If you were at NAB, then you already know that 2013 was the year of the drone. You could barely walk around the convention floor without the risk of getting a haircut by someone’s spin on the aerial rig.
Though they look like toys, it’s easy to forget that operating a drone is an art that should be carried out by professionals. Like a steadicam, you can’t just pick one up and expect cinematic results. Understanding how to balance and control these crafts is the difference between that perfect shot and ending up in the river.
For over a year I have been lucky enough to work with Anthony Jacobs and his team at Perspective Aerials. Not only has he helped capture some amazing shots to add to my commercials but also has always impressed me with his desire to be a trailblazer and stay ahead of the curve of what a drone rig can handle.
Jacob's a New York City based photographer and former Getty Images employee has been a lifelong 'tinkerer' and avid RC enthusiast since a child. In 2006 Jacobs obtained a provisional patent on a custom wearbale harness with a high-gain 2.4ghz antenna incorporated into the stitching that was worn by editorial photographers shooting in the field and allowed them to wirelessly transmit images to awaiting photo editors some distance away.
Early in life Jacobs dreamed of being a robotics engineer, spending many hours dismantling his collection of RC cards to create other more 'useful' machines such as a 5-axis robotic arm able to move objects around. It's almost like Anthony's whole life built to creating this drone which is why, even when things like the Movi come out, it's important to remember that it's the soul of an operator that is always more important than the tool he or she uses.
A good aerial rig is the cross section of many factors but most importantly it’s a battle between weight and flight time. In theory, many rigs could handle the weight of a Red Epic, but lifting a heavy camera means nothing if your flight time is only a minute long. Creating rigs that can support heavier cameras while still getting a 4-5 minute flight time makes all the difference in getting that second take or capturing a magic moment as it unfolds in front of you.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see his new rig, which allowed us to upgrade from smaller cameras like the Canon 5D3 and Sony FS100 to their big brothers the Canon C300, Sony FS700, and Canon 1DC. Anthony also modified JAG35 pieces to create a focus system that would give him even more control over the shot. Though it was a short test, I was blown away with Anthony’s results.
While director Laura Strausfeld and I were prepping her next feature (an adaption of Chekhov that uses new tools in a way that will make Shane Hurlbut drool), she brought me in on a project she was trying to develop about a college female Rugby team. After gaining access to a team, we decided to make a short film to help sell our vision of the feature (very much like Ryan Koo is doing with Amateur) and to show audiences how impressive and inspiring these athletes can be.
While discussing the tone of our rugby short, we wanted to be careful not to go too Nike or get too indulgent with the game footage. Unlike male Rugby, the female version is not just about lining up and beating the snot out of your opponent. It’s a much more technical game and we wanted to capture the way girls communicate and their formations on the field. When watching the games live, the teams look like flocks of birds moving towards and away from each other, but in most game footage we only get a sense of the ball’s movement. Our goal was to capture the emotion of the game and put the audience in the middle of the scrum.
While planning the project, I contacted Anthony to see how we could further elevate our story using drone photography. We didn’t just want overhead shots but a way to give context to our ground coverage and make each play feel like the epic conclusion to an Animal Planet special. After talking about different angles and strategies, we discussed which format to shoot. Since our ground cameras will all be 4K, we wanted the same high resolution and pop from our aerial cameras. We quickly realized the perfect camera perfect camera for this task would be the Sony F55.
The Sony F55 is a very polarizing camera. On paper it’s everything we’ve been hoping for in a camera. Between high frame rate onboard 4K recording, a global shutter, and compact modular design, the F55 felt like the answer to getting true cinematic results out of Anthony’s drone rig. With the help of Mike Nichols, Alex Kurze, and Pete Abel at Abel Cine Tech in New York, we were fortunate enough to get a F55 to fly for the project. Having flown other Sony cameras, such as the FS100 and FS700, we were aware of balancing issues created by the long body length of both cameras. Having only read about the F55, we were curious to see if we would run into these same mounting issues.
After receiving the F55 from AbelCine, the first task at hand was to lighten the camera body by stripping it of all accessories and attachments not needed for camera operation. We ended up removing the top handle, viewfinder, baseplate, and side audio module. Once weight reduction was complete, we were faced with another dilemma: how to power the camera without using the supplied Anton Bauer Dionic HC Batteries and mount, which adds an additional 3.5 pounds to the F55 and more than 4 inches in added length to the stripped-down body, making it virtually impossible to mount to our rig.
Custom 4-pin XLR to RC EC5 cable for F55
4 cell Lipo Battery
We were delighted to see the XLR power input on the rear of the stripped-down F55 and realized we could simply hack a 4-pin XLR connector and power the camera using standard lightweight RC 4S lipo batteries rated at 16.8v when fully charged. Anthony had already researched the F55’s min/max voltage rating, which is 11-17v, which made tgem our power choice perfect. We averaged 2 hours of operating time per battery using 5000mAh lipos. The weight savings made the effort worthwhile.
Mounting the F55 to Anthony’s camera gimbal was straightforward and a perfect fit. Surprisingly, we didn't run into any of the same mounting and balancing issues as we did with other high-end video cameras we’ve flown. Flying the F55 on our drone rig was a stress-free experience! Real-time wireless video was sent to our camera operator via a 5.8ghz transmitter modified to transmit video at a higher bandwidth. We are able to view a video feed at a slightly lower resolution than full HD, which is more than enough for focus pulling purposes, if needed.
Laura and I choose to cover a real game rather then create a fake one. From watching the girls in practice, we knew that the hits and plays never looked quite real unless there were real stakes for the team. Anthony’s rig was flexible enough that it could react to live plays while being able to boom up and down in a way an NFL cable camera could only dream.
DP Joe Victorine and I get in the scrum
We covered the rest of the game with two Red Epics (operated by Joe Victorine and Ethan Sigman) and a Red Scarlet (operated by Dylan Steinberg), shot with a combination of Leica and Canon zoom lenses. For the most part, the Epics stayed around 120-300 fps with very skinny shutter angles. I was in the middle of the fray continuing my love/hate relationship with the Canon 1DC. Armed with only my Undercity 24mm f/1.4, I was close enough to capture the warlike intensity of these players in action (though, disappointingly, no one figured out how to tackle me). We covered the games in five-minute waves. My ground crew would shoot from the sideline as the drone performed its aerial passes before taking the field as it changed batteries.
The Zaxcom TRX742 Tramitter for Boom. It not only sends a wireless feed to the mixer but also had a built in microSD card timecode recorder featuring NEVERCLIP
Sound Mixer Max Phillips also stormed the field with a Sennehiser MKH70 long shotgun mic, which gave him the range to get the sounds of the game. To give him the flexibility to get closer without worrying about a heavy sandbag, we armed him with a Zaxcom TRX 742 transmitter. This transmitter has a built-in microSD card timecode recorder ,which made it an all-in-one unit for Max to use on the field. Zaxcom's Neverclip allows the built-in recordings to capture the microphone's full dynamic range, so Max could focus on finding the best position rather than setting levels.
Our ground team was supported by camera assistants James "All In" Madrid and Soren Nielsen. As usual, we would have all been running around like chickens with our heads cut off without the help of Assistant Director Davd Ketterer.
We set the F55 to shoot 4K XVAC to a set of 128GB SxS Pro+ cards. Though the S&Q functions were not yet activated in this shooting mode, we shot the camera at 4K/60p and conformed to 23.98 in post. Our camera was set to S Log 2 using the cameras native 1250 ISO (with the help of its built in F55). To keep the weight down, we shot with a Nikon 18mm F/3.5 AIS lens.
After shooting, we were able to verify our shots using Sony’s Content Browser 2.0 (if you are planning on shooting with the F55, go download it now while it’s still free). I tried to use Andy Shipsides’ F55 Import Guide from Abel Cine Tech’s blog to bring the footage into FCP 7 or Premiere but quickly realized XAVC is still not playing very nicely with either program.
As a workaround, I downloaded a free 30-day trial of FCP X and used Andy’s guide to import the footage. During the import process, I had FCP X create Prores HQ transcodes, which editor Justin Sharp was able to bring into FCP 7 to create the above video. All the BTS footage you see here was captured by Dave “Cobra” Ellis.
The above aerial footage is not color corrected, so you can see what S Log 2 looks like right off the card. There was also no post stabilization done on any of the aerial footage. I’m not sure if this is because of Anthony’s rig or because of the help of Sony’s global shutter, but it’s the smoothest and most cinematic drone footage I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. If you would like to download some of the original 4K transcodes, you can download them here until May 15th.
We have just begun to go through the rest of our Rugby footage, but the aerial shots alone have made my whole team very excited. I can’t wait to share the final piece with you all.
For your drooling pleasure here is come additional gear porn of the F55 on the drone. Thanks for taking a look!