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.
At Heathrow about to leave with our full range of Peli cases
Unpacking and charging a mountain of lipo batteries after arriving in Harare in Zimbabwe.
Setting up for launch on the first mornings shoot by the start of the forest.
Steve staying warm in the back of the land cruiser.
In the back of the land cruiser representing for Freefly Systems!
Giraffe in the bush
Evening flights on top of moon rock
Top mounted Red Weapon on the Alta 8
Full set up on the tarpaulin to keep dust away from the motors as much as possible.
Early morning flights with the Alta 8, Movi M15 and Red Weapon.
The DJI Inspire in the roof of the Land Cruiser. Great for recon flights and behind the scenes footage.
The full drone mobile launch control vehicle
Using the Alta and Movi in top mounted mode to get some shots looking up through the Mopane canopy.
Clearing some branches from our desired flight path. Don’t try this at home!
Mobile launch pad
Night time Baobab
Jeff and Rob spot some Elephants in the distance
The Alta 8 where its most at home
Baobabs and Giraffes
Producer Jeff putting himself in the line of danger doing some handled Movi work from the back of Kane’s massively underpowered motorbike!
Team drone with the inspire. Rob at the top, Steve on the left, Jeff at the bottom and Ben on the right
The whole crew in action. Rob holding the panel antenna in completely the wrong direction! Coming back in to land
In the back of the mobile drone launch vehicle waiting for the action to kick off.
The Baobab tree!
Shot from the DJI Inspire of us driving through the African bush in the Land Cruiser at sunset