneously. However, we’re going to stick to shots here that you can pull off on your own without a whole lot of practice.
Fortunately, drone makers have opened their APIs to outside developers, and apps are coming on the market that take a lot of the work off your hands. A few apps that intelligently assist your shooting are Airnest, Litchi, and Vertical Studio. Plus, new functionality is now built into DJI’s Phantom 4 and 3DR’s Solo that replicates some of the features that previously had only been available from third parties. It takes time and patience to learn how to nail some shots, but with a little direction and a little patience, you’re sure to be on your way to becoming your own Wally Pfister of the skies.
Establishing shots don’t have to be all that exciting, but they should be pretty. The purpose of shots like these is to communicate to viewers where your story is taking place. In the first example here, we’re simply starting high and dropping altitude as we approach our scene, which in this case is a field in Kansas. This type of shot establishes the space and helps us go from big to small. You could also take the time to tell the owner of this particular plot where their irrigation systems are failing, but I digress.
Shots not unlike these were used to bookend American Beauty, a film that took place almost entirely on a quiet residential street in suburbia. Below is the final shot from the film (spoiler alert?).
In this next shot, we start looking down and slowly tilt up on the gimbal to reveal the entire vista. A lot of drone shooting ends up focusing on how to hide the fact that the footage you’re shooting is coming from a drone. Can you tell whether this came from a helicopter or a drone?
Establishing shots are usually moving forward because we want viewers to get into the story, not out. You’ll notice that shots at the ends of stories are pulling out or away, like the one below, and like the American Beauty clip above. Notice how pulling away feels more like an ending:
The orbit function is now built into many drone apps, but it can also be accomplished manually. The flight path is just the way it sounds: you skirt a point of interest by flying in a continuous arc around the subject. This alone creates a fairly dynamic shot, but you can also ascend or descend as well as tilt up or down on your gimbal to match or counter the movement and create some seriously dynamic shots.
With multiple axises of movement happening at once, you’re set up for an incredible Michael Bay-esque shot that’s sure to wow your viewers. Above is an example of a simple orbit with a gentle tilt up that reveals the horizon. Here’s another example of an orbit that leaves the horizon where it is and just focuses on the building.
Flyover with Tilt
I recently used this shot when approaching a pair of blue whales in the open ocean. You approach an object at headway speed while tilting down, timing it so you’re tilted 90° down by the time your aircraft is directly over your subject.
This shot is a great two-input approach that establishes your subject in space and gets viewers right in on the action. You can also reverse this motion to create a dramatic reveal, as in the clip below. Note that large, pointy objects add to the drama.
Flyby with Tracking
This is another simple but incredibly dynamic shot that I recently used to film a ship leaving port. The UAV can be either static or moving in relation to your subject. As the aircraft approaches the subject, you pan your camera to remain frontal to the subject as you pass it, then continue to follow it around until you settle on your final frame and the subject travels away. I don’t have a sample of this available just yet, but I’ll try to add one soon.
This is the shot people with drones love to post to Instagram: You’re directly above your subject with your camera tilted directly down; the aircraft yaws left or right while ascending or descending. This shot is used to establish a subject in space — often empty space, like a person floating in the ocean or someone on a skyscraper rooftop.
In this particular case, I’ve chosen a pretty glass ceiling to drop towards. Perhaps there’s something dramatic happening inside.
Forward with Tilt Up
The ultimate reveal, this shot is basically the opposite of the flyover with tilt. This is the classic action-movie shot — great examples are the approach to Jurassic Park’s Isla Nuba or the aircraft carrier in Top Gun. As you approach a subject, the camera tilts up toward the horizon to reveal your subject.
Do you see the quad’s propeller come in at the top right of the frame? This is one of the limitations of a quad — there’s a limit to the speed at which you can travel before you start to get the props in your shot. Could you stop tilting up? Yes, but you’d lose the mountains.
One of the simplest and sometimes most exciting shots you can get with your drone is to look straight down. In the movies, when they recreate military-style drone video, fake satellite shots, or establish the world from space, this type of shot is used — Oblivion is a film that did this really well. This type of shot can reveal exciting visuals in our landscapes that we could never see from the ground. Sometimes shots like these can require higher altitudes, so make sure you get the appropriate credentials and permission from airspace controllers wherever you’re flying.
Here’s another example of a low-altitude version of this shot.
Flying Near Stuff
Flying near stuff can be fun, dangerous, and dynamic. In my opinion, it generally shows that you’re definitely looking at drone footage, but it can be cool nonetheless. I’ve seen great drone shots that use trees or buildings, either heading toward or away from them, at about or below their level, to create some visual excitement. In the clip below, I flew close to the trees and right next to the clocktower to up the visual ante. It’s like having a really, really long technocrane.
Using the Sun
In most of my shots, you’ll notice that I’m flying at either sunrise or sunset. Since the imaging sensors in small quads and GoPros are still somewhat limited when it comes to exposing large dynamic range, it helps to fly during dawn and dusk, when exposure values between shadows and highlights are limited. Also, the long shadows that are created when the sun is low in the sky create nice depth and texture. When flying at twilight, you also get the added bonus of being able to use the sun to create cool lens flares. In the courthouse clip above, I go all out during the orbit, using the sun to create a huge flare at both the beginning and end of the shot. No one ever regretted using too much lens flare.
Remember that it’s a privilege to fly UAVs, and one person doing dumb things with their aircraft can ruin it for everyone. Fly safely, legally, and often, and enjoy getting more dynamic, exciting shots!
Gavin Garrison recently returned from shooting six-months’ worth of drone footage on the high seas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). Gavin received his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California; he is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison and check out his new IG @dronefortwo.