The Making of an Aerial Documentary

Late in 2013 I started hearing about these things called drones, and though they were a bit rudimentary compared to today’s standards (we’ve coming a long way in 2 whole years!), I knew I was hooked. You see as a kid on Saturday evenings we usually always had Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on somewhere in the house. You would see these spectacular moving aerial shots (via helicopter$) of lions or cheetahs running on some remote African plain and not only be captivated by the sheer beauty of nature, but the shot itself!

Fast forward to 2014 when I got my first drone, I suppose I had made full circle with this somewhat repressed fascination with aerial photography and cinematography.  I was now able to get up in the sky with a camera and fly with relative ease thanks to technology commonly found in smartphones (think GPS, IMU and a compass). I also took some basic drone classes at the same time at UAVDirect in Liberty Hill. These free classes were headed up by Eric Davis, a stellar drone technologist with a wealth of knowledge and someone who’s probably saved me from near disaster multiple times! I cannot recommend enough some form of drone education – lack of knowlege is the main reason we’ve had disasters (and ensuing bad press) happening at the White House and US Open and probably will see it for years to come.

Armed with a drone and about 15 years of experience in video production, I set out to create my first documentary film, AxA: Austin by Air – An Aerial Documentary.  As with any project, there’s always a planning phase so I broke down a shotlist of locations I wanted to feature of beautiful Austin, Texas and showed up armed with 4 batteries and about an hour of flight time at my disposal. I would cover every feature of a location and experiement with flying interesting cinematic shots like barrel rolls, pushes, tracking shots, reveals, etc.  As a guy who’s always been glued to the ground with a camera, boy was I having fun!

Once I had gotten my shots and collected several hours worth of footage, it was time to start making a rough cut. My goal was to make something 5 minutes or under, or everyone’s ADD would kick in and be wasted on them. I had to select a piece of music that I thought was appropriate with these gorgeous visuals and this proved to be a challenge in and of itself. I think people mistakenly forget the importance of music in a piece, and dare say at times I think it’s even more important than the visuals themselves. Once I got to the point where I was comfortable with my edits and pacing, I was ready to put in the final touches. This involved some motion titles, color grading and at the very end some sound fx like birds and traffic, which I personally feel added more depth to the piece.

All in all I was very happy with the result – I’m thankful it’s been well received by so many. It’s quite fulfilling to be a part of this dynamic field and working on a drone software startup. It’s also amazing to see how rapidy drone technology is advancing…I could have gotten even better shots using the pre-programmed shots now stock with the beautiful and powerful 3DR Solo.

Now we’ll just have to stay tuned and see if it’s worthy of any drone fest awards!

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