Drones 101: Filmmaker Offers Tips For Getting The Best Drone Footage

Image Credit: Chris Jones
Image Credit: Chris Jones

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

You know the old joke … How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. And that lies at the heart of one filmmaker’s method for getting the absolute best footage from your unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Whether you call it a UAV, Drone, or even a quadcopter, there are some more tips on how to get some great, smooth footage.

Drones will, and are already revolutionizing filmmaking, allowing cash-strapped filmmakers to achieve jaw-dropping, cinematic results that have previously only been available to Hollywood productions at a high cost.

I’ve been working with drones on and off for a few years now… If you’re wanting to get high-production value shots for your next film project, and you’re looking at using a drone, here are my top ten tips on how to get that money shot safely. – Sebastian Solberg

The first thing that filmmaker Sebastian Solberg suggests is to use the DJI Phantom 2 with the H4-3D Gimbal, specifically designed for the GoPro Hero 4 Black. That’s a solid setup, and bypasses DJI’s own Phantom 2 Vision + camera, which has had issues with its gimbal leaving many to wish they had stuck with the GoPro.  I’m also thinking that Solberg is sticking with what he knows, and has little, if any, experience with the recently shipped Inspire 1. So I’ll cut him some slack here.

Solberg then suggest practice … and lots of it, in a field away from people, just to be safe. “Practice, practice, practice.,” writes Solberg. “It’s all about muscle memory, fly on a daily basis for a few months in different locations before using it on set.”

Here is where I’m going to add a  tip of my own. Unless you’re part of the generation that has grown up on playing video games every day, or has experience with radio controlled airplanes, the learning curve of flying the Phantom or any UAV is going to be a challenge. A crashing challenge. That’s why I’ve decided to buy a Syma X5C Quadcopter. It’s about $60 at Amazon, and very similar in design to the Phantom 2. And for that price, I can crash it and not feel like I just tossed away $1500 while I learn to fly, and I can record my crashes for glorious playback and review.

While you’re practicing, Solberg advises to get familiar with the settings of your camera and your UAV. Experiment with them, and see what results you get while you’re learning to fly it. “The more you can understand about this technology the better equipped you’ll be as every shoot is different and may require a different look,” Solberg adds.

Depending on where you’re flying check the rules, do a quick Google. As this is a new technology, lots of countries are still catching up and don’t have any drone rules.

Solberg also recommends being up to date on the rules in your area for flying unmanned aerial vehicles. As one Phantom pilot learned a few weeks back, when he lost his UAV on the grounds of the nearby White House, there are some areas that you can’t fly a drone (namely airports, government buildings, and huge crowds), and in doing so, you can get in real trouble. So make sure that you are aware of restricted airspace in your area and avoid it. Bottom line though, always use common sense.

 Get close to an object and slowly rise above it to reveal the amazing vistas in front of you.

Solberg recommends that for getting good footage, slow and steady wins the race. If you look on Vimeo, you’ll see some really stunning footage, and none of it shows jerky, fighter pilot-like movement. It’s all slow and steady, with long, fluid movements. Solberg also recommends to plan out your shots, think ahead to decide how you want to approach your subject and how you want the camera to move. Just like any camera shooting movement, being able to shoot a planned shot list will be very helpful. It will also help maximize your flight time since most UAVs have limited battery time of less than 20 minutes before a battery change is required. “Like any shoot,” Solberg says, “the more you plan the better the results will be.”

Drones are pretty good in wind but if it’s super windy or raining and you don’t feel comfortable flying the drone wait till the wind has calmed down or the rain has stopped. It can be unsafe to fly in high winds and more than likely the footage will be unusable.

Image Credit – Chris Jones

Before you fly, check your weather conditions. This is where I wholeheartedly, and painfully agree. It’s more than just looking out the window, seeing the sun and saying, “cool, let’s fly!” A few months ago, I went flying at our local high school and didn’t know that solar flares were especially active on that day. The second my Phantom Vision 2 took to the skies, it took off and disappeared within seconds. I’ve yet to find it.

The consensus of the UAV community is that the overactive flare activity that day caused the UAV to lose GPS, and from there it was academic that I would eventually lose control, as it flew out of range. Had I done a serious check of the weather, including solar activity, I wouldn’t have had to think about replacing it (which DJI graciously offered to replace for $600, not bad considering), or spending hours through the brush in hopes of finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. Bad weather also means you’ll be an uncomfortable flyer and your performance, and therefore your footage, will be degraded.

If you want to produce something amazing, it’s got to start with a great idea.

Lastly, Solberg says that if you want amazing footage, you have to have an amazing subject, a great idea. It’s more than just seeing a shot from a birds eye view because that’s the latest thing. The shot has to help the audience connect.

“As filmmakers, we create content that entertains, moves and inspires people,” Solberg says. “Drone technology won’t turn you into a great filmmaker but it will enhance your skills as a story teller and if used well will make your work shine.”

Of course, it helps if you’re filming a castle or an awesome surfer shooting the pipe as the sun goes down. Solberg says that’s where drone footage can really shine, when it’s shooting images that can’t be done by any other way. “I was shooting in Scotland I got a shot of the drone flying through a castle window and it looks amazing,” Solberg concludes. “Be creative and try and get shots that nobody has seen before.”

Check out more drone tutorials here!

Hat Tip – Chris Jones

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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