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.

 

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!