I have some great tips for you about aerial drone photography/videography. But first, a tale of tragedy…

In early 2015, Lambert added a DJI Phantom drone to our video/photo arsenal and I affectionately named her Amelia (foreshadowing, duh, duh, duuuuuum!!!) As the resident videographer, I was happy to learn how to pilot the machine and excited for the new possibilities this technology opened up. (In addition to filming, I was also looking forward to spying on my enemies and airborne burrito deliveries.)

One of our first commercial opportunities was a creative narrative for our client Old Orchard Brands, a top-3 juice brand nationally. Working closely with their marketing team, we developed an idea to show the progress of an Old Orchard juice bottle traveling from the plant where it’s bottled all the way to the consumer’s juice glass –  a “How it’s made” story of sorts. Using a handmade GoPro contraption, the shoot inside the plant went off without a hitch. However, problems arose when we needed to portray the transportation of the juice bottle by truck to the grocery store. First I shot some vibrant footage of the vehicle driving through the nearby apple orchards using the drone. Then, when we moved on to capturing the plant itself, I noticed a tall water tower overlooking the facility that looked perfect for an establishing shot.

I was already envisioning a sexy opening sequence to rival the O.C. credits as I swooped behind the water tower. However, in one anxiety-inducing moment, the drone suddenly lost its connection with the controller in my hands! Fortunately, the good people at DJI planned for this signal interruption and installed a safety mechanism to prevent drones from dropping out of the sky. That safety mechanism is an immediate “return to home” feature and, like a lunar eclipse, that planet-shaped water tower was directly in between my ill-fated drone and its home point.

Poor Amelia didn’t stand a chance. She smashed straight into the water tower and spent her last few moments of life with propellers flailing about in a futile attempt at freedom. Some curse words were spoken. Then, in a modern day retelling of the old ‘cat stuck in the tree’ anecdote, we had to call the police department to come and retrieve the drone. Here’s photographic proof of me trying to convince the Sparta water department to let me climb to the top to retrieve it. Long story short: it didn’t work. But, the charitable Sparta PD did wind up retrieving our drone the next morning and, after filling out a very weird police report, I was able to recover the video files from the drone. Alas, it had rained overnight and the poor circuitry was flooded – never to fly again.

Fast forward several months. Lambert has a new drone (yet unnamed just in case she passes away again) and I’m putting it to pretty good use.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about aerial videography.

  1. Practice isn’t optional. Filming with a drone requires you to simultaneously maneuver controls along the X, Y AND Z axis as well as operating the camera. If you hope to create smooth motion at all, you need to log in many piloting hours. (side note: it also helps if you grew up familiar with the joysticks of the old Nintendo 64. See mom, told you I wasn’t wasting my time playing middle school Mario Kart!!)
  2. Spatial Awareness is key. Flying a drone is kind of like Reality Virtual Reality (that makes sense, right?) You are a visual ventriloquist – projecting your eyesight into a device several hundred feet away while also having to flip back to your observational standpoint on the ground. An excellent understanding of spatial awareness becomes necessary when it comes to avoiding airborne obstacles like telephone wires, pigeons, ghosts, etc.
  3. Get certified! As of August 2016, the FAA now requires all UA (“unmanned aircraft”) pilots to pass a rather difficult and lengthy exam to earn the right to film/fly for commercial purposes. I’m happy to say that I passed with FLYING colors.
  4. Keep a bird’s eye out for movement. Drones are great for capturing the type of establishing shots (shooting the front of a business, city, etc.) that once required renting a helicopter. But the true magic of shooting from above is capturing movement we as non-superhero humans could never see from the ground. I’m always on the lookout for creative ways to do this, be it a model running up a hill, a co-ed kickball game in a symmetrical baseball diamond or the red line train rounding Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

Remember the first time you got a window seat on an airplane? Seeing the world from above is always a majestic sight. As a marketer, I love using this new technology to bring more creative and artistic visuals to the projects I’m working on.

I just won’t film your damn water tower.  RIP, Amelia.

Joe Sonheim is a multimedia producer at Lambert