We recently produced an aerial shoot in Dupont State Forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina to acquire a variety of aerial cinematography stock footage and also as a test for my upcoming film, “Seven Days ‘Till Midnight”. (Check it out at www.sevendaystillmidnight.com) The location is pretty spectacular in that it has a number of magnificent waterfalls and landscapes that are amazing to photography from the air. In fact, it’s a popular filming location that has hosted numerous films including “The Hunger Games“, “Last of the Mohicans” and the upcoming release, “Max” Yet, in my opinion, the true scale and beauty of the location has been lost on even those larger budget films.  It was exciting to put the ship in the air and view the park from a whole new vantage point.


Focusing on the “Cinematography” in Aerial Cinematography

As aerial cinematography continues to be a hot topic item and the industry is continues to grow, I’ve noticed a horrible tendency to simply throw on the widest lens possible with the idea that “We want to see everything if we are going to be in the air!”

The basics of good cinematography still apply even if you are not tethered to a terrestrial pedestal.  Focal length, blocking and composition are the predominant factors in creating exciting, high quality imagery no matter what device the camera is tethered to. This idea of wide lenses being the go-to lens is frustrating to me to say the least. It’s the same as saying that every scene in a project, with no consideration of blocking, content or visual intent, should be shot on the widest lens available.

Aerial Cinematography in Dupont State Forest with James SuttlesI’m not saying that you should never use a wide lens on a multi-rotor but I do think you need to have a clear understanding of cinematography before you ever attempt to fly a drone for the purpose of capture images. For a lot of people getting into this line of work, the tendency seems to be that the technique of flight and piloting the craft is typically the number one focus with the actual knowledge of cinematography coming in a distant second. For me, a multi-rotor is just another tool in an arsenal of gadgets that allows a cinematographer to capture the most visually dynamic shot possible. With the right choice of lens, proper blocking and flight plan, an aerial shot can be dramatic and useful addition to any project.

Having said that, the speed and flexibility that these multi-rotors provide is one of the things that has drawn me to love aerial cinematography ever since I first partnered with Mike Gentilini and Aerial.Vidmuze.com. Being able to take a multi-rotor into the valley that a waterfall cascades into or buzz the trails on top of a rock face then ascend high above the tree line is inspiring and freeing for a filmmaker like myself who has always loved injecting movement into my cinematography. It truly feels creativly unlimited.


Framing the Landscapes

20140627-225315-82395253.jpgOn this particular shoot in DuPont State Forest, just as with any shoot, finding the most dynamic way of engaging the viewer is a challenge. For years I have worked as a cinematographer telling stories and finding frames that assist in driving the narrative forward yet with aerial cinematography shoots, such as this project, it truly is an attempt to represent the landscape in all it’s glory. Sure, it would be simple to fly high, aim wide and grab a frame that showcases everything around the environment but what we have found is that just like a good narrative film, it’s best to lead the viewer on a journey within each shot to maximize the visual impact.

My favorite setup from the day includes 2 shots with essentially the same flight path but reversed movement and a slight increase in elevation on one end of the move.

The first approach resulted in a nice reveal of High Falls from a seemingly calm river with the covered bridge above it. The second approach reversed the move showcasing the falls first then the bridge ultimately traveling higher in elevation to reveal the river and distant mountains. Both were shot with a 16mm Rokinon Cine EF lens (with crop factor becomes an approx. 36mm) on the Panasonic GH4 at 4k resolution with ISO 800, 180 degree shutter at f16. I love how similar the shots are but by simply reversing the move, the reveals have two completely different affects on the viewer.


Final Thoughts

As a general approach, when trying to plan the most effective and dynamic aerial cinematography shot, we always try to find the most unique and least viewed perspective with the most foreground elements that can add paralaxing to the composition and a flight path that is more complex than a simple single axis move. It’s not that every shot has to be complex to be effective but by starting the conversation with a plan that is complex, I tend to think you end up talking yourself down to the best shot that fits the objective of the project without sacrificing the photography out of simple laziness. I have found, with experience, it becomes second nature to evaluate a location and find the best approach with the least amount of deliberation.


Aerial Cinematography Demo Reel