Excerpt from “RUNNING INTO THE AIR – A Flight Over Switzerland”

How to achieve brilliant results with a drone

The possibility of having aerial shots in a project has always been an asset to a production. These images, that initially were only available for big studios, have now become easy to obtain. With a simple device that fits inside a bag, we can add visual interest to our work, with aerial images.

From drones to helicopters the difference is great. In addition to the obvious price factor, operating a drone is considerably less risky than helicopter. And more: with a drone every type of shot is possible, which is very useful when it comes to cinematography. And now it’s possible to have aerial shots that are relatively low and close to an object.

Before take-off

Make sure the batteries are charged! The battery life of these devices usually isn’t long and we don’t to risk losing THE shot. It’s also very important to make sure we keep a safe altitude and don’t get too close to controlled aerial spaces. From a cinematographic point of view: we should plan what we’ll be doing.

Planning the flight

We can’t just think about how we want an aerial shot of a certain location. There are multiple restraints that can compromise the perfect shot.

1 – Weather conditions
As much as the drones are advanced and stable, flying on windy and rainy days isn’t a very good idea. It’s important to plan, in pre-production, the recording day.

2 – Shot composition
How can we have cinematographic shots with a remotely controlled drone? The composition principles are the same as they would be in a normal situation. We must seek to create depth in our shot.

How can we achieve this? We put into practice the parallax effect. We fly close to an object, in contrast to the background which is far away. The difference of movement between both elements will be highlighted. It’s much more interesting than an image that almost seems to be still.

3 – Lighting
We’ve worked out how we want our shots. But what about the lighting? What kind of image do we want? When we’re filming with a drone, it’s almost certain that our source of light with be natural, and most likely, sunlight. It’s impossible to place the sun somewhere else or alter its intensity. Therefore, we must plan the moment of the day to record a certain shot in detail… And wait for the perfect time to do it.

Some tips: If the sun is behind the drone, our shot will be lit with fill light. Id the son is in front of the drone, we’ll have back light. And if the day is cloudy, we’ll have soft box style lighting. If we’re after dramatic results, the sunrise and the sunset are precious moments (and they should be taken advantage of).

Fill light vs Back light – Frames de “RUNNING INTO THE AIR – A Flight Over Switzerland”

Fill light vs Back light – Frames de “RUNNING INTO THE AIR – A Flight Over Switzerland”

It might seem obvious, but we must always keep the drone in our sight. It’s easy to get carried away with what we’re recording, but don’t forget to check where the drone is. The help of a second person is essential in this case.

When we’re controlling the drone from far away, we should position ourselves in its trajectory line. This allows us to clearly see whether the drone is too close to the objects that surround it or not. If we’re in a position that’s perpendicular to the trajectory, it’s really easy to become unaware of what’s near to us and what’s far from us.

And in post-production

Stabilize shots, straighten the horizon line, speed up or slow down velocity, color correction. All of this goes through our heads but we forget an element that can give our images the perfect final touch.

We’ve probably filmed with a high shutter speed, which doesn’t match a cinematographic image. The trick is to add a little bit of motion blur and take into account the type of shot we have in front of us. If there’s an object standing very close to the camera, that object must have more motion blur than its background, since it also moves more – nothing that can’t be quickly solved with a mask!

But we shouldn’t exagerate on the aerial images

It’s use is even being banalized. As such, we should try to film only shots that are key to our storytelling, and aren’t there just to mesmerize those who are watching.

How? Drones are a great storytelling tool and they shine when it comes to offering a spatial context to the story. They help us have a unique perspective of a certain place, but more than that, they can help increase the impact of a scene. Such is the case of a reveal shot, a type of shot in which the final element is hidden at first, and later revealed.

For example, when  a drone follows the movement of two explorers climbing a mountain. When both of them reach the top, the movement continues and what they achieved is revealed. This kind of movement helps to tell the story because the spectator is put in the explorer’s shoes, as they also don’t know what they’ll find at the end of the climb. But this case is just an example. One can take advantage of this kind of shot even when there are no characters on camera.

Like any other tool, operating a drone demands time and dedication and, essentially, know the gear we’re working with (and trusting it!). But… it’s just another tool to make professional videographers’ lives easier. One has to know how to operate it.

Andreia Calhau

Even with a sleepy face, she’s always ready for a challenge. Highly proactive and full of “scalabis” culture. Audiovisual is her thing and her inspiration sources are endless: from shorts films on Vimeo to the one and only Justin Timberlake.

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