A long time ago in Vietnam

Way back in the spring of 2014 when drones where still a relatively new thing we had a phone call about a job filming out in Vietnam for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to happen due to it sounding too good to be true but in this instance it actually happened. It turned out to be a shoot for Warner Brothers and the big Hollywood reimagining of the Peter Pan story in the film ‘Pan’, staring Hugh Jackman.

I’m finally writing a blog post about the experience as I now have the images to go with it. I didn’t get much chance to take many photos of my own during the shoot but I recently managed to meet up and get some off the AC we were out in Vietnam with so I thought I would finally post them.

It was a trip of absolutely amazing adventures and scenery but also a fair amount of technical hitches and hurdles. This was still back in the day where it was always advisable to have a soldering iron on set, all heavy lift drones were custom made out of mainly RC plane and helicopter parts and the first direct drive Movi gimbal had just come out. We had recently got our first Red Epic camera, the Movi M10 and the Paralinx Tomahawk HD link. We were putting together a proper cinema package but the drone was still a Skyjib 8 with Axi 4120/20 motors and wooden props. The machine was a reliable beast but wasn’t necessarily the most smooth in flight. We had quite a few issues in test days before heading out with vibrations in the drone translating through to the camera due the weight it was carrying and how fast those chunky Axi motors were spinning out little 15” wooden props. We were supposed to have 2 whole new heavy lift drones with the new U7 motors built to take out for this job but due to an apparent worldwide shortage in bearings for the new U7 motors and a variety of other issues these new drones were never completed in time. So we were stuck with the reliable but not so smooth Skyjib 8 and a load of spares for the shoot.

The other issue with this Skyjib was that it was the version 1 frame where, due to the frame assembling in a certain way, it was impossible to remove the arms without pretty much dismantling the whole frame. We had to take the arms off to fit it into a peli case for travel. On the night before we left I started this task. I had been flying drones for about 2 years by that point but had still never completely built one from parts. So when I found myself with my only drone for this job in bits on my bed and the thought of having to reassembling it a few days later in the jungle, having to hope it would all work as it was supposed to again so we could film the biggest job we’d ever had, I was pretty stressed to say the least. I had also seen that the temperature was supposed to be about 40c out there so I had other concerns about ESC’s not overheating under the strain of a Red Epic, prime cine lenses and a lens control system.

From start to finish in was a massive adventure and test of stamina. From the 12 hour flight (helped by being in business class) we went straight onto an overnight train that seemed specifically designed to separate every muscle in your body through vibrations. On arriving in the morning in the Vietnamese mountains in Hang En we had a 3 hour trek through the jungle, followed by a train of porters carrying all of our equipment, until we reached the mouth of the 2nd biggest cave in the world. The cave was so big we were camping, in a fairly large camp, on a beach next to a river inside the cave. It was a colossal and massively impressive place. This is where we had our first major technical hitch with the Chinese generator that had been brought for us to charge our batteries from. As I was reassembling the Skyjib the porters were setting up the generator and plugging in our chargers. I heard 3 quick bangs and turned around to see smoke coming out of all 3 of the power inverters for our chargers. So we suddenly had no chargers and because the batteries had been late turning up from customs before we set out none of them were charged. Great!

It took the massive efforts of our locations managers and the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese guys we were with to somehow get a local electrician to trek through the snake infested Jungle at 1am bringing some golf cart batteries with him and then taking away our inverters to be fixed. We managed to trickle charge a few batteries so we could actually fly later in the day. Despite some rain and some further video link issues we manage our first flights in Vietnam in the mouth of the second biggest cave in the world.

Our second location in Tam Coc was equally amazing in a hidden river valley in surrounded by rice paddy fields and golden Buddhist temples. Arriving in the 2am pitch black we each got on to a single wooden canoe with a lantern on the front and headed down the river. It suddenly became apparent that the river was heading into some kind of cave with stalactites hanging down from a low ceiling. We were actually going under a mountain to get into the hidden valley beyond. As the sun slowly came up we could fully appreciate the full magnificence of this stunning location.

We spent all day in the 40c heat and humidity doing flight after flight over the river and mountains shooting some stunning shots, all the time wearing our local pointy woven hats for shade! With no hard ground to fly from, being surrounded by water and rice paddies, we resorted to cable tying together 4 of the local canoes and placed a sheet of ply wood on top for a landing pad. We ended the day with some lovely shots.

Our third location on the island of Cat Ba was on the top of a mountain. We spent three days at this location, each morning climbing up the steep mountain paths through snake filled jungles carrying all of our gear with our usual trail of porters. The mountain had a pretty rocky pointed summit with no flat spaces. Again we had to make a make shift landing pad with the aid of peli cases and ply wood. A tented area was set up to keep everyone cool in the blazing sun and with the ramshackle array of sun shades we had set up to keep the drone cool the whole scene started to resemble a bit of a mountain top festival/gypsy camp. The main goal of this area was to capture CGI plate shots to build the background of Neverland for the film. We had a fair amount of issues with very high winds making it difficult to keep the kind stable shot essential for the plates we were trying to capture with the less evolved equipment we had in those days. The scenery, especially at sunset, was again absolutely stunning in this location.

After this location our shoot was done. We got to tag along around to the unbelievable Halong bay whilst the ground unit captured some more CGI plates then we were back home.

The whole trip was our first real step into big time film production and was a real test for the kit and us in the early stages of drone development. The run up to the shoot was certainly one of the most stressful times of my life but the shoot itself, although also occasionally very stressful, will always be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The places we were taken were the real Neverland, without the need for any CGI enhancement. It was a privilege to have seen and worked in these places and for someone like myself who loves an adventure it was a perfect trip. It also taught us a lot in terms of how we operate as a drone team. What was important in terms of the kit, how to operate and keep everything running in extreme locations, the importance of communications and how to survive a relentless film schedule! It’s been almost 3 and half years since we were in Vietnam but its great to finally put a few photos out a give a little incite into an incredible trip.

Zimbabwe-Natural History Shoot

In July we embarked on one of our most exciting shoots to date. It was our first proper natural history shoot, our first time in Africa and our first time on safari! We were working for one of the biggest names in natural history, Silverback films, so we were very excited. We can’t talk about a lot of the shoot details as the production is fairly secret until it is aired in a couple of years but we can share a bit about our experiences.

We were taking the Alta 8 as our main drone for this shoot and we’d really be putting it through its paces. We ended up flying about 10 – 15 flight per day, each around 12-14 minutes long, for 10 days straight. So the Alta got a lot of air time. My first concern about Africa was the temperature. I’d assumed it would be scorching but it actually turned out to be there winter and as we were in Zimbabwe, in the south of the continent, it was actually fairly mild. It ranged from about 22-23c in the day to pretty damn cold in the early mornings! Secondly was the dust and sand so we made sure we pack a large tarpaulin. We were going to flying the Red Weapon with the carbon fibre body so the whole set up was going to be relatively light, giving good flight times in the mild, still conditions.

Right from the outset the trip was exciting, our flights delayed for 2 days and the whole trip almost being cancelled due to political protests and unrest in Zimbabwe. Thankfully it calmed down and we were able to head out. On arriving at our base in Zimbabwe we got stuck straight in and went out for some evening test flights. It was beautifully still with a long flat land scape for as far as you could see. A perfect place for flying drones! We got some lovely sunset shots of the forests we had come to see and also the unmistakable Baobab trees dotted across the landscape.

We arose next morning at just before 4am (this was to become our routine for the next two weeks) loaded the land cruiser and headed off with me and Steve sat in the back of the pick up. I hadn’t expected it to be so cold and was glad of the 4 layers, hat and gloves i’d be advised to wear! We spent the next 5 or 6 days shooting scenic footage of the amazing Mopane forest that covers this part of Africa. I was surprised how similar it looked to the forests in the UK, especially as it was in its golden autumn colours. We had a lot of fun pushing the Alta to the limits of its range and capabilities, having to make every shot absolutely perfect to fit the sky high production values of high end natural history.

After days in the forests we moved on to shooting the wildlife we’d coming to film. I can’t talk much about this part but it was definitely a challenge trying to track animals on the move from the air, with a drone. From a manned helicopter you can see which way animals are moving in relation to where you are and move in the same direction. From a drone, where the gimbal and drone can rotate independently of each other, trying to maintain some sense of orientation in relation to the land and the direction of the animals, whilst maintaining a well framed, steady, useable shot was definitely one of the biggest challenges i’ve faced as a pilot. Because it was so challenging it was also so rewarding when we got it right!

The other major challenge with a drone is flight time. We had to try and time when the animals were about to set off with launching the drone in order to have maximum flight time following the animals. We quickly discovered that once we had followed them for the 12 or so minutes a flight gave us, and then returned back to base for a battery change, it was pretty impossible to then go and re find them in the forest. They are pretty hidden to start with amongst the canopy and they continued to move on through the forest from where we left them. So each time we pretty much had one chance to get some shots.

Because of this factor we developed a pretty good mobile launch and control drone vehicle. We fixed a wooden platform to the cabin roof of the land cruiser, mounted monitors and aerials on the vehicle and kept places to stand and operate from in the back. This way we could drive with everything primed and ready to go and take off with a minutes notice. The system worked pretty well and we managed to follow the animals for one flight on every occasion.

The whole trip was a huge challenge but one of the best and most rewarding we’ve been on. We met and worked with some fantastic people, saw some incredible sights and came back with some of the best footage we’ve shot. We stayed with a lovely couple, Rob and Steff, who looked after us incredibly and fed us some of the best food i’ve ever eaten. I got to try Warthog and buffalo for the first time. Rob was our guide and crew comedian, although his rehearsed one liners were more likely to result in complete silence (which is pretty complete in the middle of the Africa bush) rather than laughter.

I’ve always wanted to get into natural history filming and after struggling to see a way into a fairly small, specialised closed off world it was amazing to have the opportunity to be part of it and work on something that I know we’ll be proud to see once its finished. We got to see all manner of wildlife from Elephants, Baboons, Hyenas, Leopards, wild dogs, Impala, Kudu’s, Giraffe and Zebra and be in a proper wilderness. It took me sometime to get used to the fact that nothing was going to kill me when I went for a walk in the UK after we got home! Its a definitely a level of natural danger that we are not used to in this country but one that made me feel excited rather than scared. We’ve got some more trips for the same production lined up next year in some very wild but very different places so look out for more stories.

Throughout the whole experience one of the main points for me was how good the Alta 8 was and how crucial it was to the success of the shoot. Firstly it gave us outstanding flight time. Secondly its smoothness in nearly all conditions was amazing. Even using 50mm, 85mm lenses the footage is rock steady. Its ability to pack down and set up within minutes was crucial for long bumpy rides in the land cruiser every day. Most importantly on this shoot was the ability to control its low level speed and movement. We were doing a lot of slow tracking shots and moves around trees and rocky hill tops. The shots had to move at a completely constant speed, with no side to side or up and down movement with the shots lasting for 10-15 seconds. From experience I think this would impossible with any drone other than the Alta. You mainly had to fly in GPS mode to be able to keep a perfectly constant speed and position. When trying to do the same moves with the Inspire in GPS we found that the movement was very stuttery at slow speeds as the GPS keeps halting the drones movement when it gets to too low a speed. With the Alta you can use the velocity clamps feature so you can operate very steadily at slow speeds and repeat the exact moves and speeds over and over again with no stutters. This made these kind of shots possible as well as offering the diversity of top mounting the camera and being super stable and controllable at high speeds. I don’t believe we could have achieved the shots the producer wanted with any drone other than the Alta.

 

Media Production Show

We’ll be exhibiting at the media production show on the 9th/10th June at the Business design centre in Islington, London. Come and see us at stand 130 to see some of the new kit we’ve been buying and chat to us about what we’re up to and any projects you’ve got that you’d like us to work on! The show is in its first year but with a huge selection of exhibitors and some great guest speakers its looking like its going to be a great opportunity to see the latest kit and learn about everything taking place in media production at the moment.MPS

The ALTA 8 is here!

It was a good day last Saturday when our eagerly awaited new purchase turned up, in a massive case! When the original ALTA was first released I had wished they’d made it an octocopter. I wanted the added redundancy, stability and lift of the 8 motors I was used to. It was because it only had 6 that I decided not to take the plunge and buy one then. It turned out to be a good decision. After a few month on the market, being flown by many companies around the world, the ALTA 6 turned out to maybe not be that capable at carrying the kind of heavy payloads first advertised and the kind of payloads we generally fly (Alexa mini/Red etc), as well as having a few other teething troubles. And then about 3 weeks ago, out of the blue, Freefly System announced the arrival of the ATLA 8. All my wishes had been answered and as it was the second generation of ALTA’s it seemed Freefly had addressed the issues from the ALTA 6 and improved the design in a few subtle but very useful ways.

We bought the ALTA 8 as we potentially have a lot of foreign shoots coming up this year in wild and remote places. The ALTA 8’s ability to quickly, and very cleverly, fold down to 50% of its size and fit into its custom Peli’s case was a big draw. Its claimed flight times with heavy payloads looked very impressive too. Mainly though I’ve always wanted an ALTA as Freefly undoubtedly make some of the best UAV and gimbal products in the world and I want the fly the best! I wasn’t let down.

From the moment you get the ALTA out of its case you can see the quality of the design and build. Everything fits together so well and there are so many clever little design features that allow super easy adjustment and changes of most elements. Its water resistant and comes ready fitted with cables for your FPV system and controller setup. The ALTA comes fitted with the toad in the hole quick release system for the top and bottom battery plates as well as a quick release system for the O-ring dampening system. It takes moments to change these or change from the standard mounting of the gimbal to the very impressive sky view where the gimbal is top mounted. The ALTA seems to bring the integration and ease of the DJI’s Inspire to the big league drone.

Flying the ALTA 8 was the first time i’d flown any flight controller other than DJI’s WKM. It was a fairly easy cross over with the flight modes feeling fairly similar. What was impressive was the smoothness of the footage, its ability to handle wind, its flight time and its in flight adjustments to speed and control. On the first two test days of flying the wind was gusting up to about 30mph. The ALTA just sat in the air looking totally un affected. Judging by the footage from the Alexa mini on board you’d think there was no wind at all. Its as stable as DJI’s Zenmuse gimbals and that with zero adjustment of Freefly’s default tunings of the ALTA. The footage flying in position hold (GPS for all DJI people), was particularly impressive as you could see the ALTA getting hit by strong gusts and even at slow flying speeds there was no shake or bumps in the footage. It feels super smooth in the air and the fact the motors are so quiet you can’t hear them at all when its about 100m away is very impressive but also a bit disconcerting at first!

With my old Skyjib 8 setup carrying the same payload (and giving the same AUW) I used to get max 7-8 minutes with two 10000 Tattu batteries. With the ALTA I’m getting 12 minutes landing at 21.4v. It a massive difference. My M15/Alexa mini/Zeiss prime set up comes in at 15.6kg. This means I have another 2.5kg payload to play with until I max out the ALTA which gives me a lot of options for lenses, LCS etc.

Using the ALTA 8’s velocity clamp option on the Futaba 14SG remote was also very impressive and I can see it being very useful in the future on shoots where we are tracking cars or people and want to be able to set and keep an exact speed. You can tell the is a UAV designed by film makers.

Lastly on my test flights I tested sky view mode. It looks like it shouldn’t work as there is so much weight on top of the ALTA, even with the batteries mounted underneath adding some counterweight. I admit I was nervous testing this in the wind. Thankfully as so as the ALTA became airborne all looked very stable and my confidence was restored. This feature will definitely add a lot of creative options on future shoots and I’m sure its something directors will want use.

The ALTA is not a cheap option but you can see where your money is going. Its a new idea for me having a completely closed system compared with the custom builds of the past. The fact is, unlike a lot of UAV manufacturers, I trust Freefly. We’ve been using the Movi for years without any issues and it revolutionised the stability of filming from an aerial platform. The ALTA is a huge step forward in UAV design for aerial filming and its nice to be using a flight controller where you haven’t heard a hundred stories about it failing mid flight! It was a big investment buying the ALTA but I am already so glad i did invest and when I’m doing flight after flight in various remote parts of the world later in the year I’m sure i’ll be even happier Im flying with the ALTA!

Busy Autumn times

This time of the year can often be pretty tricky in the drone aerial filming world, mainly due to the weather. Throughout the year I spend most of my time checking one of my 5 weather apps to see the possibility of rain but mainly to check the forecast winds speeds. To some degree the wind is our master and in the UK in the autumn the wind speeds are usually pretty high. This always leads to a lot more checking of said weather apps in the run up to jobs this time of year and can on occasion lead to cancelations. This has definitely been our busiest autumn ever and it has happened to coincide with many storms. For some reason many of our recent shoots have also happened to be on the coast, the one place you don’t want to be when you’re trying to escape the wind. Us and the kit has been tested to its fullest but we’ve had great fun and a lot of great results regardless.

We started off the autumn with a great music video shoot for the artist Lapsley and her song ‘Hurt me’. It was filmed on the coast just off from Liverpool, an area i’ve never been too before but that happened to resemble the pine forests and sand dunes of south west France. This was probably the windiest conditions we’d ever had to handle and once again we were flying with the lovely but rather weighty and expensive Kowa anamorphic lenses. After a few tentative test flights we got some fantastic shots of the windswept beach and the artist on top of the dunes. The music video only consists of three shots and it starts and ends with ours so we were very happy. Check it out here

We were soon back on the Coast in Cornwall filming for the new series of the hit BBC drama Poldark. Once again we faced some challenging wind speeds and a few passing rain storms. We were mostly getting some close tracking shots of two horses and their stunts riders galloping along the beach. These ended up being some of my favourite shots we’ve achieved this year and I’m really looking forward to seeing them in the new series. The Drama theme continued as we did 2 days shooting on a new ITV period drama called ‘Doctor Thorne’. This time it wasn’t the wind we were battling but the early morning mist giving us about 10m visibility!

We were back to the commercials after this working on another Google android commercial. This was a 2 day shoot with the same great team as before, using the Kowa anamorphic lenses again on a commercial about the birth and rapid growth of the LeeFest festival. You can see the commercial here. In the same week we worked on the first of two new commercials for Bisto.

Another feature film called ‘Access all areas’ followed. This is a British coming of age film about “four runaway teenagers who are catapulted on a wild and uplifting road trip out of the city and across the water to a magical island music festival.” This was a great shoot for us as it featured several famous landmarks from around our base in the south west that we’ve been wanting to film for a while. It was a busy shoot as we had 4 scenes to do in 4 different locations, with actors and vehicles, all before the sun set at around 6pm. We got some stunning shots in the morning around Glastonbury Tor and finished off the shoot filming at the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. This is a land mark that we’ve always wanted to film over and around, being based in Bristol ourselves, and as the production had gained permission to close off the bridge for the shoot, we could do exactly that.

We got the chance to film at the very interesting location of Chatham historic dockyard when we worked on the new Steven Poliakoff BBC Period drama ‘Close to the Enemy’. Set up to look like a full WWII dock complete with guns and search lights it was a pretty fun place to fly. Predictably it was a very windy day and were flying over the water, at night with our new Arri Alexa mini. We were a little nervous! In the same week we were up in Yorkshire filming our second Bisto commercial. During that week the UK was being hit by storm Barney. Amazingly, using the trusted weather apps we managed to pinpoint a break in the weather long enough to get the required shots and got the job done.

We’ve been working on another new BBC drama during the last 2 months that I’m particularly excited about. From the makers of ‘Utopia’ (one of my favourite drama series) and ‘Humans’ comes a new super natural drama series set in Victorian rural England. Having worked on several episodes and seen the trailer Im very excited to see the finished series. The production are luckily also very keen on drone shots and have used us in some very interesting and new ways, working with actors a fair amount. Its been challenging and I’m looking forward to being able to talk about them in more detail on here when the series has been released. Keep a look out for it in 2016!

Making action movies

We recently got to work on an up and coming, full blown action movie. The scenes we worked on all involved stunts with vehicles being flipped and crashing in pretty spectacular style. One of these vehicles was a double decker bus! It was great to see the process and work that goes into prepping these kind of vehicles for a stunt. The insides are completely stripped out with roll cages and the all important pneumatic ram fitted. A hole in the floor is cut out for it to be fired through. One thing thats evident when doing this kind of filming is that you don’t get a second chance! The kit and the shot had to go as planned. Everything was checked several times and the shot was rehearsed several more. We were also using a new set of lenses for us. They were some Cooke S2’s. Some lovely PL mounted cinema lenses that remain fairly light weight. Unusually for us we were also mostly shooting on a 32mm lens which, with the crop factor on the Red Dragon became a 35mm lens. This was a bit tighter than we would usually shoot but worked well for the scene and allowed us to be a safe distance from the action! The one thing about being the pilot is that all your concentration is on the UAV in the air so you don’t really get a chance to look at the action that going on in front of you at the time. For this reason, whilst the shot was taking place I just heard a big bang, as the ram to flip the bus was fired, and then the smashing of glass and metal as the bus hit the tarmac and slid for 30ft. It wasn’t until I got to watch the playback that I got to see how good it looked! With a little luck, but I to think mostly skill, everything was framed perfectly, including framing out the two tracking camera vehicles and even getting a nice sunlight ping of the bus window as it flipped through the air.

We repeated a similar shot next filming a Range Rover flipping and rolling down the road about 100ft as another angle of the same scene. Finally the director asked for a shot directly above the double decker bus as it rams and smashes into the pursuing Range Rover, both going around 30-40 mph. The shot needed to remain tight as one of the bad guys on the bus emerges from a hatch in the roof at one point. All in all it was a fairly tricky shot to nail but on the 3rd attempt we got it. 13 hours of work to capture about 30 seconds of an action sequence but probably some of the best shots we’ve got so far. The director and DP were very happy. I love working on action movies!

Festival filming

We had another first at the start of August. Filming at a very large festival. When I first got the enquiry about the job I thought it would be impossible to film at the festival and stay within the rules of our license. I can’t think of a worse location than a festival for crowd control! Thankfully it was a production company we’ve worked with a lot, Bristol and London based Clockwise media,  so we were able to spend a lot of time planning the shoot to make it possible. The festival was Boom Town Fair, near winchester in the UK. Unlike a lot of festival that just occupy a massive square of land, Boom Town Fair takes place in several massive bowl like valleys that all connect together. In between the valleys are bits of high ground and woodland areas that are fenced off from the rest of the site. After giving the site map a good look a few weeks before the festival I could tell these were going to make pretty good launch and flight locations. As well as a few spots just outside the main fence these gave us our safe flight locations and made the job possible.

As it was a festival and the production company wanted some night shots it was a late start and a late finish. Once on site we needed a fair few extra hands as it was very difficult to organise any kind of transport around the site and we have a lot of gear. We were using the Sony F55 camera and Zeiss CP2 lenses for the first time on the drone too. These belonged to the production company. The set up looks a lot bigger than the usual Red Dragon rig but it actually all came in a fair bit lighter with the bonus of extra flight time and slightly less being to carry about. Whilst trekking around the site the number of comments from slightly inebriated festival goers about my ‘big drone’ were too numerous to count.

Throughout the day we launched from serval sites around the festival covering various stages and areas. It was great having such a different subject to work with. Boom town fair stands apart from other festivals by the size and look of their stages. It was like being inside several massive movie sets. One stage designed like a huge Mayan temple, another like a 5 story palace with huge pyro flames going off from every corner. It wasn’t hard to make it look good! When the evening came we were operating from a perfect spot overlooking the whole site. As the light went down the sea of flames, lights and lasers were truly amazing! On top of this we got to film the festival fireworks display (from a safe distance!) At the end of the shoot it was hard not to be in the festival spirit so a few rum and gingers were had to round off an amazing day.