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.

 

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!

Kingston Prison Shoot for UKTV

Yesterday we had a shoot for a documentary about the UK TV series ‘Porridge’ for UKTV. As for what has seemed like all winter it was a very windy day and we were a bit concerned about how much we would be able to achieve until the client informed us they mostly wanted interior shots inside the prison wings. This solved the wind issue and also gave us an opportunity to do some very technical interior flying in relatively small spaces.

We managed to do some exterior shots as well or though we did struggle with a lot of wind sheer around the buildings. On landing at one stage a strong gust of wind hit the octocopter at just the wrong time resulting in 2 broken props but nothing too serious. We decided at that stage to abandon outside and the strong winds and move to the interior shots. With long tunnel like prison wings to fly down we experienced a fair amount of the octocopters own down draft being directed back at itself causing a bit of drift and height variations making the shots harder to achieve. But after getting used to how the Skyjib was handling we managed to get some very different and dynamic shots flying up the stairs between the two floors, drifting down the wings looking into cells and rises past the iron bars. The client seemed very happy with the results and they will be airing on UKTV Gold very soon.

The Family Rain music video

This is a video we were involved in shooting back in september. This was our first time flying the Red Epic on our Octocopter. It took a while to set up on the Cinestar gimbal but was a great experience as we are buying our own Epic over the next couple of weeks so it was good to see how it all works and what it can do. Balancing and performance on our new Photo higher Halo 2500 direct drive gimbal should be a lot better too. Lots of new toys this year!