Game of Drones
THE ARRIVAL OF A GOLDEN AGE FOR AERIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY
I’ve long been a conflicted drone enthusiast. While it was easy to recognize their potential from the beginning, I’ve also never been able to give a full-throated endorsement of any one technology set, at least not when it comes to cinematography. Like any bleeding edge tech, there are bugs and compromises and caveats, and those can be hard to square against the risks and costs inherent in airborne film production.
After a few months of working with DJI’s latest and best, I can confidently declare all that is now over. In the Inspire 2 we have a safe and dependable aircraft that brings home cinema-grade footage. It does this at a price that’s easy for professional shoots to accommodate. Stir in a little insurance standardization and a few regulatory updates, and suddenly we find ourselves at the dawn of a golden age for aerial cinematography.
There are a handful of reasons to make that claim, but the lead of the story is that we now have an integrated camera system with interchangeable lenses and a truly excellent image sensor. DJI’s X7 camera leaves nothing to be desired when cut with an Arri or a RED, offering raw capture with 6K resolution and 14 stops of dynamic range. A set of custom-designed prime lenses brings it home, and the large sensor makes it possible to stabilize the camera at up to 50mm focal length. Previously only possible with very large and heavy systems, the Inspire 2 packs all this into a camera smaller than Rubick’s cube.
The overwhelming majority of existing drone footage was captured by a tiny sensor with an ultra-wide lens. That’s almost never a filmmaker’s ideal choice. Indeed, the Panasonic GH5, Sony a7, and other mirrorless cameras have been popular choices for heavy drones because they have larger sensors in relatively small packages. The X7 is smaller still, and it producers much better, more robust images.
Compression in particular is what shines when you look at this footage. To oversimplify, larger sensors require longer lenses for a given composition, and ultimately this causes background/foreground elements to appear closer together. That opens up some creative possibilities, and it produces a familiar cinematic look. Going from a small sensor to S35 is like going from Mario to Sonic - you can’t help but notice something is going on. It’s the same reason anyone will say the Phantom 4 Pro looks significantly better than the Phantom 4, or why the X5 looks better still. The X7 brings it to the Hollywood standard S35, where we’ve wanted to be all along!
Size isn’t everything, of course, and there are plenty of cameras with a S35 sensors that do not compare well to the X7. That’s even true of the X7 recording h.264 versus the X7 recording ProRes. DJI provides several recording options that take advantage of nearly everything the X7 sensor can offer, including raw, and that’s what yields footage that can be seamlessly cut with the best cameras on the planet. The ability to access these advanced codecs is an add-on that must be licensed, which of course Dox has done, and which I strongly recommend to anyone shopping an I2.
The flight system too is something of a miracle, even if it’s a miracle we’ve come to expect. The Inspire 2 is now running dual batteries and sporting a bunch of anti-collision sensors. It’s also extremely fast, which matters to cinematographers because it emulates the perspective of manned aircraft. On a recent highway shoot we repeatedly got the Inspire 2 past 70mph, which was essential to keeping up with the shot. 70mph is about twice as fast as some of the more powerful camera drones on the market.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this system is new to me, but not unique to the Inspire 2. The ability to operate the aircraft and the camera separately is absolutely essential. It’s one of those things that I didn’t know I was missing, but now that I’ve found it I’ll never go back. Flying a drone isn’t all that difficult, but it’s nerve-wracking. Flying a drone and operating a camera simultaneously is difficult and nerve-wracking. Operating a camera whilst your partner pilots with focused concentration, well that’s just a pleasure - and it produces more and better footage with dynamic movements with organic feels that you simply can’t do alone. I tried to do it the other day, it was a massacre. I felt like I had a hand tied behind my back.
My first drone was the original Phantom, which I bought directly from DJI back in January 2013. Despite the highly problematic video one could get from an attached, non-stabilized GoPro Hero 3, this drone was nothing short of a miracle for what it represented. With glee I saw in those first two flights (before it flew home to China) that very soon cinematographers like myself would be able to achieve shots previously impossible without a massive budget. It wasn’t quite as soon as I thought, but it’s here now, and it’s really cool.