The shots of New York, Berlin and other cities from above, the slow motion poetic explorations of summer afternoons, the panoramic aerial glimpses of Burning Man... they're gorgeous, and they're all made possible with the help of tiny cameras attached to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, specifically a breed of quadcopters that include the popular DJI Phantom but that also count a number of DIY types amongst the ranks. (If you haven't seen any of these, check out our introduction to drone filmmaking videos).
A few weeks ago, the people at DSLRPros.com loaned to me their Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit. I took it out a few times. First, to get acquainted with the machine, and then to record some of the aerial shots I was able to get.
Here's the kit. The quadcopter is the DJI Phantom, and it's been rigged to accommodate a GoPro Hero 3 camera.
After trying out the Ultimate Kit, here are my five steps for anyone who wants to try out UAV filmmaking themselves (which will need to, of course, be done at your own risk -- we'll get to the issues and ethics of all this later this week):
Step 1: Figure out how you're getting up in the air.
If the idea of assembling something that can take flight seems like one you could manage yourself (with or without the help of some friends or from people all over the world via the forums that have sprung up around this kind of thing), then there's a trove of information on how to get started making a DIY UAV. If you're pretty sure you can figure out a way to get a mobile phone, GoPro or other tiny camera up there using a prefabricated quadcopter or other UAV, you've got your pick, and those same forums will be able to recommend the best machines on which to strap cameras. Not all UAVs and not all quadcopters are conducive to the requirements of capturing video (stability, the ability to hold a camera, drivability with a camera attached).
But as for the drone I had: DSLRPros.com is one of the only companies that sells drone filmmaking kits. The company carries out modifications to the standard quadcopters -- in this case, they modified the motors for better lift and stability -- and attaches the camera with a transmitter that lets you see what's being shot from below. They also installed the GoPro to a gimbal to eliminate vibrations. The company also provides service installations and repair on machines.
DSLRPros.com sent us the Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit (retail: $3941). Each kit comes as a cinema and DP edition; the DP edition comes without a GoPro (and the company can't send GoPros internationally). In addition to the Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit, the company's best, which includes antigravity motors and goggles one can use to see what the camera can see. The Pro + Kit includes the same set up, with a nice Futaba controller, and six LiPo batteries, for $3470. Slightly fewer features come with the Pro edition (retail $3076), and a very basic rig for the GoPro comes on the Standard Kit for $1158.
Step 2: Talk to someone who knows what they're doing.
If you're going the DIY route, you probably already have found people and forums to answer your questions. But if you're using a UAV for the first time, you'll want to proceed with caution. So talking out the process of flying these things is good, because inevitably you'll still be confused by the touchiness of the controllers. You'll also want to be taught some of the ways to make the unpredictable machines slightly more predictable (for example, using GPS technologies if you've got the ability). DSLRPros.com has technicians that are free to answer your questions about their kits, and they're incredibly helpful. For a UAV newbie like me, it was reassuring to get an explanation, even over the phone before launching.
Step 3: Find a place to practice flying.
Forget cinema for the moment when you're just beginning, and find a nice open space where you can fly without much worry about trees, hard surfaces, crowds or water. You'll need it. After doing some very humble practicing in New York City, I took the copter to suburban Pennsylvania, where I practiced in my parents' backyard.
Step 4: Find a place to practice filming.
Before you take it to the ends of the Earth, try different places to shoot. See what works, what doesn't, and what weather conditions turn out to be troublesome for the drone. On the day I took the drone out to shoot video, it was tough getting the camera to have a frame that didn't end up including parts of the drone. But I did try a few different tricks out.
Here's what I shot from the top of Cannon Hill, a graveyard in Boyertown, PA. Note: I did not properly calibrate the gimbal for this, hence the lopsided shots.
There are four different flights here, all with the middle cut out. The second flight is slowed down, and the third flight is sped up:
Step 5: Be innovative.
I didn't get a chance to spend that much time flying the drone, but the GoPro camera does allow you to shoot 60 frames per second and even 120 frames per second. This is great for slow motion footage. If you haven't already checked out the eight drone filmmaking videos we recommend checking out, do so now. You may also want to check out the DSLRPros.com YouTube channel, filled with promo videos that demonstrate some of the places you can take UAVs.
For an introduction to the kit that I used, check out their promotional video below: