In this tutorial we take a look at how to achieve cinematic aerial shots with an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). We'll explore shot techniques, time of day, camera settings, and some post-processing in Adobe After Effects.
Shot Techniques and Maneuvers
1. 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.
2. 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.
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 strafing shot can stand out. It can also be an effective way to reveal cool features in the landscape.
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.
5. 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.
6. Gimbal Movements
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.
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.
8. 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.
Weather and the Time of Day
When it comes to the weather, you are pretty much at the mercy of Mother Nature. You’ll typically just want to fly on clear or cloudy days, and you’ll want to avoid any rain, misting or heavy fog. This is particularly true on colder days, since condensation can develop on the drone and the props, which can freeze at higher altitudes. (I’ve seen this happen!)
9. Watch Out for Wind
The wind is the biggest enemy when it comes to the dreaded ‘jello’ effect on footage. Avoid trying to get any of your drone shots on a windy day; I typically don’t fly when the winds are over 20 mph or if there are frequent heavy gusts. Most drones are rated to fly in up to 25–35 mph winds, but the footage you record at these higher wind speeds will likely not be worth your time.
I don’t recommend relying too heavily on programs like After Effects to remove the jello effect from your footage either. Although After Effects can do a good job at reducing these distortions, I’ve yet to see footage that has been completely restored using its Warp Stabilization setting.
10. Sunrise and Sunset
Just like with ground-based cinematography, filming during the golden hours of the day—at sunrise and sunset—will really help your footage stand out. Shadows will be highly visible, which will help define terrain features that aren’t as visible during the afternoon. Fewer people film at these times, particularly sunrise, so by just doing this one step you are already differentiating yourself from the surplus of aerial footage out there.
11. Use a Flat Image Profile
Camera settings will also play a big role in how cinematic your shots appear. Make sure you film in the flattest camera profile possible, which should give you the most dynamic range from your aerial camera. Filming this way helps to prevent the sky and clouds from blowing out, while also retaining detail in the darkest points of the ground.
12. Set Your Shutter Speed
Lower shutter speed if possible, especially on shots close to the ground, to avoid the strobing effect. Anything under 100th to 250th of a second is my recommendation, and use an ND filter if needed to keep your shutter speed down. Shooting at 500th or 100th of a second, which is common among drone cameras, will give you sharper frames, but it can give the footage some heavy strobing.
Let's go over some post-processing techniques I use in After Effects to get better-looking results from my aerial shots.
13. Correct Distortion
The first step is to remove any distortion from the footage, which is mainly going to be done if you filmed with a GoPro camera. You’ll get much better results if you shoot in 4K and are outputting the footage at 1080p; this gives you more pixel density in a 1080p composition and will help preserve image quality.
I add my footage to a 1080p composition and then add the effect Optics Compensation. Check the box that says Reverse Lens Distortion, and for a GoPro I typically put the field of view between 70 and 80.
If you want an even wider shot, you can check the box that says Optimize Pixels. This will widen up the shot back to the original width, but you’ll need to add black bars at the top and bottom, essentially converting this shot to a 2:35 aspect ratio.
14. Add Motion Blur
If you had to film at a higher shutter speed, or if you are using a GoPro camera and don’t have control over shutter speed, you’ll probably want to add a motion blur effect to your footage in After Effects to make it look more natural.
Use an effect like Pixel Motion Blur or the third-party plug-in Reel Smart Motion Blur. This will help add natural motion blur to your shot and will counteract any heavy strobing (usually with trees, cars driving, etc.)
15. Color Grade Your Footage
Colorista is by far the best color corrector in After Effects and can also be used for color grading footage. It has a lot of options and versatility, especially in regards to tweaking the hue and saturation of specific colors in your scene.
Film Convert is a film emulation plug-in that really can help differentiate your footage and give it a cinematic feel by adding a true film aesthetic. You can select from different film stocks and do some minor color correction. The film stocks help add cinematic value to your footage and help pull them away from the standard ‘drone video’ look.