Aerial cinematography from unmanned aircraft, DRONES, has come a long way in just a few short years.
In the beginning we used remote controlled collective pitch helicopters with hard mounted cameras. The footage was shaky as you would imagine so this prompted operators to seek out, or build, the first generation aerial gimbals. At first they were 2 axis servo driven cages that allowed for tilt and pan to be controlled. They were mounted to rubber dampeners that removed some of the vibration. This unfortunately produced a very robotic camera movement which was acceptable at the time, but did not allow for the pilot, who was also the gimbal operator, very much artistic freedom.
It wasn’t long before the addition of a secondary radio controller was introduced. This allowed the pilot to concentrate on flying while a second person, the camera operator, independent of the aircraft control was free to frame the shot.
And with this true unmanned aerial cinematography was born!
As time progressed gimbal technology increased, adding a 3rd and 4th axis, and incorporating stabilization. What once looked like footage from a handheld camera out the door of a Huey, now rivaled a crane or jib shot.
With the advent of modern flight controllers once again allowed for the Pilot to work as a single operator and control tilt, pan, and roll while maintaining a stable aircraft. Now the Pilot could place the aircraft where they wanted and concentrate on framing the shot. More experienced operators could also fly the shot while tilting and panning.
Although this works for simple shots it cannot reproduce the results of a dual op system and can create serious issues that a dual op system alleviates.
To allow an experienced cinematographer the freedom to artistically capture the director’s vision, they cannot be saddled down with the concentration and responsibility of flying the aircraft. They must concentrate on the shot without interruption.
In addition, legal responsibility dictates that the Pilot must remain in line of sight with the aircraft at all times thus not allowing them to look down at the monitor for long periods of time.
Keep in mind that a Pilot that is not looking up at the aircraft only sees the view from the camera, or cameras, displayed on the monitor and is blind to whatever is not in that view. They will not see the building or radio tower in front of the aircraft if the shot is parallel to the drone, and they will miss the Cessna coming up behind them if the shot is forward facing. Don’t get me wrong, the camera view is paramount to the Pilot assisting in framing the shot, but only as reference.
With this in mind, when shooting with a dual op system, the communication between the camera op and pilot are key to achieving the director’s vision. New teams will struggle at first to understand what each means in their direction. It takes time as a team to achieve the seamless shots that you see on TV and in Feature films. Over time a symbiotic relationship develops that allows the camera op to communicate what he needs from the Pilot. A good camera op can “steer” the drone through his communication with the pilot and after a while the pilot can “feel” what the camera op is trying to achieve and will put the camera where it needs to be automatically.
This takes time.
Another factor to consider is that most of the time this team will have a director with them. The director may or may not have experience working with a drone team and may not know how to communicate what he wants. They will usually begin by talking to the pilot instead of the cam op. They will say “go up” when they mean tilt up, they will say “pan right” when they mean slide right.
We usually avoid this by having a quick briefing with the director on the scout or before we launch the aircraft. We also limit the director to only directing the camera op and then having the cam op convey to the Pilot what he needs to achieve that direction.
In the end each team will find a routine that works for them to get the best shots and come as close to the productions expectations as possible. Sometimes capturing even better shots than were anticipated.