By Steve Dorst
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films
So, I’m at my hotel in the Petionville neighbhorhood in Haiti, with the Phantom 4 in the air and the controller in my hands. [If you haven’t read part 1, you can check it out here.]
My trusty cheat sheet is taped to my Phantom 4 controller. It’s been a lifesaver to help me keep my shots story-oriented and diverse. After all, my brain is fairly occupied just operating the drone, so it’s awesome to have a checklist for: (1) initial settings, (2) big-picture creative approaches to shooting; and (3) specific shot techniques.
This post concerns part 2: WALLDO, which stands for Wide, Angled, Low, Linking, Depth, and Opposite. It’s a Cliff’s Notes for video production in the field, but I use it for aerials as well. Each word has a storytelling purpose.
WIDE: Filming from far away, or a wide shot, provides perspective and context. It gives viewers the lay of the land and helps establish a sense of place. This is rarely a problem for aerial cinematography since most lenses are fixed and you can’t zoom. Moreover, with whirling blades, it’s not a good idea to get too close to your subjects. Most of the shots I see in drone cinematography are wide shots, even those in my reel:
ANGLED: Filming right in front of your subject is one way to do it. Unfortunately, this can get boring if you do it all the time. Capturing novel angles can enhance depth. It also tends to be more interesting and dynamic. In the reel above, check out the cargo ship (:12), the guys in the boat (:24), the approaching train (:29), or even the fishing boat (:59).
LOW: A few years ago, I directed and shot a TV show about a dog that survived brain cancer. I feel like half of our location shoot day on the farm, I was shooting from ground level, chasing the dog. This is “low.” It gives people a new perspective. It should be motivated by the story. Apply this to aerial cinematography, and you have beautiful smooth shots like these in the above reel: the motorcycle rider in Hanoi, Vietnam (:19), and the walking woman in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (:34). (I took the blades off the Phantom and held it out of the car’s sunroof. Voila, poor man’s dolly!).
LINKING: Here, you want to connect two objects by moving the camera. This is editorial in nature: you’re trying to make a point (otherwise, why move the camera, right?). Usually, it’s accomplished with a pan, or maybe a rack focus. This is actually easier to do with a drone than a camera, because by definition the drone is moving through space. A strong example of this is the final 40 seconds of the Haiti video. I wanted to link our protagonist to the entire country, to suggest that USAID’s good work that benefited her also benefited her neighbors. How to do this? I conceived of one long take, where the drone would push in as the heroine approached (denoting importance), but then as soon as she hit her mark, I would zip upwards as smoothly and fast as possible. What do you think? (Please scroll to 2:50 mark)
DEPTH: Early in my career, I worked with the super-talented Cinematographer Stefan Wiesen quite a bit. Born in Germany, one of Stefan’s favorite sayings was “Vordegrund macht Bild Gesund,” which means “the foreground makes the picture.” And Stefan was a master at creating depth. This is incredibly important for aerial cinematography, arguably more so, since wide shots of faraway objects gets boring fast. How about a Christ statue in the foreground and Bogota’s impressive cityscape in the background? (Please scroll to 6 second mark)
Or a couple tree branches in the foreground and an exquisite Palm Springs landscape behind? (please scroll to 49 second mark)
Or even better, a palm tree or two, pan right. Does it make this peninsula and epic sunset a little more epic? (please scroll to 1:13 second mark)
OPPOSITE: The reverse angle, or reaction shot, is what you see when you turn around and show the opposite point of view. Film an animated preacher over the should and show the rapt congregation. I don’t use this one as much as I’d like, but I keep it on my cheat sheet to remind me to try! Here’s an example I shot with my Sony FS7, a couple of arborists checking out a tree with a drone, and their point of view:
If you want to read more about the rest of my cheat sheet, check out part 3, 13 Shots Toward More Artistry in Aerial Cinematography.
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