Handspun Tech: Aerial Filmmaking Tools

February 4, 2016

The Evolution of Handspun Aerial Film

Drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), quadcopters…whatever you feel compelled to call them,  they have become very prominent in this day and age.  As cinematographers, we would be remiss if we didn’t adapt to new technologies as they came along. We love filming in the air – just take a look at our Drone Highlights from the last year!  But, that is not to say that trekking into this new territory was easy or simple.  This is the hard-learned (and expensive) story of getting into aerial cinematography, along with my opinions on how what we have used works.

 The world of drones can be complicated, and it takes practice and experience in order to feel comfortable flying such an expensive piece of gear on a wedding day – or any day. We have used many different drones over the years: from our first DJI Phantom all the way up to our current setup with the Inspire 1/x5 camera.

I want to go through all of the systems that we have used since the start, and explain why they have become “obsolete” in favor of newer technology.  I guess you could say, these aren’t the drones you’re looking for.  (Star Wars humor.)

The Phantom.  I will always remember my first Phantom because it was such an amazing accomplishment in my eyes.  DJI had created a quadcopter that could be (relatively) easily flown and was “affordable” at almost a thousand dollars – without a camera.  In those days, all we were able to do was throw a GoPro Hero 3 on a rigid mount and fly around.  There were no 3-axis gimbals or stabilizing tools, just a stick on camera mount and a remote control.  A gimbal is a brushless, motor-driven, stabilizing unit that compensates for drone movement by moving the camera in the opposite direction.  In simpler terms, it makes the footage much smoother.  It works almost exactly like this chicken…

When you flew, there were very few FPV options available – an acronym for First Person View that allows you to see what the camera is seeing as you fly. Without this lovely feature, it was simply a guessing game.  There was no way of seeing what your footage looked like as you filmed it.  The footage ended up being “cool” solely because it was filmed from high up (not exactly a fine art).

The Phantom 2.  When the Phantom 2 came around it felt like the height of luxury!  Zen muse gimbals came onto the scene and allowed much higher quality footage to be captured.  These gimbals were very sensitive however and easy to damage if handled improperly.  The footage that came from the GoPro was, at this point, the limiting factor of achieving quality video. Everyone who has used a GoPro knows the fisheye effect they produce and the care it takes to correct this.  The propellers were always in the shot if you flew forwards, battery technology was weak and flight times were short…I could go on but lets just say it got better. At this point, FPV set ups were very homemade, jerry rigged, “custom”, whatever you want to call it. As you can see below, not very sleek.

Carbon Prop Phantom 2

And then there were the compass issues….  and apparently the built in love for the ocean.

DJI Phantom 2

Washing out the Phantom 2.

So, after actually washing the salt water out of this little guy, I was ready for something slightly more stable and refined. (Despite its oceanic encounter, it still flies! Just a bit squirrelly.)

The Inspire 1.  Fast forward to the Inspire 1, our current aerial cinema set-up.  Compared to the past, this thing may as well have come from Star Wars (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan). Made almost entirely from carbon fiber and aluminum, it is much more stable and powerful than the Phantom series of drones.  Of course this makes it heavier and more expensive, but that seems to be a trend among quality equipment.

DJI Inspire 1

Agent Scarn Riding Shotgun.

This is Agent Michael Scarn, as we lovingly refer to him.

The Inspire was such a tremendous leap forward in aerial technology and stability, but the standard camera left a lot to be desired.  It still shared the guts of a GoPro and just didn’t do very well in low light or with resolving detail in general.  About a year and a half after the Inspire 1 was originally announced however, DJI released a Micro Four Thirds, interchangeable lens camera for the Inspire, and of course, I had to have it.  The improvements that come from a larger sensor and better glass are just tremendous.  It’s not quite my end goal, mind you (because my end goal keeps changing as they release the newest and coolest technological developments), but it is amazing how far the technology has come in just a few years.

I always love getting to talk to you guys about the equipment and technology behind our business, and I can’t wait to share more with you soon – stay tuned for more Handspun Tech posts!

‘Til next time,


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