By Steve Dorst
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films
I left you at sunset in Haiti, maneuvering toward the mountainside shanties of the Petionville neighbhorhood. My trusty cheat sheet is taped to my Phantom 4 controller to help me optimize: (1) initial settings, (2) big-picture creative approaches; and (3) specific shot techniques.
This post covers part 3: the 13 shots that have helped me try to be more artistic with my aerial cinematography.
1. Neverending Crane. This shot helps link an object or a location to a wider context. Check out this Bjork video, directed by Spike Jonze. The final crane shot is surprising, majestic, and visually conclusive. You can do similar things with your drone shots. Check out the final shot of my USAID Haiti video (which I discuss above in part 2). In one take, we link her story to the wider context:
2. The Lookdown. This is with the camera tilted down to earth, with no horizon showing. It is best used when there’s action beneath it. It’s a unique perspective, and at its best when the dynamism below it suggests shapes and geometry that are undetectable to the terrestrial eye. For example, here’s a shot of three lawnmowers for a landscape architecture company (go to the 1:50 mark):
3. Gentle Rise. This also uses a camera angle tilting straight down to earth, with no horizon showing, but the drone is rising here. The effect is making an object or location smaller or less important. Or it can link geographic elements. For enhanced effect in the edit, use it for a respite following a sequence that relies heavily on close-ups. Or use the very beginning of the rise and the very end, like this excerpt from a Hanoi traffic roundabout (go to the 17 second mark):
4. Fly-by. This shot is closely related to the discussion on the importance of creating “depth” from part 2 of this series. These shots show scale. Check out this clip from a hillside above Bogota, Colombia. The trees in the foreground frame the impressive skyscrapers, giving us scale, turning what would be a flat skyscraper shot into something better (the 50-second mark):
5. Object Pull Out. You see this a lot: the camera pulls away from a sad person and it accentuates how remote and lonely she feels. In this video for the International Monetary Fund, we get right to the point where this is a banking crisis and ensuing panic. So, we pull out from people walking on a pedestrian bridge (49-second mark):
6. Object Push In. By contrast, pushing in denotes importance, like this push in to a factory in Senegal (at the 2:08 mark):
7. I guess I didn’t use a #7. Just seeing this now. Hmmm… : >)
8. Slider / Lateral. This is a long pan or dolly move. The drone gives us great power to stick with action longer from above or to link objects in new, creative ways. Formerly, you’d need to build long dolly tracks or hire expensive cranes and jibs. For example, check out this lateral aerial shot from a promo video I made for Washington, D.C.’s best cycling club, Squadra Coppi (ok, I’m a member!). They were riding 15mph, so no dolly was going to keep up with that (29-second mark):
And this shot of a working natural gas company in Dakar, Senegal, linking the 50+ men in an assembly line stacking containers in trucks (2:21 mark):
9. Follow moving object forward.
This tracking shot is even easier these days since various drones have the ability to lock on to a subject and follow it. For the following shot, I held the drone (without blades) through a car’s sunroof to get a smooth shot of our protagonist riding in a crowded pickup on the way to work (47-sec mark):
10. Follow moving object back. In traditional land-based camerawork, this is pretty standard visually, but difficult to accomplish without a gimbal, jib, or dolly. In this video promoting a large landscape architecture company in the Coachella Valley, I followed a worker on an industrial-grade lawnmower (43-sec mark):
11. Rotate. This shot sounds like what it is. Fly your drone to a spot, then rotate it above your object. Don’t overuse this, because it’s not a natural thing for the eye to see. But if you want to attract attention, or it serves the story, try it. For a narrative short I’m directing, the protagonist was entering a dream state, so I decided to use it. Here’s a quick clip above the swimming pool:
12. Tilt. This is a powerful tool: follow your protagonist to the cliff’s edge, then tilt down to reveal the ravine below for example. It reveals new information, and shows space between two objects. Adjust the gimbal dial on the front-bottom left of the Phantom controller. This shot from the Squadra Coppi promo video links the peloton in the distance to the hills of Virginia in a majestic, conclusive shot. Tilting up to the sky lets us place a logo there as well (1:16):
13. Slow-mo. I wrote “above, beneficiaries waving” because I was directing/shooting a series of stories for nonprofit organizations that have operations in Africa and Asia and they refer to the people they serve as “beneficiaries.” In any case, slow-mo of any kind is an opportunity to crank up the emotion of a scene. It’s better if there’s movement and you’re close (no great shots to show yet).
I crafted this cheat sheet over time from online research and testing out stuff with my Phantom 4. I’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen good ideas from pilots far and wide, including Pro Church Tools, droners.io, and dronelife.com.
The lesson here is that flying a drone is tough: there are a lot of things to think about to make sure you do it safely and legally. But having this cheat sheet is making my aerial cinematography more of a storytelling tool. If you’re interested in the best aerial drone video cinematography, see more of Z-Channel Films’ aerial drone video production in Los Angeles.