Best Settings for Perfect Drone Footage. Me Thinks.
You know you’re doing something “right” when people take the time to ask you how you are doing it. Back in the day… when I was just starting out as a filmmaker, I would guard my secrets closely. It was a race for resources back then, and I didn’t want anyone to get my meat.
That perhaps is the worst sounding metaphor I’ve ever written.
Literary faux pas aside, and thanks to savvy people like Phillip Bloom and Vinny Laforet, I’m perhaps a bit older, wiser, and more secure now. I make a point of saying this from the top because I think it’s important you share your knowledge. Gaurding it is a false sense of security. There is already a kid younger then you that is better then you by the time you read this, so don’t worry about your meat, just go vegan.
Still not any better.
Enough old man gibberish (I’m 32 by the way;) onto the friggin’ settings.
The key settings for good drone footage is this holy trinity:
1) Proper camera settings
2) Proper Drone Operation
3) Proper Color Grading
There is no holy grail of camera settings that will guarantee you will have beautiful footage. Sorry kids, Trix are for kids (they still say that? I miss the 80’s. Shit. Im actually 35. Sorry)
1) Camera Settings:
We’re using the GoPro Hero 3, 4, or 5. The rundown is this:
• Turn your wireless off. It sucks up juice and can interfere with your drone/FPV.
• Use ProTune. Protune is the flatpass color space that will allow you to get the most range out of your footage. Highlights will be less blown out, shadows less crunchy. You will have to Color Correct and be a man about it.
• Shoot 1080p at 60fps. If you really want, 2.7k at 48fps. You want to over crank (slowmo) so that it will play back at 23.976fps in post. This gives you the buttery nice footage everyone creams over.
• Set your white balance. Usually I’m around 5500k. If you leave it on auto, you can have a color shift while filming which is a PITA to get out in post (PITA is Pain In The Ass BTW) (BTW is By The Way).
• Do not use GoPro color. Use Flat. Who the hell are they to tell you what is the correct color anyway? What is this? The 40’s? Am I allowed to ride the bus mister? (Seriously thought, if you are not comfortable with Color Correcting its not the worse thing in the world to use it).
• Limit your ISO to 400 if you are shooting daylight. You want to keep your grain down to a minimum and your shutter as slow as possible. Higher shutter can result in jerky footage and even result in the dreaded “jello effect” (will Bill Cosby’s past never stop hurting us…)
• Do yourself a favor and slap a good quality ND filter and/or Polarizer on you GoPro. You’ll be able to shoot at a lower shutter speed and you’ll thank me for it afterwards.
• Set your sharpness down to LOW. No one likes a show off. Besides, you don’t want your footage to look like your dad shot it on his MiniDV Z10 from the 90’s, or worse, an early Paul Thomas Anderson film…
• Finally, choose your lens option. Superview is a gimmick. Ultra wide is ok, but listen here… you will have to take it in post and do some “optical compensation” on it to make it look like you’re not flying on a magic front door and seeing the world through a peep hole. The result is in a pretty severe letterbox, which can be dope, if you’re Quentin Taranteeno. The same goes for Wide (less of a letterbox) and Medium is usually the best option for best quality. I’ll explain more of this in the post section, just trust.
2) Fly Right.
I am happy to say that I get lotsa calls from creatives and filmmakers that need some aerial footage and they want me to knock it out of the park for them. Then they ask my rate, at which time I tell them. My day rate is more then a basic drone costs. Some filmmakers get confused about this, and some have the cajones to ask, “well, why wouldn’t I just buy my own drone and shoot it myself” to which I tell them, they absolutely should. That’s a much better plan, and I’m obviously don’t understand how money or commerce works, besides, what is this strange device near my ear with the small people inside?
Let me set the record straight. Just like you can buy a camera and “film” something, it doesn’t make you a DP. You can also buy scalpels on eBay for $5.74 but that don’t mean you a doctor, you dig? And doctors charge WAAAAAY more then I do FYI (FYI stands for For Your Information).The reason I charge more then my equipment is the following:
• My drones are not “stock”. They are the hot rods of flying machines. They have FPV, come with client monitors, are specifically calibrated to shoot film, all the trim has been manually set, and they have been tested over and over. So really, while you could buy a drone with what I charge, you could only afford the Dodge Dart of drones my friend.
• I come with at least two drones. Yes. Two. I own 6. I own 6 and come with at least 2 is because, well, they fly, so they can crash. And they do crash. They are machines, and nothing’s perfect. Especially if you are taking risky shots, then, you better have a backup plan.
• They are insured. Up to 1,000,000.00 in damage. Yes. A million. If I break them, or break you, then I have a company that pays you/them money. I’m a professional, and that costs money.
• Flying for one day is more like 3 days of work. No one considers prep-time with drones. It takes a day to charge the 20 batteries I bring with me to set. A whole day. And you have to babysit them because they have a tendency to explode by themselves, usually when no one is watching. They are dangerous, and have to be treated with respect, which takes time, and that costs money. Checking the gear thoroughly as well before and after is key, as they are potentially flying death machines. The day before and after is what you are paying for to assure they don’t take your head off.
• Finally, YOU ARE PAYING FOR MY EXPERIENCE MORE THEN ANYTHING. If you think you can buy a drone and fly it as well as someone that has been doing it for years, go ahead. Maybe you can. Maybe you’re a savant of the skies. But lemme just offer you this little nugget: years ago, when I first started, I went through 3 drones before I even took a job. And I’ve been playing video games since I was 6, not to mention am an accomplished rally and motorcycle driver. These are not as easy to fly as you think they are, but please, don’t let me stop you. You gotta learn sometime.
So you gotta fly right (jeez what an old man rant. I’m actually 37). What does flying right mean? Well, it means knowing three things:
A) Your craft
B) Your conditions
C) Your shot
A) This is the fun part, and where the experience really comes in. Every drone will fly differently, even if its the same model of drone, they all have a specific characteristic to them. On top of which, your drone settings will effect how fast they accelerate, bank, yaw, or rotate, and if they ease in or out of the rotation for you. On top of which the camera you are flying, the rotors you are using, even the type of props you use will effect flight. Sometimes I use PVC props as they are a little softer and make flying more like you’re driving an old Caddy. Sometimes you want carbon fiber props for speed and sharp controlling. You have to modify your craft and flying style based on the other two points.
B) Conditions are the control in this science experiment. The wind is going to decide a lot for you, as is the temperature, as is the sun’s position. Generally, and this is a very general statement, you never want to do a shot going upwind; let the wind work for you, switch off your GPS control and float down the airstream. This will give you silky smooth shots. You can also push the speed limits for your craft if you fly with your wind. As for sun, you have to be careful of the dreaded “prop shadow”. This happens when the sun is about 2 o’clock above your lens; the shadow of your props can buzz the sensor and create this lame rolling effect that you cannot take out in post. So be aware, and do some tests if you have to.
C) Finally the shot you want to capture will be important in this equation. Sometime the other two things in this list make it difficult to capture what the director has in his mind. You have to be creative (and sometimes persuasive). Generally it is better to fly backwards at high speed; this way you don’t get props in the shot. That means chase shots become follow shots. If you’ve ever tried to fly out a window or door from inside to out, you will quickly realize that the cross wind will play a major part. Coming around corners of buildings even chasing a vehicle that passes you can created a bump in your shot. You will have to be ready for that.
3) Post Magic
So you’ve made it this far. Good for you! Usually I just hand off the footage I shoot to the production and they have the fun of treating it in post. I always like to give them a little breakdown of my preferred post procedures, because I really feel that the footage isn’t done, and my job isn’t either, until they treat the raw footage a bit. Color Correcting they can do any way they wish, but there is some little tricks to help it look its best:
• You should transcode your footage to ProRes 422 and make sure you interpret your footage to play back at 23.976fps. The H264 that comes out of the GoPro is fantastic for what it is, but it’s not great to work with in post. You’re not getting any more quality out of the footage by transcoding it to ProRes, but, when color grading, you are lessening the possibilities of artifacts, and ultimately, keeping render times down as H264 is very labor intensive for the computer to work with.
• You need to optically compensate for your fisheyed image. There are a few pluggins that can do this for you in FCX, FCP, Avid, etc. – what I use is good ol’ After Effects. Optics Compensation is an effect that comes standard and works like a charm. Here’s how it works, see the pics below:
1) Import your footage. Slap on Optics Compensation.
2) POV is the amount you are reducing the fisheye effect. 50-60 is a good place to start. Also click on “reverse lens disorder”, thats what takes it out instead of adds it.
3) Your footage looks better, BUT, you’re not showing your entire frame as its zooming in for you so you have no black pixels on screen. Click on “optimal pixels” to see what I mean. Now you have a bow of black above and below, but all of your beautiful frame.
4) Letterbox that shit like the pro’s (trim your comp size rather then add black bars if you want my 2 cents. No reason to waste bandwidth on black bars. There’s probably a race joke in there somewhere but I’m too old for that shit. Im actually 58.)
Wow. Yous did it. Now you’re g’damn Terrance Malik you handsome sonnovabitch.
• If you shoot super wide you will have a larger letterbox, if you shoot narrow you will have none. For my money, with “wide” you can get away without not letter boxing… sometimes. I always think it looks much more impressive taking out the fisheye and adding the letterbox. Cinematic and shit.
• Finally, color GRADE your film. There is a lot of great videos about the different between color correcting and color grading that I won’t bore you with, but I will say this, “color correcting is making one shot look like another so that all your shots look like they were filmed at the same place at the same time. Color Grading is giving your footage emotion, reason, and a unique characteristic that adds a personality to the footage that wasn’t there before.” Generally your footage will look all the same, you won’t need to color correct per se. But you should grade the film especially if you listened to me and shot “flat” with protune turned on. Crush down your blacks a bit, and stretch out your whites. Don’t add too much color back and you will have a beautiful film-like look. Another great plugin that I robbed from Phillip Bloom is Film Convert. It’s got a GoPro setting that basically takes all the guess work out. Also Lumetri in Premiere comes with GoPro presets that do a fine job.
And thats it folks. (I’m laughing inside, cause we’re at 2,370 words right now, so “that’s it” is kinda a joke. I’m staring at 40 people). There’s a few moving parts for making great drone footage, but once you get the hang of it, and you play with it a while, it will become second nature. Of course choosing the right track to edit to, and being an editing mastermind also makes what you shoot fly off the screen, but thats a whole other blog post.
In the end… this is one of the products:
Enjoy the settings! Happy flying y’all.
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.