How To Make A Good Drone Film.

Drones. We all got drones. Everybody is doing the drone thing, amarite? I mean there is even a Drone Film Festival in NYC (which I’m a judge of;) so lemme tell ya when I say drone vids are a dime a dozen, they are.

So, how do you make a good one? How do you make one that stands out? One that people actually watch, and dare I say it, share?

Well, here are a few tips I use when making my vids, and things I look for in other flyer’s vids. Just some armchair advice, and you can’t beat the price.

  1. Shoot it right. 

This should be a no brainer but like cooking or construction if you use crap material, you get a crap product. So what do I mean “shoot it right”? Here’s a few things to think about while flying:

  • Fly steady. Do long sweeping moves. Try to ease in and out of panning shots. This is where the skill is in flying.
  • Know what you’re shooting at. Flying into the sun can be cool, but it usually isn’t. Be aware of propeller shadow hitting your lens (e.g. don’t fly 45 degrees to the sun)
  • Use a ND filter. This will slow down your shutter, and keep your footage more cinematic. Don’t have a ND filter? You can tape a piece of exposed 35mm film over the front of your lens. That one’s for free.
  • Be interesting. Sure you can go high, but the best drone footage has movement. If you are ballsy enough fly through something (safely people) or easier, set up a shot where you fly sideways across something, e.g. a wall, coastline or even a fence, you’ll get a cool shot.
  • Set your camera up right. Many of you have seen my post on the “best” settings for drone footage. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Also, I always opt for more resolution over frame rate. It will give you more latitude in post bringing me to my second point:

2. Dress up your footage. 

Sure, you can upload your entire clip to YouTube and let it rot there with the millions of others, or, you can do some dress up in post. Don’t be afraid of post, frankly it’s more fun then flying sometimes, and will make the difference between amateur footage and pro footage. Here’s some tips:

  • Cut it down. Then cut it down some more. Then cut it down, once again. Drone videos don’t need to be over 2 minutes ever. 30 seconds is actually totally appropriate. Short and sweet is the best rule of thumb here, choose your best moments, and get out.
  • Think story. I know you’re just shooting a field, or the ocean, or a strip mall, but build a story. Could be anything; start low and go high. Maybe try alternating closer shots with wider shots. Build a story, like you are leading a viewer on a ride. I alway re-order my clips (that’s editing;) so that they tell a story, abstract as it may seem.
  • Think backwards. Don’t be afraid to reverse your footage. 80% of the time I will have my shots playback in reverse, reason being is because with most drones, especially Phantoms, you can fly backwards faster and without the props getting in the shot. Reverse this and you look like Ice Man from Top Gun. Just make sure there are no people, or waves in the shots, or it might look a little weird.
  • Get weird with it. I know I just said be careful not to get weird with it, but I definitely want you to get weird. 99% of all drone films are just beautiful footage from the sky. Thats cool. Sometimes it’s real refreshing to see something new, weird, and edgy. Mix in B roll, stuff on the ground, handheld. Turn the image upside-down, that will make your head spin. Stand out footage will make you stand out.
  • Color Correct and Optical Correct always. Your footage isn’t really done when it comes out of the camera, it’s half done. If you can, shoot “flat” or “protune” to have latitude in post to color correct. Massage your contrast, grade your film, and give it a look. I guarantee you will make it 100 times better. Another great thing to do is optically correct the footage. Most footage coming out of the camera will have a pretty noticeable fish-eye on it. It will look like you shot it through a hotel door. Most programs, like After Effects, have a “optical correct” plugin that you can slap on your footage. Here’s a good tutorial that I every time without fail. Pro Tip: click the “optimal Pixel” checkbox. It will “bow” the top and bottom of your footage. Then just change your frame/canvas size to crop the image. This will give you the most resolution and a nice letterbox.

3) Music

I can’t stress this one enough. Good music makes good footage. Music is so important to film in general, but it goes triple for drone footage. A sweeping orchestral piece will elevate and give your film gravitas. Something electronic and modern will give it an edgy feel. Depending on what you want your film to be, music is the vehicle to get you there. You can use a famous song, but beware, some sites may not let you post it. Or you can go to a site like pond5 to get some cheap tracks that can be used anywhere. Even finding something at freesound.org can get you on the right track, so to speak.

Here is a little side by side of ungraded and graded footage:

And here is the final film with music:

that’s it really, three solid rules to follow when thinking about drone films. This is a special genre of film and relatively still new, so there is lots of room to bend and break these “rules” but I guarantee if you are at least thinking about them, you’re going to have a better end result. If you don’t I’ll be happy to refund your money.

Happy flying!

Rs

Roberto Serrini is a NYC based commercial director, editor, and avid drone operator. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com

Drone Racing

As many of you know, I’m an avid Drone pilot. I’ve flown my quad all over, documenting the Arctic Circle, Cambodia, even P Diddy. I’ve focused on the cinematography aspect of flying, even given a few tips along the way, but never really considered racing the little beast before today.

Well lemme tell you… it’s a whole new day.

I got a chance to spend the day with the amazing pilots of the Liberty Cup Drone Race, and my mind was completely blown. This was the last qualifier before the national competition at Governor’s Island, and tensions were super high. I put together this little teaser just to give a taste of how fast these guys fly, and how hard they sometimes crash.

If you haven’t you definitely should.

Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in wordphotography 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.

spy creatures

Super interesting little doc about shooting docs with spy creatures. The BBC does another fantastic job, and Highsnobiety does a great job covering the story.

https://vimeo.com/102514372

I love the use of tech to discretely tell a story, or in this case, to document animal behavior. It reminded me a lot of when I use drones in filmmaking, the types of movements you want to create are natural, but you strive to be able to give an unusual perspective to the audience. Many times that means starting low and going high, or flying through an object or window in a natural way so that while you think you are watching a shot you’ve seen hundreds of times before, you soon realize that this is something wholly different.

thai rodeo. buffalo racing?

One day earlier this year I got a little phone call from a man by the name of Joel Soisson.

“Hi. This is Joel Soisson.”

Who the hell was Joel Soisson? Well, if you know how to Google (or click a hyperlink you lazy bum) you would quickly find out he is the producer of such films as Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (starring a super young Keanu Reeves and Billy Joe Armstrong), Dracula 2000 (which is like classic Dracula with computers) and my personal favorite, Piranha 3DD (Staring Doc Brown, strippers as lifeguards, and yes, double D was not a typo).

Well long story short the convo went like “hey, you want to come to this remote, back-country part of Thailand no one goes to and do some aerial filming for our new movie, “The Buffalo Rider”?”

Yes Joel, I would. 

And I did:

What an amazing thing to not only film, but see. This was the real deal; villagers and townsfolk came from all over. The head of the region sat on a little makeshift stage wearing his best shirt. There were shiny plastic trophies, pleanty of Ya Dong drinking, and lots of people cheering on small boys hanging on for dear life to a charging 2 ton water buffalo.

The track, muddy and wet, was more of a slip and slide then a racetrack. At the end, a shallow lake.

How do you steer a water buffalo? You don’t. How do you slow it down? You don’t. How do you stop it? You jump off.

The video will show you what I saw. Exciting, dangerous, and fast, this is a rodeo that only the country that invented Red Bull could invent. As for the color treatment, for all you film nerds, I had an itch to learn DaVinci Resolve which is an amazing program, and decided to put their qualifier and keyer to the test. I don’t think there is a better film grading program out there, and it’s free people. 

See other little aerial films at my site http://www.robertoserrini.com/filter/drone/Drone-Aerial-Cinematography

Rs

Thai Buffalo Racing final.Still004

tropical island. drones. beautiful.

This year I had the pleasure of going to Thailand on a film shoot (The Buffalo Rider – watch for it in theaters) and on the tail end of the shoot hit up the wee island of Koh Phi Phi for a little R&R and sun worship.

Of course it took me about 6 minutes before I broke out the drones.

So here is a little vacation film of Outrigger Resort on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. It truly is paradise…

 

itsawrap!

On a compressed schedule and a whirlwind 5 days straight droning, my part in “The Buffalo Rider” has wrapped. Besides the lovely Thai countryside of Chon Buri, I had the pleasure to do some amazing shooting at a remote Buddhist temple, A vast pineapple field, and even a local school, where I flew through a classroom of kids, out a window, and tracked behind two escaping students through a taro field. Life really is like a video game sometimes; you have to make each level a little more difficult or it gets a bit… boring;)

 

All my love to Joel and the amazing crew – they continue shooting for the rest of the month, and I look forward to some real cinema magic when the film gets completed. As for me, it’s time to get down to Bangkok, for a different kinda adventure, with my girl Miranda Kendrick from the jolly ol’ UK, coming out to be my “assistant” on the shoot … more like a “partner in crime” then an “assistant” me thinks.

Tally Ho!

Rs

 

 

and we’re off… buffalo racing.

Ah the illustrious world of buffalo racing. The pageantry. The jockeys with their sponsored banners and uniforms. All the pomp and circumstance that rivals even the Kentucky Derby.

Nah. Just kidding.

Buffalo Racing it turns out is about as country as you can get. It’s a mixture between drag racing and rodeo if stock cars had horns and we’re extremely pissed off. What I found personally interesting was the way Thai people from the city view Buffalo Racing. They think it’s backwater, hillbilly stuff. And to their credit, it is. Most of the actors in the film are from Bangkok, and they not only talk different then the locals here, but are noticeably whiter and very much on purpose. They cover themselves completely when they are not on camera. Then, they add a large amount of whitening to their already white skin. While westerners long for the bronzed skin that comes with a healthy tan, here it is anything but wanted. “White is right” said one of the kids on set, which sounded very, very strange to my ear. (on a side note, there is such a thing as “Nazi Chic” in Thailand that kinda blew my mind. I thought Juicy Couture sweatpants was the abomination of my fashion world… this definitely takes the cake.)

So this world is absolutely bizarro which makes it fantastically interesting. The buffalo are huge beasts that go extremely fast. Imagine a half ton of muscle and horn flying down a slippery mud runway at 30 mph… with you on the its back. What’s more is that it’s usually kids that race. They sit on the very back of the beast, hold on to a thin rope that is looped through the animal’s nose, and whip the shit out of them as they fly 100 yards toward a finish line. It’s not so much racing as controlled disaster. It’s riveting.

To stop the animal they… don’t. They simply jump off. That should give you an idea of what kinda control they have. Basically they run into a large body of water which slows them down, and then two dudes put their hands up and hope they stop.

DSC00215

They are beautiful animals. Before seeing them Joel the director had said how amazed he was with them, how much more expressive they were then other animals, say a dog or horse. They have these eyes, and can totally emote through them. You can see when they are happy, hungry, playful, or pissed off. It really is impressive. They owners love them as well and treat them like part of the family. They constantly bathe them. Constantly. It is amazing to watch the animal squint in pleasure as cool water is poured on him in the hot sun.

Oh yeah. It’s friggin’ hot. Really hot. Like 100 degrees hot. The palms of my hands got sunburnt. Luckily production was ready for it, and even had a bottle with my name on it ready to go at all times.

ahhhh.
ahhhh.

As for the production team, wow. I’ve never seen guys work so hard. They were amazing, rocking and rolling, making it happen. They set up dolly track in minutes, hardly ever was a word even spoken. Shooting on a RED as well in this heat could have been an issue, but not for these champs. None of the “not my job” attitude here; if it had to be done, it got done, regardless if you were the DP or an PA. It was a pleasure working with them.

I love sets like these. This is what I consider real filmmaking. The reason I got into filmmaking was because I get so bored doing just one task. I love the variety, the combination of talent it takes to make something really fuse together. So when I was asked to put down the drone and step in as the buffalo I was honored.

 

Considering how hot it was, how much there was to shoot, and the fact that we weren’t using set animals, the day went off without a hitch. Lotsa people came down to watch; there was even a sorta tailgate culture where young guys would bring out their freshly washed supped up kit cars with homemade spoilers to impress local girls. Lotsa food trucks and drinking as well, along with your lively betting under the stands.

Hired as an aerial cinematographer I had my work cut out for me. These muscle rockets were fast, unpredictable, and on the whole, did not like the wasp-like whine of my drone. That being said I think it’s been one of my favorite things I’ve shot to date. Flying and shooting with a drone can be a lot of fun; it excels at landscapes and cityscapes, and for the most part anyone can make such scenes look amazing with the right gear and experience. Moving objects, and more specifically, large running animals in a race with small humans on their back was definitely more of a challenge, and one that was ultimately more rewarding then chasing a car or flying over a ridge of a mountain. To watch in slow motion as you track along side of them careening into a lake of sunlit painted water was quite a nice moment. It’s times like these I wish I charged more.

Rs

 

and now, a word about drones…

So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention anything about drones at this point, since, it’s basically the reason this trip is happening. Here is the internet famous film that got it all going…

When DJI first came out with the original Phantom Quadrocopter, I bought it in a heartbeat. I mean, it was basically a man toy, and I had to have it. I didn’t fully realize how much I would fall in love with flying and filming.

DSC00069

When I first got it, it came with nothing. I flew it first without any camera on it. I flew it right into the wall. I really didnt expect it to be so difficult to control, I mean, I was a master flying a Ghost in Halo, how much harder can this be from a video game.

Lots.

People often say “what do those cost? Like 600 bucks? I should really get one” and you should. They are amazing. What you probably don’t realize is that like most good things, there is a bit more to it then it might seem.

First of all, flying the damn thing is unlike anything else you’ve done, unless you’ve flown quadrocopters before, then it’s just like that. Imagine that, like a car, you not only have forward, backwards, left and right to contend with, but also up and down. Now, add in the fact that the copter can rotate, so, imagine, you rotate 90º and try to fly to the right. You know which way you fly? If you guessed backwards, you are correct. And if you are confused then you are normal. Two points.

Basically it’s like controlled chaos in 3D. The damn thing goes ridiculously fast, and very high, and it is very easy to crash one, or in my case, four of them. Luckily I always travel with 2 drones, like any professional, it’s important to be ready for the worst.

Now, the price. Sure, 600 bucks gets you in the door. Then I had to add the Zenmuse gimbal, which stabilizes the camera. Then I had to upgrade the circuit board and NAZA controller. Don’t know what that is? Neither do I. I had to solder for godsake. Solder. That means buying a soldering iron. And something called flux which I still don’t fully understand. That means having to go to RADIOSHACK for the love of God. Then I then had to buy a GoPro, and upgrade the controller as well for tilt control. Batteries… each lasts about 10 minutes, which means buying about 12 of them for a shoot. Additional chargers, custom case, carbon fiber props, and of course, had to install a Fatshark RX transmitter and receiver so I can get a video feed to the director.

600.00 easily becomes 3K. Easily.

Perhaps the most “interesting” part about learning how to do all this is that there really is no “instructions”. It’s not like there is a manual that comes with the components that tell you how to put it together. Mind you at the time there were no “kits” that came with this setup already built. Any information I got was online, and usually from either a German youtube video or some half-assed comment in a message board. It was like navigating to the moon with directions your 90 year old grandfather gives you.

The good part about this is that you really learn the equipment. You learn what everything does, or can do, and you learn how to fix it, or troubleshoot issues if things go wrong, and things always go wrong. I considered it payment for all the enjoyment I was about to have.

Seriously though, soldering sucks.

Mind you, I knew nothing about RC piloting, so I’m by no means trying to tell you it’s not easy to start doing. Just maybe not as easy as you think.

In the end Ray, one of the other producers on the film here in Thailand, said it best: “At first I was just going to buy one and shoot the footage myself. Then I realized how many bad aerial videos are out there. I thought, maybe this isn’t as easy as it seems. So we called you.” Thanks Ray.

DSC00070

Like anything worth doing, it has its learning curve. For your consideration; above are LiPo bags. LiPo’s are the type of batteries that go into the drone, and look like little C4 explosives. And, oh yeah, they tend to fucking explode for no reason every now and then.

So you are not allowed to put them in checked luggage, which means you take them on board with you. The idea here is that if something does happen it’s better if it’s in the cabin where you can do something about it. There is a whole TSA and FAA sheet about this, which doesn’t stop you from having a hell of a time explaining what the hell you’re doing with so many batteries at the airport security.

Finally, and perhaps the most interesting about this type of hobby, is that it is technically illegal. You may see that I wrote “hobby” instead of “job”. That’s because the FAA does not allow you to fly drones for commercial purposes. It’s not that I don’t have a license, it’s that THERE IS NO LICENSE. In fact, THERE IS NO ACTUAL LAW for or against it. It’s this weird limbo ruling that basically allows them to fine you 10K if you fly them for commercial purposes. So I obviously do not advertise myself as an aerial cinematographer, because that would be illegal. That’s why I only fly them for my enjoyment. Sometimes I do it while on set, between takes, you know, just to fill downtime. It’s a great hobby, and way better for you then smoking.

how thailand happens. drones.

Sometimes I wonder how the hell I get myself into these situations. It all started in… Cambodia.

In 2013 I went to Cambodia to shoot a doc with Sami Joensuu, who is a badass. The doc was for a non-profit called FIDA that brought humanitarian aid to some very remote parts of the world. We were in one of those remote parts of the world. I’ll write more about the Cambodian adventure later, but long story short I brought my drones with me to get some tasty aerial magic.

The aerial footage went viral. Thank God, the last thing I did that made internet fame was a short “film” called “Tits for Hits”. There may be hope for me yet.

After the film was out I got lots of emails. Amazing emails. People thanking me for taking beautiful images of their country, filmmakers inspired to do the same. GoPro called me. They bought the film off of me to use in their marketing campaign. Now that’s how advertising should happen.

One email was from a very funny guy named Joel Soisson. This was his charming little email:

To: Roberto Serrini
Subject: Your Drone Work.

Hi Roberto,

Let me be the millionth fan to compliment you on your fine aerial work on the Cambodia film.  I’m directing a low-budget feature film about kids who race water buffalo in rural Thailand and was wondering if you had any plans to be back in that part of the world between mid-March and mid-April of this year.  Or if you would be up for being flown to Thailand and ridiculously underpaid for your obvious talent.

Anyway, that’s about the worst proposal you’ve probably received in a while but if you’re up for doing some beautiful aerials on a touching little film, hit me back.  Otherwise, keep up the good work!

Best regards,

Joel Soisson
Writer/Director/Producer
Buffalo Rider

He had me at “low-budget feature”.

Drone shooting, as I call it because Aerial Cinematographer sounds pretentious as hell, is a newly acquired skill for me (and everyone really). I bought a DJI Phantom in June 2013 to take to Italy for a San Pellegrino shoot. Since then I bought another Phantom, learned to solder, built a F550, and installed them all with Zenmuse gimbals, FatShark FPV, and custom props and landing gear. I latched on as hard as you can, and while I will say the learning curve is steep (like 4 drones crashed steep) it’s been extremely rewarding. So to have the chance to film friggin’ buffalo racing in Thailand, and have my girlfriend come with as an assistant, let’s just say I was willing to discuss the options.

The point here people is that budget rarely dictates passion. If you love what you do, then just do it. Money is really just something that happens along the way. Besides, you cant buy the kind of experience to work with people who are as crazy as you are about what they do. That’s like a orgy of creation, and everyone leaves satisfied.

So what happened? Joel and I had some great e-mail banter, discussed the script, the usage of the drones, and got pretty amped up about the possibilities. These tools have the potential to add so much production value; shots that would have cost in the tens of thousands now can be achieved with a well worded email and a healthy sense of adventure.

And so the flights were booked. I’ve had worse proposals Joel.

Rs

PS: Here’s the film that was internet famous for a day. The funny thing is that this was just something I pieced together; an afterthought of a larger project. Again, do what you love and life will high-five you.

https://vimeo.com/82292117