By Doug Gritzmacher
Denver Video Production
We first started incorporating drone video into our productions in 2015. That year we were producing a feature documentary film for DirecTV. The film took place in Los Angeles where the subjects for our film were scattered all across the city. The more we dove into the topic the more the city itself began to become a character itself. So we needed some way to get both a macro view of the city and orientate viewers around the city between scenes. At the time season 2 of “True Detective” had just come out on HBO. That series featured two things very similar to our production: an L.A. setting and multiple characters spread across it. They used aerial photography extensively and, I thought, very effectively. Could we do the same for our film?
Obviously, we didn’t have the budget to match a Hollywood production. But thanks to advances in remote control drone technology we suddenly had a solution available to us previously only available to big budget productions. So we sourced a local pilot who went all around L.A. getting aerials for us. The resulting shots helped us immensely with our storytelling for the final film.
My producing partner on that film was Steve Dorst. Although we have both since utilized drone videography for all sorts of video productions, including our video production in Denver, Steve has taken it upon himself to get trained to become certified pilot so he can fly and operate drones himself. Through that experience he has developed an extensive personal guidebook that helps him come away with killer footage from all his drone video assignments. Below he shares his lessons learned to help the rest of us come away with our own killer shots.
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 a drone, I spend so much time concentrating on the technical operation of the drone that I don’t have many brainwaves left for doing creative video shots. That’s why I pasted a little cheat sheet on the controller itself.
Recommended Drone Settings for Best Picture Quality
The cheat sheet has three parts. Part #1 is just a drone flight checklist to make sure I have all my settings correct given the situation. I’ve settled on these after a lot 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 for safety reasons.
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 video even if I’m mastering to a 1080p video 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 your thoughts?) 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. Experiment and see what works best for you.
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 video settings, here’s a good blog post by Jon Roemer, who goes more in depth.
No, I’m not talking about the character from a British series of children’s puzzle books (thanks Wikipedia!). I’m talking about a handy acronym that serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for video production videography in the field. It was developed before the introduction of drones, but it applies well to drone cinematography as well.
WALLDO stands for Wide, Angled, Low, Linking, Depth, and Opposite. Each word has a purpose for storytelling.
WIDE: Filming video 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 videography since most lenses are fixed and you can’t zoom in. Moreover, with whirling blades, it’s not a good idea to get too close to your subjects (I mean, unless you want a lawsuit on your hands). Most of the shots I see in drone cinematography are wide shots, like the one above.
ANGLED: Filming video right in front of your subject is one way to do it. Unfortunately, this can get dull if you do it often. Capturing novel angles can enhance depth. It also tends to be more interesting and dynamic. In the shot above, I use the cargo ship as an angled focal point in the frame.
LOW: A few years ago, I directed and shot a broadcast TV show about a dog that survived brain cancer. It seemed that for half of our location video 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 videography and you have beautiful smooth video shots like shot above of the motorcycle rider in Hanoi, Vietnam.
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 perhaps 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 a video I produced for USAID in Haiti. 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?
DEPTH: Early in my career, I worked often with talented cinematographer Stefan Wiesen. Born in Germany, one of Stefan’s favorite sayings was “vordegrund macht bild gesund,” which translates to “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 get dull quickly. How about a palm tree or two? Foreground elements help bring the viewer into the scene by making it feel three-dimensional.
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 shoulder 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 do it more. Above is an example I shot with my Sony FS7 video camera. It’s a couple of arborists checking out a tree with a drone and their point of view.
13 Key Shots
This is a list of 13 shots I keep with me on every shoot drone video shoot and that have helped me become artistic with my aerial videography.
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.
2. Bird’s Eye. This is with the drone 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 in a video production for a landscape architecture company.
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 your video production, 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 above.
4. Fly-by. These shots show scale. Check out this video shot 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.
5. Object Pull Out. You see this a lot—the drone camera pulls away from a sad person and it accentuates how remote and lonely she feels. In this video production 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.
6. Object Push In. By contrast, pushing in denotes importance, like this drone push into a factory in Senegal.
7. 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 video shot from a promo video I made for one of the best cycling clubs, Squadra Coppi (ok, I’m a member!). They were riding 15mph, so no dolly was going to keep up with that.
And this video shot of a working natural gas company in Dakar, Senegal, linking the 50+ men in an assembly line stacking containers in trucks.
8. 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 above sh0t, I locked onto a boat in Key West.
9. 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 production promoting a large landscape architecture company in the Coachella Valley, I followed a worker on an industrial-grade lawnmower.
10. 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 video 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.
11. 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 drone 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.
12. Slow-mo. Slow-mo of any kind is an opportunity to crank up the emotion of a scene in a video. It’s better if there’s movement and you’re close.
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 for video productions 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.
Are you interested in how drone videography can help tell your story? Check out our Denver corporate video production portfolio and services.