Saturday, April 26, 2014

Top 100 Tips For Better Aerial Drone Video Footage



So I just finished a 10-day trip up and down the coast of California, shooting quadcopter footage for a film titled QUAD (#QUADthemovie).  Below are the top 100 tips to help you film better quadcopter footage over a longer production or road trip.

For #QUADthemovie, I was inspired by the ENDLESS SUMMER surfing movies.  While we're no Wingnut & Patrick, we filmed with our fleet of DJI Phantom 2 quadcopters in the spirit of youth.  Searching for beauty, adventure, and perfect flying conditions, we traveled the gorgeous California countryside.

Follow #QUADthemovie for updates.






TOP 100 TIPS FOR BETTER QUADCOPTER FOOTAGE

1. Use a pre-flight checklist:

a) commit to following all DJI flying procedures, firmware updates & guidelines.
b) commit to flying safely following all FAA, state & local laws & guidelines.
c) commit to flying safely around other human beings, animals, and children. While pilot error is the main cause of crashes, equipment malfunction DOES OCCUR.
d) power lines are right out.

Pre-flight Checklist:
1) All systems off.
2) FPV transmitter antennae installed on Phantom 2.
3) FPV receiver antennae installed on monitor.
4) Power/battery connection inserted to FPV monitor.
5) Turn on monitor.
6) Fresh batteries in controller.
7) Turn controller on.
8) Check battery power on Phantom 2 battery.
9) Insert battery into Phantom 2 battery slot.
10) Click battery button once, release, then hold battery button down for two seconds.  Phantom should begin startup procedure.
11) Allow for quad to find GPS satellites.
12) Calibrate compass (follow DJI video procedure).
13) Allow Phantom to sit for 2 minutes for home lock to occur.  DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!
14) Check wind conditions (speed + direction) and confirm with spotter.
15) Check for pedestrian traffic and confirm with spotter.
16) Breathe.
17) Lift off.
18) Have fun.

2.  Walk the flight routes before each shot.

3.  Mentally prepare your shot before you take off so you don't waste flight time.  Pre-viz.

4.  Aim the camera frame slightly up to see more horizon, and slightly down to see more ground.

5.  Scout location, THEN fly it the next day.

6.  Check transmitter & receiver antennae are screwed in properly.

7.  Check propellers are screwed down properly.  Get it? Properly?

8.  Check that battery for FPV monitor is charged and connected properly.

9.  Triple-check camera to make sure it's rolling.

10.  Format camera card before every flight.

11.  Download dailies first thing when returning home.  You're not done with your work day until the dailies are triplicated.

12.  Double-check settings on camera.  Frame rate, lens mode, Protune mode on, etc.

13.  If using DIY ND filter with sunshade, use FPV monitor to correct any vignette issues.

14.  Shoot in early morning to take advantage of good sunlight, lack of pedestrians, and lack of wind.  Wind is created by the warming of the earth's plates during the afternoon sun.  Your odds are better for calmer wind conditions by flying at sunrise, when the plates are at their coolest.  UPDATE: You can also check WINDFINDER.COM for wind conditions.  This is my most valuable and accurate info website I use before flying.  AWESOME!

15.  Never shoot around other humans.  Maintain a 150' distance.

16.  Other humans, children, or animals are NOT free extras for your bitchin' quad shot.

17.  Don't fly in high wind.  You can keep it aloft under crazy conditions, but your work/shot quality will suffer.  You also increase the likelihood of a crash, so simply ground your quad, and wait it out.  Windfinder.com has a great iPhone app for quick updates.

18.  While you're in the air, be efficient with your shots.  Check yourself constantly: am I pleasure flying or trying to get good footage?

19.  Give yourself at least 2 hours to recharge the Phantom 2 batteries.  Buy multiple chargers to charge multiple batteries.  Buy a power strip.

20.  Charge batteries the night before. 

21.  Check batteries for full charge BEFORE packing them.

22.  Only bring the amount of batteries you need for 2 hours of shooting a hike location.  We averaged 4-5 batteries per location.

23.  On average, we spent 1-2 hours hiking in, then spent 2 hours flying.

24.  If you encounter a great location on your outbound hike, by all means throw down the quad and fly it.

25.  Change cards after each flight, or when changing batteries.  Keep enough microSD cards available.  We rotated 2 high-end cards for the 3+, and 3 other cards for GoPro 3 BTS footage.

26.  If you're changing cards with each battery change like we did, you need the high end 32GB cards.  Shooting 2.7k, I would average around 6GB of total footage for each battery, and I would enter a location with x8 cards (1 per battery & a few extra on hand).  GoPro recommends Class 10, 32 0r 64 GB, Sandisk, Lexar, or Delkin brand.

27.  After every crash, recycle everything and re-calibrate the compass before take off.

28.  Re-calibrate compass often.  We do it at every new location, or after a crash.

29.  Bring tools (screwdrivers, multi-tool) with you for copter and GoPro.  You don't want to be stuck in the wilderness without that perfect tool.

30.  We had good success in eliminating GoPro prop shadow issues by creating a DIY sunshade.  However, we had some vignette issues which I'll crop out in post.  You can also trim the shade back to find a happy medium. Try this for a good ND filter for your Hero 3/3+.
31. For the hike: handhold quad + shoulder bag for controller & video monitor.  Bring water, sunscreen, hiking boots, eyewear, hat, long sleeves, layers of clothing, fire survival, first aid, food (almonds, trail mix), waypoint tracker, emergency locator, & take a picture of your trailhead map.  Use this backpack to help hike your gear.

32.  Use a 2nd person as "spotter."  The spotter uses walkies to triangulate distance and altitudes.  The spotter calls off pedestrian traffic and clear flight paths.  Keeps visual on quad at all times.  In case of crash, spotter will stare at last seen spot until landmarks can be determined.  Take photo.

33.  Spotter also uses hand signals to signify "cancel flight and land" or "clear flight path all clear."  "Right, left, or center."

34.  In the event of a crash, pilot retrieves quad from whatever mangled mess it lands in.  Spotter keeps eye on copter, never breaking eye contact until pilot arrives at crash site.

35. To save wear and tear on the copter and gimbal, Rob & I performed AIR CATCH LANDINGS*.
*this is a very dangerous way to operate your quadcopter.  Follow all DJI safety guidelines for takeoff & landing.

36.  Bring quad in to hover close every 5 minutes for spotter to check battery life.

37.  Use the camera counter on the FPV system as a guide to how long your flight is up, but a spotter with a stopwatch is much more accurate.  Start the stopwatch when the engines fire up.  Also, the spotter must always imitate Tom Hanks from APOLLO 13 by saying, "The clock is running..."  Yes, always.

38. Start shooting at sunrise, and 2 hours before sunset, and you'll get great golden light.

39.  We found the 2.7k 30fps WIDE mode to be our go to favorite GoPro setting.  We also used 1080p 60fps MEDIUM.

40.  Use prop guards to add an additional layer of safety, especially if working with hired actors.

41.  DO NOT FLY UNLESS YOU CORRECTLY UPDATE YOUR FIRMWARE TO THE LATEST VERSION.

42.  A soldering iron can be handy for minor repairs or upgrades on the road.

43.  A $12 plastic bin from Staples is an affordable quadcopter case, but nothing compares to the $210 hard case with wheels.

44.  Create a MicroSD card system of exposed/unexposed so you don't lose track and mix up cards.

45.  Sunrise is your friend.

46.  You must master the drift shot, or what we call the "buttaround."  It's the MOST essential shot in aerial cinematography.  The pilot brings the end of the quad around, while the camera continues to face the subject of the shot.  Imagine flying a 360 around a tree, but keeping the camera locked on the tree.  Smooth is king here, and the best aerialists have this move down pat.  Practice, until you can do this move in your sleep.

47.  Take advantage of the FPV and spotter "call outs" to come as close as possible to trees and branches in order to increase your dynamic shots.

48.  Do not fly above 400' feet.

49.  Do not fly around power lines.

50.  Do not fly or record on private property.

51.  Do not fly more than 1000' feet away from you.

52.  Stay in line of sight when using FPV.

53.  Altitude is your friend.  If you're worried about crashing into the ground, increase your safety buffer by adding 10 more feet to your altitude.  

54.  LEFT STICK UP -- When you panic and freeze up, don't get all "crazy-thumbed" and start smashing buttons.  Just remember "left stick up."  Giving yourself more altitude, usually solves most crashing issues

That's LEFT STICK UP. 

55.  Gentle and slow moves make for better video.  While it's fun to blast around, when trying to be efficient and professional in the air, go for slow & steady shots. 

56.  More aggressive flying burns battery life quicker. If you want longer flight times, be more efficient with your shots.
57.  360 "down camera" spiral shots don't look good.

58.  Slow pans across a landscape are great. Quick 360 pans are boring.

59.  Prepare for "propeller shadow" distortion when facing the sun.  Use a DIY sunshade or ND filter to minimize this shot ruiner.

60.  Include a "reveal anchor" at the end of your shot.  When planning your next ultimate shot, find an interesting subject, and plan your quadcopter shot backwards, so that you REVEAL the subject at the end of your shot.  In filmmaking, you should never move the camera unless you're revealing something that moves the story forward.  Same thing with aerial cinematography, in that, you fly your quad "through the trees to reveal the pristine lake below."  Therefore, when planning good quad shots, always ask yourself "what am I revealing with this shot?"

61.  While the spotter and pilot work together to previz and walk the shot, the pilot is responsible for shooting the shot, and has final say on what can and can't be accomplished.  

62. The pilot is responsible for the safety of those around them, the safety of other's property, the safety of the environment, and safety of the quadcopter equipment.

63.  Always leave your flight location better than when you arrived.  Add no trash, and haul out a piece of garbage when you leave.  This will add karma to your next flight.

64.  Experiment with "down angle" camera shots.  If done correctly, these shots can add stunning imagery to your project.
65.  The "tilt" function is great to set the camera angle in mid-flight, but it's too mechanical to be useable as a professional, smooth tilt up.

66.  Don't forget to add vertical shots to locations like windmills, stairs, hillsides, cliffs, etc. 

67.  Plan for several takes of a shot, by resetting back to your starting position or "back to one."  Then, tilt your camera angle down and do a few more takes of the same shot, for another angle that might yield interesting footage.

68.  If shooting 2.7k, it's easy to crop out propeller tips or sunshade vignetting.

69.  Use the lithium ion AA batteries for controllers. I think we changed the controller batteries only once over a 10-day trip.  I had a rechargeable AA option, but didn't get around to testing it before I left.

70.  Shoot lots of b-roll and BTS footage so you can release a 2nd video of content.

71.  The Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal is great, but the new H3-3D gimbal is a huge leap ahead in stabilizing your footage.  Upgrade.

72.  Shoot in 2.7k, but output in 1080p for YouTube.
73.  Don't forget to add "flying backwards" shots.  They're a good way to add quick diversity to your footage.  But, don't overdo these shots because you should only use a smattering of "flying backwards" shots in your final edit.

74.  Wide angle shooting on the GoPro looks great on wide open landscapes, and any location with vertical-type walls (trees, canyons, etc).

75.  If using the GoPro head mount, make sure to set an extreme downward angle on your head shot to be able to see your hands on the controller.

76. Skim along a side wall, or low to the ground, for a cool perspective.

77.  Your quad is replaceable.  You are not.  If your quad crashes in an unsafe area, let it go, Indy.  You'll recover to fly another day, and might even see your lil' drone again (see next point).

78.  Create a P-touch label with your "IF FOUND" email.  It's up to you, if you want to offer a reward for your lost quad.  Just remember, if you crash it, you're responsible for any property or personal damage.

79.  Get insurance that covers you in the event of a personal liability situation (AD&D via life insurance).  Talk to your local insurance agent.  Like, tomorrow.

80.  While the electronics that fly these machines are amazing, they are not error-free.  A very experienced pilot can always experience a tech glitch that can potentially crash the quad at any time.  This is another reminder not to fly around humans, or anywhere near children or animals.

81.  If you experience a "fly away" quad, and are not in control, consider the landscape, then cut the engines.  If the immediate crash zone is clear, it's better to bring it down in front of you, than letting your quad escape into the wild.  You can also repair your quad or pilfer any parts and battery. On our 10-day trip, we experienced zero "fly-aways."

82.  If shooting in beautiful, tranquil environments, be respectful of other people and their enjoyment of the area.  The engine buzz that comes from a quad CAN disturb others, so fly where others can't hear you.

83.  The spotter can handle any questions from onlookers.  Become a buffer for the pilot.  Use a handout with FAQ, and direct people to your site for more details.  Some lookie-loos will get all weird about drone-talk and surveillance-type crap, so a well-placed glare should keep them at bay.  The spotter should practice his/her glare in the mirror before the location land.  Also, be 6'2", reek of beer, wear black leather, shades, a crazy-beard, and stand motionless like the Terminator.  This will genuinely keep people away from your pilot.


84.  Do NOT fly while inebriated.

85.  Bring multiple media readers for microSD cards.  If one breaks, you can keep moving with a backup.  Ideally, bring a 3rd reader on a longer trip.

86.  Safety twine, gaff tape, and scissors.  You'll use these, I swear.
87.  Power inverter for lighter to AC to charge Phantom battery while mobile.  Or, purchase a car battery Phantom battery charger.

88.  Bring extra propellers with you in mobile hiking bag ($40 x4).

89.  Head lamp for hiking home from your sunset shoot.  Don't get stranded in the darkness.

90.  Bring along a small iPhone time lapse kit.

91.  Rode lav mics are low maintenance ways to record great sound during BTS video footage.

92.  Bring gloves for warmth & protection.  If your quad crashes in a thorny thicket, a good set of leather work gloves will help get that sucker out of there, and prevent a bad case of poison oak.

93.  A good sheet of Sorbothane 1/8" thickness can help reduce vibration at the mount connections.

94.  The Phantom 2 has a different gimbal mount system (x4 screws vs x2 screws) than the Phantom 1, so you'll need to fully upgrade if you move to the P2.  P1 gear won't work on P2.  (UPDATE: Some older Phantom 2 models aren't designed to fit the H3-3D gimbal.  To make it fit correctly, you need to make a Dremel cut on the underside of the belly.  Search out the tutorials on Youtube for this procedure, and follow at your discretion.)

95.  Accept that life's not fair.

96.  Sometimes you can't fly due to weather (high winds, rain, snow, z-poc).  See #95.  Be patient.  Scout new locations.  Use your down time to be ready when you get the perfect morning stillness.

97.  Don't just scout using Google maps.  Go in person.  Only by location scouting in person can you get a taste for the windy conditions, and can walk through most of your shots.  Return the following day, ready to shoot efficiently.

98.  When your quad is high above, resist the temptation to pan the shot.  Lock off a 30-second b-roll shot before moving the camera.  Compose with your FPV.

99.  The best piloting moves don't draw attention to themselves.  A straight single-axis move through the trees, with a small buttaround to the right to reveal a beautiful subject, is better video than shooting boring single-axis shots, or the "how fast I can explode upward" shots.

100. Help your editor by showing clear pauses for new takes, and give longer handles at each beginning and end of the shot.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, Jim--so MANY tips here. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Can't wait to see all the footage!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Brian! It was a lot of fun, and all these tips come from a learned experience on the trip.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thrilled to find your site today. I am a relatively new owner of a Phantom 2 Vision + and having a great time. Heading out on my own two week road trip up the California coast and through Oregon with my Phantom charged and ready to go. Bummed about the new "temporary" National Parks regulations but going to make it work.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Dean. Amazing scenery. Enjoy the view, and happy flying!

    ReplyDelete