Reinventing cinema lighting - WITH DRONES

'THE LIGHT' is the second creative short film collaboration between Tim Sessler and Brandon Bray. After our last collaboration on ‘BALANCE,’ we wanted to focus on a more narrative piece but really push the abstract while letting the visuals do most of the storytelling. While BALANCE explored aerial cinematography in a new and artistic way, 'THE LIGHT' is really about attempting to make light a character, and using it in a new and innovative way.

Over the past year we've seen an increase in interesting use of "drone lighting".  People attaching remote flashes to small quadcopters or creating impressive work, like Reuben Wus landscape photography with a tiny 200W light.

The issue with most of these systems is that they are far from being usable for motion picture. Even our first test with small prototype lights resulted in pushing Sony's a7s II to extremely high ISOs, as high as 32,000. While the results of the drone light were absolutely stunning and created a bizarre effect that seemed to combine the moving shadows (that we otherwise only know from timelapse footage) and live action - we needed to create a much stronger light source to capture our vision with a proper cinema camera. 

After multiple prototypes we finally arrived at our first light that got us into a realm of usable exposure. Using 60 feet of high powered 2835-480 LED light strips - giving both a 360 degree spread as well as a separate top down light, we had our first working drone light with about an 80,000 lumen output.

 

We based the whole lighting design around the Freefly "Toad in the Hole" quick release system, which allowed us to change from drone to handheld or even cable cam within seconds.

Also as the LED strips are rated for 24V, we are able to run them straight off of 6S LiPo flight packs, which further streamlines the whole setup.


MoVI Pro and RED Helium 8K

 

We probably have one of the brightest lights that has ever been flown on a mutlicopter - but because we weren't using a focused light source (like a spot light or larger LEDs with lenses to narrow down the spread) we were still fighting exposure issues for our wide shots that the RED 6K Weapon or Alexa Mini could not handle.

Coincidentally, our timeline lined up with the release of the RED Helium, which provides a magnificent and clean 8K image - even at ISO 3,200. As a result, we ended up shooting almost every shot on exactly that ISO and wide open on the Leica Summilux-C lenses.

On top of that we were fortunate enough to shoot this entire project with a prototype of the new Freefly MoVI Pro and the new Freefly Mimic. The MoVI Pro is an absolute game changer in the world of gimbals as it provides a pan motor with double the torque of Freeflys M15 (one of the big weak spots in a lot of gimbals below $20K).  It also combines important elements like camera and accessory power, FIZ and full camera control all in one unit, making the whole setup a lot easier, sleeker and more simplified.

I wrote about the Freefly Mimic last year when it was first released - and lately it has been my go to tool for nearly every shoot. I've done abstract commercial work with it, TV specials and even recently used it for the first time on a drone shoot for a flying POV scene.

While some of our dream sequences were supposed to have more of a smooth, dreamy and stable feel to it, we also wanted to have a very energetic feel for the running scenes, tension for the vérité scenes and an overall controlled handheld look for the piece.

Actually envisioning to shoot handheld while running through the dark forest was unthinkable.  Building elaborate dolly tracks would have been completely impossible given our small crew and budget.   The fact that I can use an operator, cable cam, drone or car mount to carry the MoVI, while still having full control over the camera movement and framing, from super smooth moves to a controlled, yet alive handheld feel all the way to rapid pans and a shaky, disorienting style, is pretty incredible.  As a cinematographer this is really the tool I've been waiting for.

Freefly is also advancing in terms of camera control, allowing you to change most camera settings from the MIMIC and MoVI controller via RCP (RED Command Protocol) - through the MoVI controller there is even the option of playback and many more camera functions.

After spending some time shooting with the MoVI PRO - here are some of our favorite new additions:

  • Double the torque for the pan motor compared to the M15
  • Streamlined battery setup that powers both gimbal, camera and accessories
  • RCP and camera control via MIMIC and MoVI
  • New MoVI Ring with built-in stand
  • New landing gear design for quick switch between handheld and airborne mode
  • Advanced and improved auto-tune that also tunes the filter settings

More info about the Freefly MoVI Pro can be found here: freeflysystems.com/movi/

 


BEHIND THE SCENES - THE LIGHT


This project would not have been possible without the help and support from the people listed below. We really want to thank everyone that was involved in this project.  We had to ask every favor possible and we are very grateful for all the support that we received to make this dreamy film a reality.

Director: Brandon Bray

DP: Tim Sessler

Camera Op: Soren Nielsen and Brad Meier

Drone Operator: Brad Meier - Aerial Edge

AC: Jaime Medrano and Filipp Penson

Gaffer: Brian Stansfield - Apollo Lighting and Grip

Grip: Paul Trujillo

BTS: Stephan Hawk, Joey Diaz, Sam Hicks

Production: Freefly Systems, Brooklyn Aerials, Decade.is

Production Manager: Wyatt Angelo

Composer: Michael Marantz

Violin / Cello Performer: Daniel Boventer


Freefly Systems - Tabb Firchau and Hugh Bell

RED Digital Cinema - Jarred Land

OffHollywood - Mark Pederson

Diamond Brothers - Jason Diamon

Andrew Voegeli - Cable Cam Support

CPT Rental - Aaron Fidan and Kazim Karaismailoglu

Sound Design - Brandon Bray

Sound Mix - Drew English

RCO COLOR - Seth Ricart

Cindy Kay and Autumn Kay Brookmire - Meals on set

And our families for their patience and endless support of our passion projects


BTS Photo Credits: Stephan Hawk, Brian Stansfield, Joey Diaz, Sam Hicks

Filming "BALANCE" with the Freefly ALTA 8 and MoVI M15

BALANCE is the latest collaboration between Brooklyn Aerials, Freefly Systems and Brandon Bray.  We had a chance early on to bring along one of the first ALTA 8 prototypes and test it out on a shoot in Kenya in some of the harshest environments, but due to strict Kenyan drone laws we were unable to make a piece with it. Though on the flight back I was already thinking of ways that I wanted to use this new tool to make another aerial film in NYC.


FREEFLY ALTA 8

The three preceding collaborations with FREEFLY have all been based in New York and focused around very specific and revolutionary camera techniques and concepts:

  • STREETS: Super slow-motion on the FREFLY TERO
  • MOMENTS: Using the Mimic-Controller for natural camera moves
  • NOSTALGIA: Infrared aerial cinematography with the ALTA 6

The ALTA 8 is the octocopter version of the previously extremely popular ALTA 6 hexacopter.  The two additional motors allow for higher payloads, which means that the ALTA can reliably lift a RED CF Weapon or ALEXA MINI with bigger cinema lenses and a total payload of nearly 20lbs.

About a year ago I shot the aerial piece "BECOMING OCEAN" with a MD-500 helicopter in Hawaii - you can read more about the technique and the piece here:  BLOG: HELICOPTER + MoVI Aerials

This year I finally had the opportunity to use the same technique in NYC and fly above Manhattan to capture my view of this epic city.  Given the current FAA regulations, flying any kind of drone above Manhattan would be considered “reckless operation” and illegal - that means a full sized helicopter is the only reasonable option for those kind of shots.

To execute our idea, we used two new camera techniques:

  1. Extreme roll moves with the MoVI M15
  2. A vertigo drone effect

BALANCE


Behind the Scenes (Long version is coming soon)


If you look at the majority of today's multicopter and aerial footage in general, you will find a lot of very stable, composed, and mechanical-looking footage. As previously described in my post about the FREEFLY MIMIC: stabilizers like the Freefly MoVI or DJI Ronin have become hugely popular in the last few years because they are such simple tools to achieve hyper-stable results. In comparison, a Steadicam rig would need a lot more experience (both balancing and operating) to get solid results - or a dolly would need much more time and manpower to set up and would limit the amount of coverage that could be shot from this one setup. 

So here we are - in a time where 3-axis gimbals are accessible to nearly every level of production and have with no doubt changed the cinematography of the 21st century; for better or worse, replacing both steadicams and dollies in a lot of productions. Though I have no doubt that we are just in the beginning - there is still so much more potential yet to come. With the latest MoVI firmware update, FREEFLY opened up doors to use the gimbal as a timelapse remote head - the MIMIC translates real motion into a stabilized system or acts as a camera tracker. How amazing is that?

To get back to the point that I originally wanted to make: aerial footage these days is perfect. Maybe too perfect? The horizon is always perfectly level, shots for the most part are very straight tracking or push-ins without much life or human feel to them - in other words the technical perfection nearly adds to how removed a lot of these shots feel.   By adding even slight roll motions in combinations with tilts and pans you can change footage that feels mechanical and distant to something that feels a lot more natural and motivated.

We definitely pushed the roll moves in our piece to a maximum - to further exemplify the imbalance of our modern day world.   But shots like these really speak the most to me, where subtle moves change the whole feel of a shot and scene:


MoVI ROLL MOVES


The second technique that we used is something that hasn't been done with a high-end cinema drone before: the VERTIGO effect (or dolly zoom), that we are all familiar with from Hitchcock's masterpiece to films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull.


DRONE-VERTIGO


 

The basic premise is simple:  the move starts at a 45mm focal length and while the camera moves towards the subject you zoom out to the maximum wide angle, while keeping the subject at the exact same size. We achieved this effect with a Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm cine zoom lens and with the help of the RT Motion FIZ that allowed us to control the zoom even from far away. An accurate zoom that perfectly matches the motion of the camera is one important element to achieving this effect.  Though a lot more critical and unfixable in post is the accuracy of the camera movement itself - this really pushed the ALTA 8 to its limits, as the slightest divergence from its path or the most subtle change in altitude would have been extremely visible.

I hope you enjoyed this and I can't wait to see how these camera techniques will be further developed and used in the near future!!

Cheers,
Tim

 


Behind the scenes photos by Sam Hicks. Copyright Brooklyn Aerials, Inc.

 

 

 

 

LONG LENS DRONE

When we think about drone footage - particularly from the very popular DJI Phantom - we often envision wide-angle or even a fish-eye look that is far from being cinematic or filmic.

The big advantage of drones (UAVs, multicopters or whatever you want to call them) is their size, which allows filmmakers to get shots that would be impossible with full-sized helicopters.  Especially with close proximity flying, wide angle lenses (16-24mm) can achieve a really interesting look that amplifies speed and proximity.

With the latest technology of octocopters that are getting stronger and can lift higher payloads and more importantly the stabilization reaching a new level of perfection with the Freefly MōVI M10 and M15, we are no longer bound to only using those wide angle lenses.

Brooklyn Aerials has been filming with longer focal lengths for a while now. Take for example, an Under Armour commercial that we shot in the summer of 2014, where we got some amazing tracking shots with 85mm and 100mm Ultra Primes on the RED Epic of a marathon runner, running through the desert in New Mexico.

In a recent test we flew our RED Epic Dragon with a vintage Zeiss 135mm lens - a 170mm equivalent on 35mm sensors. 

Here are the main take-aways:

  • While on a wide-angle, even a 35mm lens focus isn't as critical (close to infinity even at f/4 works for nearly every shot) - on any longer focal length you most definitely need a remote follow focus system, which adds more weight to the rig and adds the complication of having the camera operator try to pull focus and work on the framing simultaneously or requires an additional person that keeps things in focus (or out of focus).
  • Pulling accurate focus also means that you will need a reliable, latency free, long range HD video downlink - a 5.8gHz SD signal that works great for wide-angle applications just won't cut it.  The TERADEK Bolt 2000 is probably the most reliable solution.
  • Long lenses are great for detail shots, scenes with lots of foreground and mediums. Especially slowly rotating around the subject will give an eerie and extreme look, as the background will move at a rapid speed.  You'll also quickly realize that certain shots won't work or won't look as good as you might envision. In particular, wide shots with a very long lens just look like stationary full-sized helicopter shots and have a distinct newsy feel to them.
  • If you use it right you will be able to get shots that won't instantly give away that you are using a drone (which is a good thing).  It opens up a tremendous amount of options to use the technology for better storytelling and really takes drone-cinematography to the next level, as the UAV becomes the tool to move the camera in a very controlled and original fashion and less so to achieve the over-done "drone effect".

Here are a few clips from our test:

Shooting "STREETS" in New York City

At the beginning of July Brooklyn Aerials and Freefly teamed up to create a visual study of New York City with the brand new Freefly TERO: STREETS

We were shooting for three days with the primary idea to get super slow-mo Phantom Miro shots at very high speeds during the day and very symmetric, composed shots with the RED Epic Dragon at night. 

Especially the effect of freezing those iconic and special NYC moments with super slow-motion (1,500 to 2,000fps), yet adding a camera move and parallax to those scenes interested me the most.

With a super small team of just two people (and a BTS camera) we were extremely flexible and able to scout and capture locations within minutes. While we had list of shots that we really wanted to get (an open hydrant, skateboarder with the skyline, handball player and pigeons), we were surprised by others:  Members of the Ghetto Riders in a water gun fight or a dog running in Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, shots that would have been impossible without this set-up and would otherwise require an intense production and budget of a commercial shoot.

Getting the timing right was the most difficult thing for those shots. A stationary slow-motion shot is easy - but timing the TERO so that the camera would pass the subject right at the perfect moment, the peak moment when the water balloons are mid air, the hand of the skinny handballs player hits the ball or the passing hasid is perfectly frozen, mid step; thats the tricky part.

To achieve an instant acceleration without endangering the expensive camera, we added a wheelie bar to the TERO. While it generally picks up a bit more vibration from a rough underground, this was the solution to get the timing right and the TERO up to impressive and fairly scary speeds. 

Overall I was amazed by the footage that we were able to capture. I had a vision for the feel and look I was going for - but had no idea if we could actually pull it off with the Tero-Phantom combo and a documentary approach to a very stylized video. I am glad it all paid off and came together that nicely.

- Tim

The Salton Sea

We are shooting in Southern California right now - at one of the most amazing locations: Box Canyon, just around the corner from Joshua Tree and our final scene during sunset at the Salton Sea.