Drone Cinematography

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Drone Cinematography

To fully understand aerial cameraman-ship you must first understand Ground-cameraman-ship and so we start with this learning curve. One cannot become an aerial cinematographer without understanding the jargon that the Director or DoP will be using. So understanding this is the absolute basic-training to becoming an aerial cinematographer.

Shot Sizes
Shot size refers to how big or small the frame is in relation to the subject. Does your character fill the frame or are they so far away as to be nearly invisible? What else is visible in your shot? Multiple characters? Objects? Landscapes?

The 5 most important shot sizes and how they work

Extreme Close-up (ECU) 
A ECU goes further, often showing nothing more than the character’s eyes. Think of a classic Western in which two characters stare each other down before a duel. This shot draws the viewer’s attention to facial features and expressions that would be lost in a wide shot.

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Close-up (CU)
The close-up is one of the most common shot sizes in cinema. It’s used when you want to highlight the facial features of your character without any other distractions in the shot. A typical close-up shows the character’s face from their forehead to their chin.

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Medium Closeup (MCU)
Showing the elbows up in the shot it also allows a definition of place with the background.

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Medium shot (MS)
The medium shot or mid shot is somewhere between a close-up and long shot. A typical medium shot shows the subject from their head to their waist. It’s close enough that you can still see their face, while also including some of their body language.

You might use this shot when a character is carrying an object or pointing a gun. Or, if they’re sitting at a desk, you can show them writing in a book, while avoiding wasting valuable screen space on their feet or their knees.

It’s also useful for when a character is moving through the frame, since it contains enough background information that the viewer doesn’t get disoriented


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Medium Long Shot (MLS) / Medium Wide Shot (MWS)
A medium long shot frames your subject from roughly the knees up. It splits the difference between a full shot and a medium shot.


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Full Shot (FS)
Now let's talk about camera shots that let your subject fill the frame -- while keeping emphasis on scenery. In a full shot, the camera is usually close enough to capture your subject’s basic appearance.


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L
ong shot (LS) also known as Wide Shot (WS)
A long shot is in some ways the opposite of a close-up. It shows the character’s entire body in frame, from their head to their toes. This gives the viewer a better sense of the subject’s surroundings, and conveys information that would be lost in a close-up.

Long shots are often used in action scenes, when it’s important to see how the character is moving through his or her environment. You might cut from that extreme close-up of your two dueling characters to a long shot that shows just how far they’re actually standing from each other, giving the viewer a better perspective on the scene.

The long shot (also known as a wide shot abbreviated “WS”) is the same idea, but a bit closer. If your subject is a person then his or her whole body will be in view -- but not filling the shot.

In other words, there should be a good deal of space above and below your subject. Use a long shot to keep your subject in plain view amidst grander surroundings.

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Extreme Long shot (ELS)
One variation of this shot is an extreme long shot, in which the character is so far away they’re nearly lost in the frame or obscured by their surroundings. Think of a character riding off into the sunset, getting smaller as they get further away from the camera.

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Summary
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Single, two shot, three shot

Another way to categorize a shot is by the number of people in the frame. We call this a single shot, a two shot, or a three shot, depending on how many people are in it

Typically, you’ll combine this with one of the other shot sizes we’ve already looked at. For example, you might use a two-shot close-up for a scene of two characters kissing. Three characters in an office might call for a medium three shot.

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Sample of 2-shot full shot

POV
Finally, there’s the POV or point-of-view shot. This is used when you want the viewer to see what the character is seeing or feel what they’re feeling. It can be a static shot or you can combine it with one of the camera motions that we’ll look at later.

Camera Angles

The next category that we’ll look at is camera angle. Once you’ve decided on a shot size, you can add a bit more perspective to your shot by choosing an angle. The camera angle can help you create a sense of fear, empathy, or disorientation in the viewer.

Eye level
The most neutral camera angle is the eye level shot. The camera points straight ahead at about the same level as the subject’s face. This is how you would shoot an interview scene if you wanted to maintain a sense of objectivity.

The goal is to let the viewer follow the action without manipulating their emotions. While it’s called “eye level,” it doesn’t have to be a shot of the character’s face. You can get an eye level shot of an object by maintaining a neutral camera angle.

Low angle
A low-angle shot adds some subjectivity to the scene. Instead of facing straight ahead, the camera looks up at the subject from a low angle. This can make a character appear threatening, dominant, or in a position of power relative to another character.

As with some of the other shots we’ve looked at, you can vary the intensity of it. A slight low angle might be used to convey a sense of authority, such as a teacher looking down at a student. An extreme low angle shot might be used to show a monster like Godzilla or King Kong bearing down on other characters.

High angle
The reverse of the low angle shot is the high angle shot, which creates the opposite impression, and makes the subject of the camera seem small. For example, a shot from King Kong’s POV might point down from a higher angle to show how powerless the characters are in relation to him.

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You can also take this to the extreme with a top angle or bird’s eye view. This shot looks down on the character from above and can be used indoors or outdoors. For example, you might look down on your subject entering a church or stadium.

Or, you could use this to show your character running away from a helicopter, in which case it would be an aerial shot or a drone shot.

Dutch angle
A Dutch angle is one of the most common ways to convey disorientation. For this shot, simply tilt the camera to one side so it isn’t level with the horizon. You might use this shot to show the POV of a drunk character stumbling down the street, or in a horror movie to give the impression that the walls of a haunted house are closing in.

Over-the-Shoulder (OTS)
An over-the-shoulder shot is another angle that can shift a viewer’s perception of the scene. A OTS shot is generally a close-up of another character’s face from “over the shoulder” of another character and is used to convey conflict or confrontation.

You could also use an OTS wide shot to show a character looking out over a landscape or moving through an action sequence, when you don’t want to use a POV.

Camera Movement

The third category that we’ll look at is camera motion or movement. Most of the shot sizes and angles we’ve look at can be used as either static shots or moving shots. By adding motion to a scene, you can move between camera angles easily, sometimes even within the same shot. Let’s look at 5 common camera movements here:

Pan or tilt
The simplest camera movement is a pan or tilt. A pan is when you keep the camera in one place and turn it to the side, and a tilt is when you turn it up or down.

If your camera is on a tripod, then you can simply turn the head of the tripod, just as you would turn your head to one side to get a new perspective on a scene. If a subject stands up, you can turn an eye-level shot into a low-angle by tilting the camera up as they rise.

A pan or tilt is also a good opportunity to experiment with speed. You could spend an entire minute slowly panning from left to right to show off a room or a landscape, or you can do a whip pan, in which the movement happens so fast that it becomes a blur.

Tracking shot, dolly shot, or crane shot
The key to a pan or tilt is that the camera itself doesn’t move, so the viewer feels mostly like a spectator. If you want to move with a subject and make the viewer feel like a part of the action, you can use a tracking shot, dolly shot, or crane shot.

Typically, a tracking shot moves sideways, a dolly shot moves forwards or backwards, and a crane shot moves up or down. Depending on your equipment, you can use these movements separately, or combine them to move on multiple axes at once.

Zoom
A zoom shot moves into or out of the frame by using a zoom lens rather than moving the camera. You can turn a medium shot into a close up by slowly zooming in on a subject’s face as they deliver an emotional monologue. Or you can zoom out to reveal a character or object that wasn’t previously in frame.

A zoom can be slow and subtle so that the viewer barely notices it happening, or it can be more obvious to give the shot a cinema verite style.

Random motion
Random motion is used to create energy and intensity, particularly in an action scene. Think of The Bourne Identity, in which the camera bounces around so quickly that the subject of the scene isn’t even always framed in the shot.

While random motion can be effective in creating a sense of disorientation, sometimes it can be too effective, leaving viewers dizzy and confused.

360-degree motion
The last type of motion that we’ll look at is 360-degree motion, in which the camera moves entirely around the subject of the shot. These shots can be challenging to do on large film sets, because they require hiding the crew and equipment from view, but they’re more common in the days of Steadicams and CGI.

The Matrix used a special camera setup for its 360-degree fight scenes, but you can also use a handheld camera or a drone.

Compound motion

The great thing about camera motion is that you don’t have to restrict it to one axis at a time. You can combine movements to move in multiple dimensions at once and create more complex shots. Let’s look at two popular compound shots:

Dolly zoom
The dolly zoom is used to create a sense of vertigo or unease. It was famously used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In this shot, the camera moves forward or backwards while the lens zooms in the opposite direction.

Single Take
A single take combines multiple movements, shot sizes, and angles into one extended shot. Rather that cutting from a long shot to a close-up, for example, the camera might track, zoom, pan, and tilt between a variety of different shots.

This can be the hardest to get right, but it’s an effective way to orient viewers to a new environment, such as with the opening shot in Goodfellas. It can also lend a theatrical feel to a movie, as in Birdman, which is made to appear like one very long shot.

Summary 

Camera Angles
  1. Eye level – camera points straight ahead. Intention is to be objective.
  2. Low angle – camera points up from a lower angle. It makes the subject dominating.
  3. High angle – camera points down from a higher angle. It makes the subject diminutive. A variation: Top angle or bird’s eye view – special case when you want to show the topography of a location. Aerial shots fall under this.
  4. Dutch – tilted angle. It draws attention to the fact it’s not a balanced frame. Something is literally off kilter.
Over the shoulder (OTS) – not strictly an angle, but it’s a specialized shot that deserves its own place. Confrontational by nature.

Shot Sizes
  1. Close up – facial features and expression is more important than anything else. Variation: Extreme close up – you probably want to chop something off for an even closer look.
  2. Long shot – When you want to add action and location along with the subject. Variation: Extreme long shot – when the location is more important than the character at that moment.
  3. Medium shot or Mid shot – half of a person, roughly, where body language is important while eliminating distracting elements of the background.
  4. Single, two shot, three shot. etc. – Number of people in frame decide this. You can combine this with a CU, MS or LS.
  5. POV – as if the audience were the subject.
Camera Movement
  1. 360 degree – showcase the subject by moving around it.
  2. Zoom – when you want to get closer or further away without making an emotional statement.
  3. Pan and tilt – when you want to observe the space from a single vantage point, follow the subject so you feel like you’re a spectator observing. The movement happens on a pivot.
  4. Tracking shot, crane, dolly – when you want to follow the subject and be more involved with the space and location. The audience is drawn into the world.
  5. Random – camera shake or motion to provide energy.Compound Motion
You can combine motion into more complex shots. The two most popular examples are:
  1. Dolly Zoom or Vertigo Shot – where the camera dollies in/our and zooms in/out (the opposite direction to the dolly movement) at the same time.
  2. Single take shot – where the action is a complex choreography of different camera angles, shot sizes and motion. The toughest and most time consuming to pull off.That’s it! By using a combination of angles, shot sizes and motion you can create an infinite variety of shots. 

Now we move these shots and movements into the 3 dimensional space of air. Here we can combine camera movement with camera angles and shot sizes all within a single movement. 
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NOTE: The above is what I have so far but I intend to define this more clearly as I find definitive industry jargon. 
This is a fairly new discipline so the jargon is not yet fully standardized but it is quickly becoming so.

Shot Techniques and Maneuvers

Go Slow
My first recommendation to anyone filming with a drone is to go slow. Slow is more cinematic, and it gives the viewer the impression you are shooting from a larger platform, such as a helicopter. This subconsciously increases the production value and makes the shot appear more controlled and crafted.

Make sure you also go easy on the RC control sticks on the remote. Use gradual movements and remember to accelerate and decelerate slowly; otherwise you will shake the camera around with the quicker movements, increasing your odds of having distortions or ‘jello effects’ on your footage.

Pre-plan and visualize as many of your aerial shots as you can. I recommend scouting your filming location before your shoot so you can factor in limitations of the area. Knowing what you’ll need ahead of time will also help you optimize your drone’s battery life, so you don’t run into a situation where you miss the shot you truly need because your batteries are out of power.

Use Two Axes of Movement
Imitate big-budget shots you see in movies, which are typically going to have two axes of movement at the same time. An example would be flying backwards and downwards at the same time, at a smooth, steady rate.

Use Three Axes of Movement
You can also try gimbal movements combined with drone movements to add another dimension to your shots. Doing this can give you up to three axes of combined movement. One of my favorites is flying forward and tilting the gimbal upwards to reveal the landscape.


Types of Aerial Shots

Birds Eye View
Camera pointed straight down and drone rising in altitude. No rotation or any other movement.
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Establishing shot (Establishment shot)
An establishing shot is a shot at the head of a scene that clearly shows us the location of the action. This shot often follows an aerial shot and is used to show where everything will happen.


Aerial Pan Shot (Strafe)
Strafing or sideways movements also work quite well for showing landscapes from a different perspective. Since most landscapes are shown on aerial videos with the drone moving only forwards or backwards, a panning shot (strafing shot) can stand out. It can also be an effective way to reveal cool features in the landscape.  


Tracking Shot
Usually used while moving parallel with the subject, tracking shots are choreographed in synchrony. The whole essence of this technique is matching the speed and being able to maintain focus on your subject at the needed composition point. We see these types of shots in motion pictures all the time, as well as at sports events and in car commercials. The trick here is to coordinate and rehearse as many times as needed. The easy way is to strafe your drone with the controls, with the camera at the same height, distance, and focal length, but you can add more movement if you feel comfortable or if it’s necessary.



Orbit
Orbits can be achieved by having your drone strafe to the right or left, and also pulling the yaw stick in the opposing direction. (The yaw control is typically the control stick on the left side of the controller that controls the drone’s rotation.) It is crucial to go easy on the yaw control, or you’ll end up spinning too quickly and spoiling the effect.

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Orbit can be a person or object such as a building. It can be a high looking down orbit or at any other level.


Fly-Through Shots
Fly-through shots can be quite cinematic, but they are going to be the most risky since you’ll likely be relying only on your controller screen (FPV) in order to navigate your drone. I wouldn’t attempt these unless you are confident in your piloting skills. I’m personally not the biggest fan of these shots, because when I see them it is a tell-tale sign that the shot was filmed with a drone; this may distract your audience, making them think more about the risk of the shot, instead of noticing the cinematography. 

Fly Over
We see these shots all the time, everywhere from commercials to music videos to TV shows — you name it. An easy way to go about filming a good fly-over shot is to choose one object or specific landscape and focus the whole camera movement around that one subject, while the drone is continuously flying and covering the distance until it passes the object from above. Fly-over shots are used for various purposes, but you can mainly think of it as a type of shot that helps you place the subject in a geographical perspective and show the scale of it.



Parallax
Add depth to your aerial scenes by taking advantage of extreme parallax effects, often with trees or structures closer to the drone, which helps provide a visual aid to the viewer for how large the surrounding landscape actually is.

360 Pan
I don’t recommend just rotating on the yaw axis, or basically a 360 pan. This is because drones typically have a hard time being precise with this movement, and it can give the footage a whip-pan effect if you’re not careful.

Pedestal Shot
This is a type of shot where the drone is flying up or down without moving the camera/gimbal at all, and it’s strictly relying on flying. This technique of camera movement can be also achieved through a crane or jib arm, but obviously the range we can get through drones for how far up or down we can go is tremendous, and gives us way more freedom. Pedestal shots are used a lot to show statues, monuments, and even views above the clouds. This can be as easy as adjusting your altitude control and going straight up and down, without having to worry about camera movement or focal distance.


Reveal Shot
A reveal shot pretty much does exactly what the name suggests. It serves as a technique to reveal the point of our interest or what we want the audience to focus on. It’s probably my favorite aerial technique to create big “WOW” effects and show a specific time of the day, as well as serving as an intro and outro for a specific scene. Start your drone in a spot that’s out of view of your subject, then move it until your subject is in view — it’s as easy as that! Some classic motion pictures employed a reveal shot to create memorable scenes, such as the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which uses these type of shots to introduce us to the infamous Overlook Hotel.



Camera Glossary
An aerial cinematographer must know this basic glossary so he/she may understand directions from the Director or DoP.

With images for each term.

aerial shot
A camera shot filmed from an airplane, helicopter, blimp, balloon, kite or high building (higher than a crane).

arc shot
A shot in which a moving camera circles round the subject being photographed.

bridging shot
A shot that connects one scene to another by showing a change in time or location. A bridging shot can also be used to connect two shots from the same scene by using a close-up, distant pan or different camera angle thus relating the shots via content.

camera angle
The position of the camera on a vertical continuum relative to the object being shot: eye-level, high-angle (looking down from above), low-angle (looking up from below), Dutch-angle (with the normal vertical axis tilted diagonally). The term can include the perspective given by the camera to the depth of focus, height and width of the particular object and action being photographed.

close-up
A shot in which a smallish object (e.g. the human head) fits easily within the frame.

composition
The complete arrangement of a scene by the director. The process includes camera angles, lighting, properties, characters, and the movement of the actors.

continuity editing
The conventions through which the impression of an unbroken continuum of space and time is suggested, constructing a consistent storyline out of takes made at different times.

crane shot
A shot in which the camera rises above the ground on a mobile support.

cross-cutting
Swiftly cutting backwards and forwards between more than one scene.

crossing the line
Breaking the 180º rule typical of continuity editing (see 180º rule).

cutaway
A sudden shift to another scene of action or different viewing angle; or a shot inserted between scenes to effect a transition (as a bridging shot).

depth (of field/focus)
The range of a camera lens. Depth of field refers to the distance furthest away from a lens in which the objects being photographed will remain in focus approaching infinity. Depth of focus refers to the closest proximity to the lens in which the objects being photographed will remain in focus approaching the infinitesimal.

dissolve
The slow fading of one shot into another.

dolly
A trolley on which the camera is pulled along the ground.

dynamic cutting
Combining a series of seemingly unrelated shots, objects, people, situations, details and characters in juxtaposition with one another (a form of montage, opposed to continuity cutting).

establishing shot
A long shot, often the first in a sequence, which establishes the positions of elements relative to each other and identifies the setting.

external diegetic sound
Sound which comes from out of frame, but is understood as belonging within the story space (unlike incidental music, which is extra-diegetic).

extreme close-up
A shot in which a small object (e.g. a part of the body) fits easily within the frame.

flashback
Narrative device in which the action is interrupted by scenes representing a character’s memory of events experienced before the time of the action.

flashforward
The opposite of flashback: future events (or events imagined by a character) are shown.

frame
Each individual photographic image making up the film. Also refers to the area of the picture seen on the screen.

framing
The size and position of objects relative to the edges of the screen; the arrangement of objects so that they fit within the actual boundaries of the film.

frontality
The placing of the camera at a 90º angle to the action.

graphic match
A visual rhyme between two successive shots.

jump cut
A rapid, jerky transition from one frame to the next, either disrupting the flow of time or movement within a scene or making an abrupt transition from one scene to another.

long shot
A shot in which a large object (e.g. a complete human figure) fits easily within the frame.

long take
A shot that is allowed to continue for longer than usual without editing.

match on action
A cut between two shots of the same action from different positions, giving an impression of seamless simultaneity.

medium long shot
A shot in which a largish object (e.g. the human figure from lower leg up) fits easily within the frame.

medium shot
A shot in which a medium-size object (e.g. the top half of a human figure) fits easily within the frame.

mise-en-scene
Everything placed within the frame, including set decoration, costume, and styles of performance (implies an emphasis on psychological and visual unity in a film from one frame to the next).

montage
Style of editing involving rapid cutting so that one image is juxtaposed with another or one scene quickly dissolves into the next. Angles, settings and framing are manipulated in a conspicuous way (violating coherent mise-en-scene) so as to convey a swift passage of time, to create some kind of visual or conceptual continuity, or to generate a distinctive rhythm. (See also dynamic cutting.)

narration
The telling of a story and the information supplied to the audience by a voice coming from off screen who may or may not be a character in the story.

off camera
Out of the boundaries of the camera’s field of vision (although a performer’s presence may be indicated by the context of the scene or their presence in dialogue).

180º rule
The convention that the camera can be placed in any position as long as it remains on one side of the action.

overhead shot
A shot looking down vertically on the action from above.

pace
The tempo at which the storyline of a film unfolds, affected by various elements including action, the length of scenes, camera angles, colour levels, editing, lighting, composition and sound.

pan
A movement in which the camera turns to right or left on a horizontal axis. 

parallel action
Aspects of a story happening simultaneously with the primary performer’s situation, edited so that the projected image goes back and forth between the primary and secondary scenes (often leading up to a convergence of the two actions).

passing shot
A shot producing a projected image that travels quickly across the screen, either by moving the subject past a stationary camera or by panning the camera past a stationary subject.

plan américain
Same as medium long shot.

POV (point of view shot)
A shot which is understood to be seen from the point of view of a character within the scene.

racking focus
A shift in focus between planes at different distances from the camera within the same shot. 

reaction shot
A close-up in which an actor or group is seen to respond to an event, often accomplished with a cutaway from the primary action to someone viewing the occurrence.

reverse angle
Two successive shots from equal and opposite angles, typically of characters during conversation.

sequence
A series of segments of a film narrative edited together and unified by a common setting, time, event or story-line.

sequence shot
A relatively long and complete scene shot in one take without editing (similar to long take).

set
A constructed environment in which to shoot a scene: often consists of flat backdrops or façades, but can be a three-dimensional construction.

shock cut
The immediate juxtaposition of two incongruous shots (e.g. from a sex scene to a religious icon). 

shot/countershot
Same as reverse angle.

subjective camera
A camera shot or film style that provides the audience with the specific vision or perspective of a character in the film (i.e. the technique of using POV).

suture
The ‘sewing’ together of imaginary and symbolic in Hollywood cinema carried out by continuity editing. It serves to ensure the sense of a unified narrative and subject position.

tilt
A movement by which the camera moves up or down while its support remains fixed.

titles
Any words that appear on the screen to convey information to the audience, including credit titles (identifying personnel), main title (the name of the film), end titles (closing credits), insert titles (announcing scenes or identifying settings) and subtitles (translation of foreign-language dialogue). Insert titles and subtitles can also be referred to as captions.

tracking shot
A shot in which the camera is pushed horizontally along the ground on a dolly.

two shot
A shot in which two actors appear within the frame.

voice-over
Voice heard while an image is projected but not being spoken in sync with one of the characters appearing on screen. Used to suggest a character’s thoughts or recall of something said earlier, or to provide objective (extra-diegetic) narrative or commentary.

zoom
The effect of rapid movement either towards or away from the subject being photographed, either by using a specialized zoom lens or by moving the camera on a boom, crane or dolly. Zoom effects can also be achieved and enhanced by the use of an optical printer.