Movie Making from above!

I’m writing this article because I couldn’t easily find any information on the web prior to my departure to Tuscany. I’ve been flying multirotors for some time now and I have encountered a few elements not mentioned anywhere else — to my knowledge. I hope you will find that this info makes filming nice video the primary thing, and fighting with technology secondary.

To create this movie I was flying Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3D, GoPro 3 black and an FPV of my choice (details below).

 

TRANSPORTATION

(get there, and from there)

Pack Yourself

To make the puppet-of-mine survive the heavy-duty tossing at the airport I bought a special case for traveling. It came with the foam pre-cut to fit the Phantom 2 with everything included, so I only needed to make a small extra hole for the monitor handle to fit it in without disassembling. You can also buy such cases without pre-cut holes and fit whatever UAV you own. All of the components from the below list fit into the case and survived flights and travel without damage. However — the case’s airplane-ready configuration makes your UAV pre-filming procedure longer than it needs to be. To fit everything you have to unscrew the monitor, antennas, and take all the batteries out. I suggest unpacking it when you get to your destination, and repack it for short trips, leaving chargers and assembling antennas and such. My experience also made me keep the RC controller with the monitor and antennas as a second piece (for trips I had a case with the Phantom, and tools, batteries, and a RC controller in a separate bag, this is due to the unexpected situation I had — read below).

Check List:

– Multirotor with gimbal, and FPV transmitter installed (in my case Zenmuse H3-3D, ImmersionRC 600mw)

– RC controller with handle for monitor (if you use monitor)

– Monitor and FPV receiver (Black Pearl 7″ in my case), or  FPV goggles

– Necessary antennas

– Laptop with external drive for storing and backup of your footage

– Spare props for your drone

– Zip-ties and tape for emergency fixing

– Batteries for: your multirotor 2 pcs, your RC controller 3 sets or more, your FPV ground station 2 pcs

– Chargers for: UAV batteries, monitor batteries, laptop

– Multitool

– Traveling case

– GoPro sun shade

– Case lock

– Mini USB — USB cable and micro USB — USB cable (for plugging the Phantom and GoPro to your laptop)

the way i carry

Insurance

The drone with camera, gimbal, monitor, and FPV becomes a pretty expensive thing. You would be upset if you got it stolen on the plane or lost during flights, so — buy insurance. I did, and it cost me around 25€. The one thing to know is that there is different insurance for professional equipment versus amateur. I purchased the amateur since I wasn’t going to make the video as a professional job. (Fortunately I didn’t use it.:)

Law

Always check the latest laws and regulations regarding flying UAVs in the country of your destination before you go. Please bear in mind also that we are living in a time where those regulations are being written as we speak, so — you need the most current information. The easiest way is to check on some local UAV amateur forum — just start a topic and ask in English. From my experience, you will not wait long for the response.

Airplane

This is the tricky part. If you start reading about how you should pack your UAV for taking it on the airplane you will get a headache. Some regulations (UE) say that you should have your LiPo batteries with your carry-on but on the other hand it’s hard to translate to a non-English speaking guard what you carry these double 5200mha batteries for if you leave your drone as the registered luggage — I suggest you call your airlines prior to the flight and just ask them how you should pack. I did and they said to go with everything packed in the registered luggage with batteries included. All of the batteries were discharged and disassembled from the equipment. I found out that easyJet (that was the company I was flying with) allows for some oversized carry-on luggage and my case would fit the dimensions, but since I had a multitool and other sharp things I decided not to go this way. My case with everything inside was 9 kilograms. Rest assured that you will be checked with special attention. I had to go to the luggage checking room, open the case, tell security what it was and let the case go through a scanner several times. Security was very nice but they just didn’t know what it was and so … better safe than sorry, go to the airport with some extra time ahead knowing that you might get special treatment.

 

UNEXPECTED SITUATIONS

(and some ways I’ve come around them)

Tourist Attraction

UAVs are VERY interesting to people. Whenever you pop open that black case, YOU will become the greatest tourist attraction around (I was more interesting to some than the leaning Pisa tower). This is understandable and you should not fear those guys – if you saw it for the first time, wouldn’t you come closer? Just remember that anybody closer to the starting/landing place than 3m when the UAV is on, is in danger — it is a flying lawnmower in the end! Kids will come and touch it so before you land tell them that it’s dangerous and that you will let them come closer when the engines are off. People will try to see what you have on monitor during flight and you will feel them on your back.

When flying you are very much exposed to pickpockets — the best idea is to leave every important tech-gadget with your wallet inside the case before you take off, or ask your friend to watch over you and your belongings — you can’t be here and up there at once! People will try to talk to you when you fly. When it happens instruct them that you will talk, when you land. If anyone has some problems with you flying, ask your colleague to handle him/her until you land: “Sorry sir, but my friend is a pilot right now and it’s dangerous to distract him, please tell me what’s the issue and when he lands you might talk.” One last thing is that phone calls in your pocket are very annoying when your mind is 400 meters away. :)

My sis dlying

Batteries

You have 4 battery-powered gadgets on, at the same time. This means that in order to fly safely you have to check everything twice before you take off. You should also have spare batteries charged at all occasions. I put extra care into the batteries of my monitor. The shot of the leaning Pisa tower in the short film was done — without FPV. Why? Because when I got up and found the right place to start the real footage — batteries in my monitor said “Sorry dude, we’re out” and the screen went blank. Also I should say that the drone was exactly at the sun position as seen from where I was standing. What saved the day was the Home Lock Intelligent Orientation System — this comes in with NAZA inside Phantom 2 but I think can be implemented into other UAVs. This is a very handy safety switch to have with you for any occasion but remember — if you own a Phantom 2, you have it on your RC controller but it doesn’t mean you actually have it. In order to use it you need to enable it with your PC. The procedure can be found here: http://youtu.be/dILHyp_P9eU

The RC controller uses 4 AA batteries and you don’t want to swap those with rechargeable. The rechargeable batteries have supposedly a lower starting voltage than the disposable ones and so … last much shorter. From my experience you can make about 6-10 flights (15 min each) on the buy-use-throw away batteries and about 2-3 on the rechargeable. I might have mixed something up with those rechargeable but that was my experience anyway.

Vision Loss

Since the FPV system is a live feed from your camera through radio frequencies — you will encounter short video downlink problems. Two factors can make this situation worse. The first is your antenna location. My antenna is mounted in the back of the UAV (behind Zenmuse gimbal), which makes my connection much weaker when the multirotor is facing the home position. It helps to bend the cloverleaf to the ground but just slightly. The second situation in which I face weaker video signal is when the Phantom is directly above home position. I think this must have something to do with the cloverleaf structure but, it’s just a hunch.

My Flight Procedure:

Make the pre-flight procedure as easy as possible: I did a whole battery flight without the cloverleaf antenna attached to the UAV transmitter and it didn’t burn! After this situation I decided that I will not disassemble the thing anymore (except for airline transportation). I decided to carry with me my fully assembled Phantom in a case and the RC controller with monitor and antennas attached as a separate thing. Not handy, but safer since your flight procedure is easier and consists of pushing buttons only and no assembly whatsoever.

  1. RC controller – on
  2. GoPro – on
  3. GoPro – record on
  4. Phantom – on
  5. Monitor – on
  6. Wait for at least 7 satellites
  7. Take off straight into the air (leave the right stick until you gain altitude)
  8. Shoot the goddamn footage
  9. Landing (I land based on eye-sight not the monitor)
  10. Phantom – off
  11. GoPro – record off
  12. GoPro – off
  13. Monitor – off
  14. RC controller – off

If you keep to this procedure you will omit two problems. One is that you will not fight with the gimbal to switch the camera on (you push the button, gimbal tries to stabilize you pushing the button — hilarious, but might bring damage to the gimbal). The second is that you will not have a problem I had often with take-offs: I had a pretty close wall to the place where I had my Phantom on the ground. The obvious stress made me think this way: ” OK, I will take-off and immediately fly far from this wall.” In theory it works but in reality, there is a moment where the Phantom doesn’t start yet but is already weightless. This is in fact the most dangerous moment — wind might blow the Phantom and if you push the right stick in this moment you might make it fall from the platform. If you do start from land you might make the UAV “drift” this way. What I suggest is to start from places in which you actually can start straight up. When you gain the altitude you have the Phantom stabilize itself and so you are safe with the right stick.

Gimbal Flaws

The three-axis gimbals make the footage smooth as can be — period. Unfortunately it also has its own flaws that you should be aware of. One of these problems is the “orbit lag.” This flaw appears when you try to turn your UAV very slowly around its z-axis (z being the up/down axis). The gimbal counteracts moves in three axes up to a max level after which it moves — technical max. This means that when you make a very gentle panorama — the gimbal at first counteracts this move — you see no movement on-screen. If you see no movement the first reaction is “I pushed the handle too gently and the Phantom doesn’t get it, I need to push more.” Then the panorama becomes rapid. To make it smooth, just start gently and keep it that way even though you see no movement on the screen. The gimbal after a second or two will reach its maximum on this axis and the panorama will start on your screen too.

The second glitch that you might encounter is the one connected to high-speed flying. When you try to make a fast fly through to the front it might happen that all of a sudden you will see … The leg of your UAV (if it has one). It looks as if the gimbal needed to find the maximum, like when it is being powered on. One of my friends told me that this might be due to the power drain that the Phantom is putting on the battery. The gimbal just does not have enough power and goes crazy. The way to omit this problem is – don’t fly too fast (the shot in my video where I fly above a tree covered hill is cut in that end due to this glitch).

A very important thing that helped me a lot in doing the final shot was turning the gain on the tilt control of the gimbal waaaaay down. When you set it to 5-10, the gimbal will respond much more liquidly and more soft.

FOOTAGE

(some guides on how to make a decent one)

To be honest, flying modern UAVs like DJI Phantom 2 is so easy that all you need is — imagination to have fun up there. In fact when you get up there and leave all the controls — you get a beautiful picture. Unfortunately a video consists of “moving pictures” and so you’ve got to have a plan on what you will try to do with this picture. The rule of thumb is — if you see action in your picture (the car driving on a road or birds taking off from a tower) you can keep Phantom steady, but when there is no action — make smooth camera movement. Also when you want a good shot based on camera motion, from my experience I would say that the lower/closer you are the more dramatic and interesting the shot will be. You might crash and this is why you see no dramatic shots in my movie but I’m sure when I get to know my Phantom better I will try to do those low flybys.

One thing you should be informed about is that if you face the sun with your GoPro on a Phantom you might encounter flickering effect in your footage. This happens due to the propellers casting shadow onto the lens. You can fight it with a sunshade like I do (I’ve redesigned one available online and printed it on our 3D printer) but be informed that this effect will still happen (just a little less frequently). My sunshade is designed to be used with 2.7K settings on GoPro and in this mode you only get “wide” FOV. If you intend to us as a default 1080p, then you can pick a much longer sunshade designed for “medium” mode, which apparently blocks all of the shadows caused by propellers.

When shooting a video there are some key factors to remember now unless you want to get angry while editing:

1. You shouldn’t cut together two shots with similar camera movement and — make different takes: orbits, side to side, upupandaway, runner perspective low fly, and so on.

2. Try to have in your shot at least two different elements being a foreground and background. This gives much better look to your shot and brings the 3D effect.

3. Make the shot longer than you think. We often watch the thing through an FPV system and you “see” the movie through it. That’s great but don’t make cuts this way. Enable yourself to make that decision during editing and so … make the shot longer than you feel it should be.

4. When shooting footage forget that there is post production available to you. Try to make smooth, stable, and beautiful pictures on the spot. This way further down the line you will be able to focus on polishing the thing up and not fixing mistakes. In most cases you can only do minor bug repairs — in order to not destroy the quality of the footage.

5. Make more than one shot in one place. This is for storytelling in a movie. You need at least three shots from one place to tell the story. And I mean three GOOD shots. Rule of thumb — try to get six nice (thought through) shots at one place that you want to show in your video. I had about 150 minutes of footage to edit from. About 4-5 locations didn’t make it to the edit due to the fact I had too few nice-enough shots.

6. Train your shots. Very helpful thing is something that I call “muscle memory.” When I came with the idea of the shot of my father jumping to the pool and the UAV flying out of the place, the first thing I did was get the Phantom above that pool and try the shot. After about four tries I had a feel of the shot in my hands. Then I invited “the actor” to the stage and focused on the synchronization with him. I made three doubles with him and so … You see the effect in the video.

7. What quality to pick on the GoPro if you use one? I did the whole movie (except the last shot which was in 1080p 50fps) in 2.7K 25fps. Why? I thought that this will help me with stabilizing and still keeping the 1080 after cropping, but … This was not the case. The moment I saw what happens if you apply just a slight sharpening effect on 2.7K and then downgrade the picture to Full HD — it just made the magic happen. Protune on of course.

CONCLUSION

Flying multirotors is a very rewarding thing itself. While doing it you feel like playing a PC game and later on while editing you appreciate the picture quality it gives. On the other hand – you just need to get used to it. There are many minor problems you might encounter that are very easy to resolve but can bring frustration when you face them the first time. I hope that my not-that-short article will help you by taking some of that frustration out of the way, leaving space for pure creativity in movie making. Happy flying and remember — on YouTube the biggest set of videos with “drones” are … crash compilations! Don’t make another one:). Take care.