Aerial Cinematography… The New Frontier?

Aerial Cinematography Hexacopter at ADRL Race in Rockingham, NC

 For the past year, I’ve been working with Michael Gentilini Jr.  of  Vidmuze on Aerial Cinematography using multi-rotor UAS. (Basically “Drones” but don’t repeat that)  Mike is an incredible pilot, who even at his most stressed moments can command the ship into some pretty awesome moves that in tandem with the movement of the camera gimbal, can create some gorgeous camera compositions that prior to these multi-rotor systems being available, were either incredibly expensive or simply impossible to obtain.

I’ve always been one who gets bored by technology and the new “It” things quickly.  For me, if something is working and provides the quality and ability needed for a project then that is all that matters.  Constantly upgrading cameras for example is a loosing proposition to me.  I’m probably a bit old school in the fact that if something is sufficient, then I don’t go out attempting to find the next minor update that gives me some minuscule improvement that I may use every once in a while, yet doesn’t really affect the overall quality of the gear because at the end of the day, what you are putting in front of the camera is all that matters.

Yet, multi-rotors present something new, something that as a filmmaker I am incredible excited about sharing and using.  The shots will always have to serve the project’s story but for me it is hard to imagine a production that would not benefit from the potential of aerial cinematography.  Even the use of multi-rotors on interior shots is exciting.  Imaging a shot that begins high up above a parking lot and slowly descends tracking a character from his vehicle into the front door of a building, all along, the camera levels out and follows him inside and then ascends back up to reveal the interior of the building.  One, single shot that is now achievable on even the smallest of budgets.  Multi-rotors, UAS, Drones or what-ever you want to call them, now make it possible no matter the size of you production.  Basically in my eye’s, the production value only available to studio features in the past is now a menu item on every indie filmmakers table.

My Experience so far with the the SkyJib-8 Octocopter with BG Flex F10 Pro Gimbal and the DJI S800 Hexacopter

There a a number of manufacturers of Drone and Gimbal Systems including Monrovia, California-based Aerovironment, Canada’s Aeryon, and Flyterra, Hong Kong-based DJI, Freefly Systems and numerous others.  I can only personally speak to the SkyJib-8 with the BG Flex F10 Pro Gimbal and the DJI S800 with the Zenmuse Gimbal.  What I have found is that every system is incredible customizable and the responsiveness and build quality of all of these systems continues to impress me on a daily basis.  Having said that, I’m not an engineer or technician as I have always been drawn more to the “art” of cinematography but these systems have proven their worthiness as creative, high quality filmmaking tools.

With the DJI S-800 / Zenmuse Gimbal system with have been flying a Panasonic GH2 hacked to provide 90mb/s to 100mb/s.  We try to stay with a slightly longer lens (20mm or longer) than most aerial cinematographers to provide the imagery a higher production value feel, slightly shallower depth of field and to emphasize a more dynamic and dramatic camera movement.

One note about lens choice.  It seems most aerial cinematographers / videographers are shooting with the widest lens possible.  Probably because they view the perspective the ships height provides the camera as being the main advantage to aerial videography / cinematography but I believe that the height is only 20% of what makes these aerial drone systems exceptional for the film industry.  The other 80% is how you move and time the composition of the camera in relation to the subject you are filming.  It’s a dance between the pilot and gimbal operator along with the planned flight path and the movement on the subject.  It is an art after all and the general height of the camera is minimal in many ways I believe, hence the reason that a  longer lens gives you so much more to play with in regards to movement and composition.  Of course, there will always be times when a wider lens is appropriate but it shouldn’t be the standard.  Even thought the Zenmuse Gimbal performs very well, I would be hesitant to place a longer lens, 50mm or longer, on this setup as the gimbal may have issues providing a smooth operation at that focal length.

As for my experience with the SkyJib-8 and the BG Flex F10 Pro Gimbal, we have flown everything from a Canon 7D to a Red Epic Cinema Camera and lenses including 18mm to 70mm.  This gimbal has preformed remarkable well with the longer lens choices that really defined the paralaxing and tracking of the subject within the camera composition.

With both of these multi-rotor systems, the possibilities seem to be endless and limited only by your own imagination.  Even the simplest tracking shot can be executed in a dynamic yet simple way that elevates any production.  This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being a “fan boy” and I really believe most filmmakers will be fans too.

Should you buy a Multi-Rotor?

A word of warning though to everyone who is considering purchasing one of these systems.  I have witnessed Mike spend countless hours modifying, trouble shooting and generally pulling his hair out at the complexity of the ships.  These are not your “out of the box” drones like the DJI Phantom Quad copters or similar systems.  These are very complex, aerial systems that have up to 20 or more critical systems that all have to operate perfectly for the ship to perform correctly.  Flight time can be drastically affected just by the difference in the weight of a lens so great care and consideration has to be a top priority for anyone getting into this industry.  you’ve been warned:)

 Aerial Drone Safety and the Concern of Future FAA Regulation

In early March, 2014 Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board heard the appeal of the $10,000 FAA fine against Raphael Pirker, who was fined after filming from an aerial drone for use in a promotional video for the University of Virginia.  Judge Geraghty ruled that there was “no enforceable FAA rule” or regulation that applied to a UAS such as the one Pirker was flying.  This ruling validated what many in the aerial UAS industry have been saying for years, that commercial use of UAS’ for filmmaking purposes was completely within the letter of the law.  So now, all of us filmmakers and companies using these new tools can feel confident in the fact that we are all “Legal” at least until the FAA generates legal regulations.

However, that does not change the fact that safety is a major concern and something that all of us experimenting in the “air” should be vigilant of.  As they say, “it only takes one bad apple” and if too many accidents, injuries and property damages occur, the FAA’s proposed regulation will grow in scope and restriction.  In fact, in the past few months there has been a number of incidents that have occurred during Aerial Cinematography and Photography shoots including one in North Dinwiddie, Virginia at the Virginia Motor Sportspark during a Running of the Bulls event that injured a number of event spectators and put a spotlight on the industry in a negative way.

The accident prompted Virginia Delegate Ben Cline, a Republican from Virginia’s 24th District to state, “This presents the same danger that helicopters and other private aircraft create and the more of them that are flying in the sky the more danger there is for the people on the ground,” later adding that there would likely be more of an effort to regulate drone use in Virginia as a result of the incident.

This is where safety needs to be a primary consideration for all pilots and companies using these aerial systems.  The term “Drone” already has a negative connotation with it and the continued lack of focus and passive approach to drone safety is a mistake for the industry.  In my opinion, the FAA regulating the commercial applications of UAS is probably what will save the industry from itself, especially if there is a licensing mechanism and safety training requirements developed as a part of the regulation.  I’ve seen to many amateurs and careless operators to put much faith into the fledgling industry to self regulate but hopefully I’m just too much of a cynic and the industry steps up to the plate and surprises me.

Aerial Cinematography Demo Reel with the the SkyJib-8 Octocopter with BG Flex F10 Pro Gimbal and the DJI S800 Hexacopter

 The Multi-Rotor Tutorial Series

Since I truly believe safety is going to be one of the major contributing factors to the industries future, I’m proud to say that I assisted Mike and and the guys at Vidmuze in producing a Multi-Rotor (UAS, Drone) Tutorial Series.  It’s the first of its kind and hopefully it will have a positive influence within the fledgling industry.  Ken Hackney from  also assisted and we all wanted this to be a informative and complete tutorial series from the beginning to end.

The series as it includes:

  • 24 Aerial and Film Tutorials
  • Over 4.5 hours of professional techniques and training including:
        1. Introduction to Aerial Cinematography
        2. Regulations and Safety RulesShip Assembly Overview
        3. Ship Component Optimization
        4. Radio Control Configurations
        5. Soldering Cables and Battery Connections
        6. How to Charge LiPo Batteries
        7. WooKong Software – Configuring, GPS & Updates
        8. iOSD Overview
        9. Fail Safe Systems
        10. Gimbal Control
        11. Monitors VS. FPV Goggles
        12. Transmitters and Interference Considerations
        13. When To Upgrade to a Larger Ship
        14. Travel Checklist
        15. Equipment VidMuze Uses
        16. Camera Settings Part #1, ISO, FPS, Shutter Speed & Data Rate
        17. Camera Settings Part #2, ND filters, Polarizer and Lenses
        18. Cinematic Camera Movement – The Art of Flying
        19. Team Planning and Execution of Shots
        20. Working with the Director and or DP
        21. Stabilizing Footage in Post
        22. Color correcting in Post
        23. Matchmove Tracking in Post

It’s honestly a great series and if you have any interest in getting into aerial cinematography, check it out:


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