Great aerial footage seems simple enough to capture in theory, but there is often a team of people or years of experience backing up the terrific shots. In the post below, we have Andrew Wonder to take us through his process of capturing aerial footage of a female rugby team on the Sony F55.
This is a guest post by Director/Cinematographer Andrew Wonder.
If you were at NAB, then you already know that 2013 was the year of the drone. You could barely walk around the convention floor without the risk of getting a haircut by someone’s spin on the aerial rig. Though they look like toys, it’s easy to forget that operating a drone is an art that should be carried out by professionals. Like a Steadicam, you can’t just pick one up and expect cinematic results. Understanding how to balance and control these crafts is the difference between that perfect shot and ending up in the river.
For over a year I have been lucky enough to work with Anthony Jacobs and his team at Perspective Aerials. Not only has he helped capture some amazing shots to add to my commercials, but also has always impressed me with his desire to be a trailblazer and stay ahead of the curve of what a drone rig can handle.
Jacobs is a New York City based photographer and former Getty Images employee and has been a lifelong 'tinkerer' and avid RC enthusiast since he was a child. In 2006, Jacobs obtained a provisional patent on a custom wearable harness with a high-gain 2.4ghz antenna incorporated into the stitching that was worn by editorial photographers shooting in the field which allowed them to wirelessly transmit images to awaiting photo editors some distance away.
Early in life, Jacobs dreamed of being a robotics engineer, spending many hours dismantling his collection of RC cards to create other more 'useful' machines such as a 5-axis robotic arm able to move objects around. It's almost like Anthony's whole life built up to creating this drone which is why, even when things like the Movi come out, it's important to remember that it's the soul of an operator that is always more important than the tool he or she uses.
A good aerial rig is the cross-section of many factors but most importantly it’s a battle between weight and flight time. In theory, many rigs could handle the weight of a Red Epic, but lifting a heavy camera means nothing if your flight time is only a minute long. Creating rigs that can support heavier cameras while still getting a 4-5 minute flight time makes all the difference in getting that second take or capturing a magic moment as it unfolds in front of you.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see his new rig, which allowed us to upgrade from smaller cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III and Sony FS100 to their big brothers the Canon C300, Sony FS700, and Canon 1D C. Anthony also modified JAG35 pieces to create a focus system that would give him even more control over the shot. Though it was a short test, I was blown away with Anthony’s results.
While director Laura Strausfeld and I were prepping her next feature (an adaptation of Chekhov that uses new tools in a way that will make Shane Hurlbut drool), she brought me in on a project she was trying to develop about a college female Rugby team. After gaining access to a team, we decided to make a short film to help sell our vision of the feature (very much like Ryan Koo is doing with Amateur) and to show audiences how impressive and inspiring these athletes can be.
While discussing the tone of our rugby short, we wanted to be careful not to go too Nike or get too indulgent with the game footage. Unlike male Rugby, the female version is not just about lining up and beating the snot out of your opponent. It’s a much more technical game and we wanted to capture the way girls communicate and their formations on the field. When watching the games live, the teams look like flocks of birds moving towards and away from each other, but in most game footage we only get a sense of the ball’s movement. Our goal was to capture the emotion of the game and put the audience in the middle of the scrum.
While planning the project, I contacted Anthony to see how we could further elevate our story using drone photography. We didn’t just want overhead shots but a way to give context to our ground coverage and make each play feel like the epic conclusion to an Animal Planet special. After talking about different angles and strategies, we discussed which format to shoot. Since our ground cameras will all be 4K, we wanted the same high resolution and pop from our aerial cameras. We quickly realized the perfect camera perfect camera for this task would be the Sony F55.
The Sony F55 is a very polarizing camera. On paper it’s everything we’ve been hoping for in a camera. Between high frame rate onboard 4K recording, a global shutter, and compact modular design, the F55 felt like the answer to getting true cinematic results out of Anthony’s drone rig. With the help of Mike Nichols, Alex Kurze, and Pete Abel at Abel Cine Tech in New York, we were fortunate enough to get an F55 to fly for the project. Having flown other Sony cameras, such as the FS100 and FS700, we were aware of balancing issues created by the long body length of both cameras. Having only read about the F55, we were curious to see if we would run into these same mounting issues.
After receiving the F55 from AbelCine, the first task at hand was to lighten the camera body by stripping it of all accessories and attachments not needed for camera operation. We ended up removing the top handle, viewfinder, baseplate, and side audio module. Once weight reduction was complete, we were faced with another dilemma: how to power the camera without using the supplied Anton Bauer Dionic HC Batteries and mount, which adds an additional 3.5 pounds to the F55 and more than 4 inches in added length to the stripped-down body, making it virtually impossible to mount to our rig.
We were delighted to see the XLR power input on the rear of the stripped-down F55 and realized we could simply hack a 4-pin XLR connector and power the camera using standard lightweight RC 4S lipo batteries rated at 16.8v when fully charged. Anthony had already researched the F55’s min/max voltage rating, which is 11-17v, which made them our power choice perfect. We averaged 2 hours of operating time per battery using 5000mAh lipos. The weight savings made the effort worthwhile.
Mounting the F55 to Anthony’s camera gimbal was straightforward and a perfect fit. Surprisingly, we didn't run into any of the same mounting and balancing issues as we did with other high-end video cameras we’ve flown. Flying the F55 on our drone rig was a stress-free experience! Real-time wireless video was sent to our camera operator via a 5.8ghz transmitter modified to transmit video at a higher bandwidth. We are able to view a video feed at a slightly lower resolution than full HD, which is more than enough for focus pulling purposes, if needed.
Laura and I chose to cover a real game rather then create a fake one. From watching the girls in practice, we knew that the hits and plays never looked quite real unless there were real stakes for the team. Anthony’s rig was flexible enough that it could react to live plays while being able to boom up and down in a way an NFL cable camera could only dream.
We covered the rest of the game with two RED EPICS (operated by Joe Victorine and Ethan Sigman) and a RED SCARLET (operated by Dylan Steinberg), shot with a combination of Leica and Canon zoom lenses. For the most part, the EPICs stayed around 120-300 fps with very skinny shutter angles. I was in the middle of the fray continuing my love/hate relationship with the Canon 1D C. Armed with only my Undercity 24mm f/1.4, I was close enough to capture the warlike intensity of these players in action (though, disappointingly, no one figured out how to tackle me). We covered the games in five-minute waves. My ground crew would shoot from the sideline as the drone performed its aerial passes before taking the field as it changed batteries.
Sound Mixer Max Phillips also stormed the field with a Sennehiser MKH70 long shotgun mic, which gave him the range to get the sounds of the game. To give him the flexibility to get closer without worrying about a heavy sandbag, we armed him with a Zaxcom TRX 742 transmitter. This transmitter has a built-in microSD card timecode recorder ,which made it an all-in-one unit for Max to use on the field. Zaxcom's Neverclip allows the built-in recordings to capture the microphone's full dynamic range, so Max could focus on finding the best position rather than setting levels.
Our ground team was supported by camera assistants James "All In" Madrid and Soren Nielsen. As usual, we would have all been running around like chickens with our heads cut off without the help of Assistant Director Davd Ketterer.
We set the F55 to shoot 4K XVAC to a set of 128GB SxS Pro+ cards. Though the S&Q functions were not yet activated in this shooting mode, we shot the camera at 4K/60p and conformed to 23.98 in post. Our camera was set to S-Log 2 using the camera's native 1250 ISO. To keep the weight down, we shot with a Nikon 18mm F/3.5 AIS lens.
After shooting, we were able to verify our shots using Sony’s Content Browser 2.0 (if you are planning on shooting with the F55, go download it now while it’s still free). I tried to use Andy Shipsides’ F55 Import Guide from Abel Cine Tech’s blog to bring the footage into FCP 7 or Premiere, but quickly realized XAVC is still not playing very nicely with either program.
As a workaround, I downloaded a free 30-day trial of FCP X and used Andy’s guide to import the footage. During the import process, I had FCP X create Prores HQ transcodes, which editor Justin Sharp was able to bring into FCP 7 to create the above video. All the BTS footage you see here was captured by Dave “Cobra” Ellis.
The above aerial footage is not color corrected, so you can see what S-Log 2 looks like right off the card. There was also no post stabilization done on any of the aerial footage. I’m not sure if this is because of Anthony’s rig or because of the help of Sony’s global shutter, but it’s the smoothest and most cinematic drone footage I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. If you would like to download some of the original 4K transcodes, you can download them here until May 15th.
We have just begun to go through the rest of our Rugby footage, but the aerial shots alone have made my whole team very excited. I can’t wait to share the final piece with you all.
For your drooling pleasure here is some additional gear porn of the F55 on the drone. Thanks for taking a look!
This post originally appeared on Andrew's Blog.
Beginning as a field producer for MTV at the age of 17, Director/Cinematographer Andrew Wonder has never been one to waste time. At 23 he won MTV's MADE an Emmy Award for directing its 200th Episode. Then, at 25, he made an appearance on NBC's TODAY Show, for breaking into New York subway tunnels and climbing the Williamsburg Bridge. Today he's raiding drug cartels with the DEA, capturing the final days of NASA's space shuttles in 3D and expanding his education program that teaches high school students team work and leadership--through the heirarchy of filmmaking.
I have trouble trusting these things. They are by no means perfect. I filmed a short film and tried using two different operators and both the helicopters would either fall straight from the sky onto the ground (almost hitting the actor) or because of the slightest wind they would wobble all over the place. If you plan on going through with a shot that needs this be sure to scout the location extensively and make sure the operator knows what he is doing...i mean really really knows what he's doing. Do not get tricked by just seeing a couple shoots. Chances are what they are showing you are the few shots out of several that actually worked. Also always take safety into account.
May 2, 2013 at 1:48PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I only use Anthony and Perspective Aerials because he's been doing this a long time and builds the equipment himself. We took many safety precautions and everyone was briefed on how the rig worked.
I am very concerned that vendors are now selling these drones to regular consumers. They can be dangerous if you are not careful but my team spent a lot of time ensuring everyone's safety. I hope you have better luck next time you attempt an aerial and those operators take the time to learn their equipment correctly.
May 2, 2013 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Exactly, if you spend the time and go over every detail and every safety measure and your team is solid then everything will go fine. I ended up just using a crane for my shot which turned out nice.
May 2, 2013 at 2:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I usually do aerial filming (I have my own rigs and have amazing smooth images even with winds up to 25/30 kmh...Probably you haven´t been lucky with the companies you came across. Drones are not like cameras...you can´t always correct a cheap rig´s image in post. This is a high investment if we want the best possible results...
May 9, 2013 at 5:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Not to be critical, but this footage isn't very impressive. Not very smooth and the framing doesn't seem like it can be gracefully achieved. Seems like the time spent rigging for this aerial shot could have been better spent getting more angles and dynamic shots.
May 2, 2013 at 2:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
This is ungraded and unstabilized - and it's only a small bit of what they actually shot - not a final piece.
May 2, 2013 at 2:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
This really isn't very smooth, the F55 is going to be a great camera for ariel work given its weight, and global shutter. But this just isn't the best operating I've seen.
May 2, 2013 at 3:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I agree completely: I was expecting to be blown away, but it's the most "toy helicopter-ish" footage I've seen in a loooong time. I also understand that the demos that blow me away are probably made from 1/100th of the footage that was actually shot, so my thumb isn't all the way down.
May 3, 2013 at 3:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
The footage is ABSOLUTELY smooth! You guys are insane. This video is absolutely great!
May 4, 2013 at 2:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
If not exceptional it is surely very smooth. Congratulations.
May 9, 2013 at 5:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
give me a movi and a jetpack and i'll get you better footage. haha
i love a good aerial shot, and shooting high speed on the F55 means you can really smooth out the bumps and make footage look epic.
May 2, 2013 at 2:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Smooth crane shots can give a "god's eye" effect to your film that can look magical when the viewer doesn't have a sense of how it was done. When you look at something with the slightest bounce, swing, wobble, or see leaves blown underneath the shot, it loses that magic for some people watching it.
May 2, 2013 at 3:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I'm with a few others here (and i've worked with copters quite a bit). It's only ok, even for ungraded, unstabilized footage. I've also shot a ton of rugby. Does look a nice copter though.
Also still waiting to be blown away by the F55, although its early days.
May 2, 2013 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I'm seeing purely smooth shakefree footage. Such a wonderful piece!
May 4, 2013 at 4:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
The footage looks to me very smooth...I loved it. Only people who fly multirotors know how difficult this is. Try to fly it and you will se why. Flying them to keep them from crashing it is not easy...flying them making them go where and how you want them it is a very different thing. About the copter this is a coaxial quad ( octo) which is based probably on a old design...the lifting power is ok but very short flight times...Anyway he has a damn good gimbal and that what matters. Again I loved the image and its smoothness. I have seen much worse on major hollywood movies.
May 9, 2013 at 5:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I have to agree with some of the other comments here. I love areal footage and the concept of using a small RC rig like this is really cool, but it seems like the camera operator on the ground is always going to have trouble framing the shots in a pleasing way. He's always going to be fighting the natural wobble and variations in the flight pattern. While watching this I kept wishing the shots were framed better. Still cool though...
May 2, 2013 at 4:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Critics should keep in mind that these are shots following somewhat-unpredictable action, which would be more difficult to get right than a preplanned and choreographed shot that can be rehearsed. That also may not be a brushless gimbal of the sort whose smoothness we're all getting accustomed to seeing. The piloting is likely very good.
May 2, 2013 at 7:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
These are really shaky aerial shots. You can expect shake like that in realtime 24/25 fps, but from 60 conformed to 24 I would expect it to be much smoother. We´ve shot alot with the Red Epic, C300 etc on our copter, and it really is a lot smoother than this. It´s a shame if this is seen as beautiful aerial footage, as you can expect higher quality from a decent setup. And its too bad that these, sorry to say, crappy shots are what gets good articles on cool websites like these. Nice copter, but the gimbal seems awful.
May 2, 2013 at 7:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Since you have been posting these arial videos I had to go out and get one... got the DJI Phantom and a gopro black and it kicks butt. I really like it and today I shot some shots at the ocean. Honestly, I am no pro by any means, and I have no claim to fame, but if I get the new gimbal that DJI is making (should be out soon) I think I will turn pro! Honestly, I dont think anything compares to it....
Watch this video before commenting... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=the7WLKxp28
Really want this thing!
cheers to all.
May 2, 2013 at 8:03PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Back before digital I spent a few years (1989-1996) flying 35mm movie cameras for commercials/music videos/movies on custom helicopters a buddy and I built. I know the technology has improved, but I don't belive it to be to the point that I'd EVER fly over people as was done here. There are way too many failure points that are unrecoverable from with these gadgets. That they are all still controlled with radios that come from a toy store speaks volumes.
It is nicer footage than we ever got with our gasoline powered monsters, I'll grant. But, that's not an excuse to take risks with other people's well being.
May 2, 2013 at 8:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Absolutely not beautiful, especially not for slow motion shots, too shaky and not well framed. And very dangerous flying over the girls, if it drops, then we can be sure of at least one heavily injured or dead...
May 3, 2013 at 12:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Where are you seeing shakes? The aerials are amazingly stable! Are you blind sir?
May 4, 2013 at 2:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Hey guys stop talking rubbish!
The framing is absolutely brilliant. Every caracter has a right room in frame to move and everything is indeed where our brain suppose it to be.
As for some shake and bumps, I agree.
May 3, 2013 at 2:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Yeah. ok: the majority IS talking rubbish. You're not.
May 3, 2013 at 3:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I'm not seeing what you all are seeing! The F55 footage is amazing! Are you all drunk and blind?
May 4, 2013 at 1:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I think this is one of the most incredible presentations. Thank you for the post. Unless I've missed something, I don't see a single shake or jerkiness in this video. Greta work guys!
May 4, 2013 at 2:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
You people are out of your mind! This is beautiful work! holy cow. Very stable and smooth!! I want one!
May 4, 2013 at 2:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Awesome job Wonder. The editing and clean image from the F55 looks spectacular! What other cameras did you guys use for this shoot?
May 6, 2013 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Did anyone else spot the illegal binding by the tighthead prop for the dark blue team in the first scrum? Referee needs to get a grip!
May 10, 2013 at 7:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
What happens when a drone crashes into an elite athlete and ruins their career? You must need high levels of public liability insurance with one of these.
May 10, 2013 at 7:58AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Can someone point me in the right direction of building an aerial rig for the FS700? Id really like to build one and experiment.
January 21, 2014 at 12:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM