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Aerial Drone Video for Story (Part 1/3): How a Cheat Sheet Can Free Your Mind!

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By Steve Dorst

Creative Director, Z-Channel Films, Los Angeles Google+

A client from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) asked me last month to produce a video in Haiti. While we were developing story, we got on the subject of aerial cinematography.

“It’s not special anymore,” he grumbled. “When I see aerial, I want it to have a purpose, to be linked to the story.” I agreed whole-heartedly.

When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, I had half a day to kill, so I got my Phantom 4 out to scout the area. I’ve done a lot of drone video in Los Angeles, but this was my first time in Haiti. I introduced myself to the security guards in the hotel, then launched safely at the edge of the property away from people. (If you’re still deciding what drone to buy, this recent article reviews the top 11 drones that shoot 4K.)

First up I just wanted to film the Petionville neighborhood, a steep mountainside that is densely packed with informal shacks. It shows crushing poverty in a way that no interview ever could. The first thing I filmed became the opening shot of the video.

In 2016, when I earned my FAA certification for unmanned aircraft systems (UAV), it gave me a greater appreciation for everything that goes into flying a drone legally and safely. Since then, I conduct a pre-flight safety check and frequently check updates at the FAA site. Being a drone pilot is easy, but being a safe, legal, capable drone pilot is not.

When I’m flying, I spend so much time concentrating on the technical operation of the drone that I don’t have many brainwaves left for doing creative shots. That’s why I pasted a little cheat sheet on the controller itself, and that day in Haiti’s capital, I referred to it often.

 Cheat sheet on DJI Phantom 4 remote controller for great aerial photo and video

The Art of the Cheat

The cheat sheet has three parts. Part #1 is just a flight checklist to make sure I have all my settings correct given the situation. I’ve settled on these after a bunch of online research and testing.

INT/EXT/SUNSET just reminds me to change the ND filter (I have these) or the white balance depending on the light. I never shoot at night.

CALIBRATE prompts me to calibrate the compass, which I do every time, regardless of whether or not the Phantom tells me to. Here’s how to calibrate.

MOV. I always shoot 4K even if I’m mastering to a 1080p timeline. Working with a higher resolution file gives me greater leeway to zoom in and reframe without degrading the video quality. Sometimes I’ll shoot slow-motion at 1080p, but only if it’s an action sport or something moving fast.

CINELIKE/D-LOG just reminds me which color settings I want. I go back and forth on this (what are yourthoughts?) but am currently shooting Cinelike.

STYLE: -2,-2,-1. This applies levels of sharpness, contrast, and saturation. These are my current settings. Parts of the internet seem to have reached consensus on these numbers; but somebody I really respect says he uses +1,-1,-1, so I’m going to test his settings this week.

MANUAL: EV. I keep the exposure manual so I can adjust. This is important. If I’m shooting into a sunset, then move the gimbal to shoot the ground, there will be vast exposure changes and I don’t want to rely on the auto settings to get this right.

Note: I try not to use ISO above 200 if I can help it. The footage starts to degrade pretty quickly.

This checklist helps me get off the ground with confidence. To learn more about image settings, here’s a good blog post by Jon Roemer, who goes more in depth. If you want to read more about the rest of my cheat sheet, check out part 2.

See more about our aerial drone video production in Los Angeles.

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