Aerial Video Techniques
Aerial videography is exciting because it removes many of the limitations you face while tethered to the ground. Not only can cameras now be sent higher than the tallest of cranes, but they can pass through openings and between objects, all while shooting silky-smooth, gimbal-stabilized video.
Almost all the stills photography techniques and tips in Chapter 3 apply to aerial videography, and I recommend reading that section before continuing. These guidelines and tips are suited only to aerial video, mostly because they involve movement over time.
Tilt up/down (FIGURE 4.20) is one of the simplest maneuvers you can do using a camera drone, but it’s actually quite difficult to do in a way that looks natural. Using your drone’s gimbal pitch control, tilt your camera up or down. Remember that videography is all about storytelling. What can you accomplish by tilting the camera? You could be following a subject as it moves by you, tilting up to reveal an establishing shot, or tilting down from an establishing shot to focus on a specific area.
FIGURE 4.20 Tilting up from an aerial view of an abandoned warehouse shows its context in downtown San Francisco.
One technical issue that makes tilt up/down difficult is that single-operator gimbal controls are simple and don’t always offer an easy way to ease in and out of a camera movement. Some camera drones only have a virtual button on a touchscreen for moving a gimbal, and these kinds of movements feel extremely robotic. A dual-operator setup with a dedicated remote controller for a camera operator usually provides the right tools to achieve eased camera movements, but these setups cost more money and are more complicated to deploy.
In a tracking shot, the camera drone follows a subject, moving with it as it moves. If your subject is moving in a straight line and there are no obstacles for the drone to avoid (like trees), this shot is pretty straightforward to accomplish. However, tracking shots can also be difficult to pull off, especially in environments with many obstacles or when the tracking shot includes other elements such as camera angle and distance changes during the shot.
Accomplished pilots can execute a tracking shot without thinking and can even follow subjects whose movements are not planned, but this takes a lot of practice. If you can fly a figure eight (see Chapter 2), you should be able to track pretty much anything.
In April 2014, Photojojo founder Amit Gupta showed Vimeo cofounder Zach Klein and New York Times writer Nick Bilton (and their three dogs) how to take a drone selfie on Bernal Hill in San Francisco. Bilton wrote about it in the New York Times’ Bits blog, and the rest was history. It wasn’t the first drone selfie ever shot, but the video went viral, and the word dronie was coined, short for “drone selfie.” You can see the original video at www.ech.cc/dronieorigin.
To take a dronie, fly your camera drone in front of you and turn it around so the camera is facing you. Making sure that you have plenty of space behind and above the drone, fly backward quickly while ascending. You might also have to slowly tilt the gimbal down as the drone ascends.
In crane up/down (FIGURE 4.21), the camera drone moves straight up and down. This technique can be used to transition from a subject on the ground to a shot that shows the surrounding environment. It can also be used to start from a wide establishing shot up high, ending near the ground right in front of a subject. Crane up/down can also be combined with other techniques, such as tilt up/down. An effective combo technique is to crane up while tilting down. The subject stays in frame the entire time, but the camera moves up and ends in an overhead view.
FIGURE 4.21 A combination crane up/tilt down keeps the subject in frame as the drone ascends straight up in the air.
An orbit, also called an arc or point of interest (POI), is a maneuver in which a drone flies in a circle around a subject, keeping the camera pointed inward the whole time. Orbit is one of the practice exercises in Chapter 2 and is considered an advanced piloting technique. Orbits are used in big films all the time because they are effective for showing a subject in a big environment in a dynamic and dramatic way.
Drones are effective in orbits because they are versatile. A drone can get close to a subject during the start of an orbit and pull out as it circles away, revealing the subject, the environment, and the relationship between the two.
These are just a few aerial video techniques I like to keep in my drone cinema “toolkit.” The real lesson is that camera drones are really just cameras that have freedom of motion in all directions. With enough practice, you’ll learn to pilot a drone and operate its camera without thinking, and like in all art forms that require both technology and technique, creativity really starts once the technology fades away from active thinking.