Dolly track in the sky?

The default way of thinking about flying drones is one of freedom. Its exciting to get an aircraft  up in the air and via proxy have the freedom to zip around in all dimensions unbound for a few minutes by the pull of gravity. Flight is great, the feeling of flying a UAV with a camera is so liberating that its almost a drug.

Its easy however to get a little carried away with the freedom of flight sensation and go straight to an Icarus situation where we fly a little too close to the sun, our wings come undone and we tumble back to Earth in an ungraceful and often risky fashion. The sun in this metaphor could be flying out sight and losing orientation, flying in a congested area- try under a jungle canopy some time- or coming to the realization that our own binocular vision/depth perception only works at relatively close range and once the aircraft gets to be a certain not so far distance away, we’re flying without true knowledge of how close we are to other objects in the environment. Flying a camera on a drone is initially exciting, but shortly thereafter the realization sets in about what can actually be accomplished photographically while flying both the aircraft and the camera at the same time. The reality is that IF one is obeying the FAA rules while flying a drone, maintaining eyes on the aircraft and not depending on the video feed as a proxy for “eyes on the aircraft”, then far less is possible. Things like range of operation where you can have unaided eyes on the aircraft become quickly much smaller than what on-line drone videos would have you think.

Which leads me to the idea of actually doing useful photography with a UAV which is what initially drew me to using UAV’s in the first place. Once the initial excitement  of flying a camera wears off, the need to confront doing some useful photography sets in and then adjustments in how to fly  need to be be made.

So I started thinking  about UAV’s as if they were dolly track in the sky, obviously more flexible dolly track than that made by Matthews and requiring zero grips, wedges and levels, but never the less track of a sort. When you set up a dolly move there is a start and an end in mind, some framing compositions to make along the move, combined with timing of events in the frame. When using a UAV to photograph controlled events I’ve found that what DJI calls intelligent flight modes are very useful in aiding by constraining  the aircraft flight path so that less attention can spent on the minutiae of flying and more attention placed on making the photography.

Intelligent flight modes are Course Lock, Home Lock, Follow Me, Point of Interest and Waypoints.

Take for example Course Lock which is an aircraft course heading (course lock is the same a compass heading) determined by the pilot, which the aircraft will fly in either direction. While being locked into flying the heading the aircraft can climb or descend while flying the heading, rotate, or make a lateral move while flying the locked course. While the degrees of freedom are just a few they can be used to great effect especially while doing repeated takes of a shot or situation. The aircraft heading is locked in and the other variable like speed along the course, altitude, direction the aircraft is facing, are all variable by the pilot so there is fine control over timing of aircraft  moves within  events while being locked to a particular course heading.

Point of Interest is another useful intelligent flight mode. This mode allows the pilot to establish a GPS point around which the aircraft can orbit  in either direction, While flying, the pilot can elevate or descend, close or expand the radius of the orbit while flying the aircraft, making it the same as course lock except with a circular path.

Follow Me is sometimes useful. An example for this was  I needed to create a shot of a person on the back of a ferry, with the UAV following behind. Follow me is perfect for this situation, because it puts the aircraft on an imaginary tether of variable length to the controller. While while flying, the length of the the tether is variable as is the vector of the tether relative to the controller.

Intelligent flight modes can lift a  weight off the pilot when it comes to moment to moment flying of the aircraft and free up attention to devote to flying the shot which is especially key when flying single control mode without a second operator. An added plus is that the pilot can bail out of intelligent flight mode at any time just by switching out of ATTI mode on the controller and regain total control of the aircraft in a fraction of a second.

Since  exploring intelligent flight modes and the possibilities included within those flight envelopes, I’ve started the mental exercise of framing my thinking about executing any given shot within the options available within intelligent flight modes before free flying a shot. Used correctly, intelligent flight modes are a path to less stressful flying and achieving better photographic results simultaneously

View From Above

With 16 years of intermittent involvement with TIGHAR’s Earhart Project and 5 trips with the group to Nikumaroro as they conducted their field work, the underlying technology of documentary film making has gone through dramatic shifts in that period of time. The first year I worked with TIGHAR the A camera was Betacam SP format and the B cameras were a Sony PD 150 and a Canon DV camera. Subsequent trips in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2015 saw the shift to file based cameras (2007) which has continued through the present. Between 2007 and 2010 the camera technology shifted from 720P to 1080P as the base recording format, storage capacities exploded which allowed virtually unlimited shooting. The advancements in digital stills camera tech allowed expanded use of time- lapse photography and finally Go Pro cameras provided a way to work both above and below the water line in creative ways.

The biggest and most exciting development was the emergence of small GPS stabilized UAV’s that finally freed the camera from being stuck on the ground with the land team as they hacked their way through spider webs, mounds of live and dead scaevola. Having a view from above adds a compelling dimension to the documentary photography possible with the Earhart Project. This was first demonstrated in 2001 when the scout helicopter from a tuna boat randomly showed up and landed on the island. We were able to capitalize on that moment and get a ride in the aircraft filming a complete overview of the island.

In 2015 having  small UAVs made documenting  the work of the land team easier and better, showing the scope and context of the island in ways that I had never been able to do prior to this time. While having aerial capability is a huge advantage, the technology is not perfect. In the time shooting that year there was a massive solar storm in progress which affected GPS dramatically in a negative way. UAV operation was impacted by random erratic aircraft behavior which resulted in numerous aborted flight and the loss of one aircraft in the ocean after a flyaway event. Even with that unfortunate event, the dimension that having an aerial view in this documentary project has been immensely positive.


First Thing

There came a day just after I started my new job oh so long ago, at the cable  studio that my boss told me to get the company vehicle and drive into the east village in NYC  to a certain address and pick up Allen Ginsberg then bring him back to the studio. Having done that, the next thing I was to do was grab the camera and video deck, I don’t recall what it was but maybe it was a Sony 3/4″  U- matic, then go shoot this interview with Mr Ginsberg. We actually had a studio but that day our guest liked the vibe outside better than the studio so we hiked up the hill behind the offices and shot his interview there. The host, whose name I’ve long forgotten was an English professor at William Patterson College at the time. I barely knew what I was doing but some how I managed to record picture and sound that day. I had hung out a bit with Ginsberg in college and was really excited when this day just fell in my lap.