Drone filming is considered an art form in its own right. It is after all both the artistic discipline of media production and the ability to control an aircraft remotely and safely. This can be done by single or multiple operators.
Drones or more specifically quadcopters in 2019 can be operated with just hand gestures. However for the best results the aircraft is controlled via the traditional multiple channel radio transmitter.
This blog post though is not about the technological aspects of drone filming. The industry is evolving at such a pace, this blog post would be out of date before I’d finished writing it.
What I want to talk about is the aesthetics of good drone footage. What makes the difference between something that is run of the mill and something that is truly dynamic.
The beauty of drones after all is that we can put them and the cameras they carry in a space that would either be very expensive or impossible with traditional systems. I’ve talked about this before here and the big reasons I use them myself.
Are drones still a novelty?
Broadcasters and filmmakers have been incorporating drone shots into their productions for a number of years now. Gone are the days when all that was available was a fisheye GoPro image and people were amazed by that. Now we have at our disposal the best cameras that money can buy and behemoths of aerial platforms to carry them. The technology to accomplish this is likely to be cutting edge for many decades to come. But the footage coming from them will start to be more and more commonplace. The regular shots, the reverse, the ascending reveal, the orbit even, these are going to become so commonplace that they will stop being noticed. Consumer drones available now for less than $800 will pull off an orbit shot with the press of a button….
What makes good drone footage?
As with any piece of footage, aesthetics are important. Composition needs to be there to attract the viewers eye and this is relatively straight forward in a static aerial shot. Moving the camera however starts the ball rolling on what becomes a much greater challenge.
Adaptive three dimensional composition
I just made that bit up. It kind of fits what I’m trying to explain. Moving the camera through 3 dimensional space and maintaining a well composed scene as the subject is itself moving. Sometimes predictably, often not. Aesthetics is an appreciation of beauty, and creating a beautiful shot of something simple is where this art form will flourish.
Dare to dream
“Spiral around a boat, as it itself meanders through a maze of coral heads in a shallow lagoon. Introduce the passengers on that boat.”
Imagine starting out high and wide. Then as you orbit, dramatically descend in a spiral down to 10-15m above the water. Now you are orbiting 20m from the boat as it meanders. Maintain composition depending on where you are in relation to the boat and it’s wake. The shot is smooth and flowing, the arc of the camera movement is continuous. There are no interruptions in the shot, no hard stops or movements that disrupt the evolving three dimensional parabolic arcs.
“Imagine you are a bird”
It is as if we are a bird wheeling around the boat in total control of ourselves moving with the utmost ease. The boat stabilises to a straight path accelerating. You flatten out your curve to track next to it. You accelerate past the boat, rotating as you do but closing in on the passengers until you are just ahead and at eye level. One seamless, smoothly flowing, beautifully composed 2 minute shot that would be impossible by any other method than cutting edge CGI. The shot then transitions seamlessly via the sun flashing off the water to a continuous shot within the boat with close ups of the passengers faces. Can it be done? I think it could.
The future is now in drone filming
Cinematic drone filming is not a one man job. There will be the pilot, the camera operator and the focus puller at least. You’ll then have various people looking over the shoulder of those people. They give them directions or just observe what is a well rehearsed manoeuvre. There are marks to be hit at different stages to tie up with the surrounding shots etc….
I don’t pretend to know everything but being able to orchestrate and pull off something like this is where drone filming will really shine. I think that it will continue to shine even as CGI gets ever the better.
The big question however is just how far 360 VR filming will take us away from traditional media production? Will we rely on VR “Overcapture editor” with its ability to point the camera in any direction after the fact? The answer might be: of course, but you still need to move that VR set up through that 3 axis reality. We shall see.
See what else we do at Lightning Strike Production here
Fast forward and we arrive on Christmas island and board the “Sea Dragon” a 72 ft sailing boat. That afternoon we set sail for our first destination; the Atoll of Kanton.
For a week we sailed along a 240 degree heading, crossing the equator. Sampling water from the Equatorial Under Current as we went.
The atoll of Kanton has 56 residents. They live a quiet peaceful life but long for visitors and welcomed us warmly. During WW2 it was very different. Kanton was a US and British air base with over 1200 servicemen present. The abandoned wreckage from that era still litters the atoll.
We went to work almost immediately in a baptism of fire. My first task as underwater cameraman on this expedition was documenting the deployment of scientific instruments in a tidal channel to the inner lagoon. Easier said than done when the current barely stops moving and can get as fast as 6 knots….
Diving in a Pristine environment.
Working in strong currents is as any diver who has experienced it, a struggle. Filming stable footage is especially challenging, but after two dives we had achieved our goal. A large and heavy scientific package was positioned and activated, gathering important data on the tidal dynamics of this near pristine environment.
The next few days flew by as we dived on some of the most pristine reefs on the planet. The Phoenix Islands are in one of the largest marine protected areas of the world. It’s obvious as soon as you slip beneath the waves. It’s likely that these reefs are only dived maybe once every two years by a handful of people. In that situation the local fish find divers very interesting. Within seconds the fish start arriving and continue to follow you, circling for the whole dive.
Being the underwater cameraman on this expedition meant I was charged with documenting everything the scientists did. This meant diving sometimes 9 times a day, retrieving scientific instruments, conducting scientific surveys, shooting everything in fact. The end products will be used to promote the work done by WHOI.
With there being so much diving, battery management and data wrangling was especially important and by the end of the trip I had over 3 GB of data which I had been backing up daily. On top of that I was also flying a drone and shooting anything happening on the boat too….Much of what I shot is still under wraps so what I have been able to release so far is a tiny fraction.
At this stage I should mention how good the crew were on Sea Dragon. Eric, Shanlee, Charles, Shannon and Jess were there for us the entire time. They tended the boats, cooked, filled our tanks and remained positive throughout. It made our jobs that much easier and the experience onboard wholly enjoyable. I can’t thank you enough!
Onwards to new horizons
After 5 days in Kanton we set sail again, this time for Nikumororo. Two more days pass.
This small atoll was where Amelia Earhart hopefully ended her round the world attempt in 1937. The romantic end to her valiant effort has yet to be verified and what we find is nothing short of miraculous.
We arrived to be greeted by Sperm Whales, and on almost every dive by Dolphins who immediately disappeared as soon as we hit the water…. We even were escorted by a Killer Whale at one stage….
The reefs here are again incredible. The isolation palpable.
The fish take turns to swim around you and check you out. Even in environments devoid of corals and only covered with algae there are still thousands of herbivorous fish.
One morning we locate the one reasonable landing spot on the island and go ashore. Beforehand we have to have our clothes sprayed with heavy duty disinfectant to minimize the chance of taking any invasive species with us.
What strikes me is that there is no plastic on the beaches. Compared to somewhere like Palau where there is huge amounts on practically every coastline, here at last we are free from it.
The inner lagoon supports a huge number of Black-tip reef sharks. The scientists take water samples but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a dangerous activity. Numerous sharks come in very close to check them out. One scientist even gets a nip on his heel. The love bite opens up 3 surgical cuts on his heel. We decide that it’s not worth trying to retrieve a logger submerged in the middle of the lagoon….
One of the nicest aspects that highlighted our isolation was how tame the birds are. Boobies nest on the beach here and are completely unafraid of us.
We again departed before we had really scratched the surface and after another day of sailing we approached Orona. This atoll had a different feel to it. It had been inhabited up until only 15 or so years ago but the colonists disliked being there so much they left. When we made landfall, there were still buildings in good condition but the amount of trash and leftover rubbish from those inhabitants really bought home how isolated they were and yet how much of an impact humans have, even just 30 people….. The reefs too had seen better days and were still recovering from the most recent warm water event.
In preparation for this trip I had looked at maps of the proposed atolls and of them all, I wanted to fly the drone over Orona the most. It has what is called “Hoa and Motu”, Polynesian words for channels and small islands sometimes found on Pacific Atolls.
Our next island was Rawaki, about 1km square, treeless and covered in seabirds. We dived and cored here for two days before making our way back to Kanton.
After a couple more days we are back in Kanton to pick up the scientific instruments we had left there previously, it goes without a hitch but the feeling we are on our way home is both happy and sad. Sad to be leaving this incredible place that we have only just scratched the surface of, happy knowing that in about 10 days we will be home again with our families. And so we say goodbye to the our friends on Kanton and set sail for Christmas Island and our flights back to civilization.
That was the easy part
For the next 7 days we sailed into a steadily increasing wind. The sea state worsened, the progress slowed. The Sea Dragon, whilst having been designed to do just this sort of passage handled it all in the capable hands of the crew and Skipper it was still a struggle. The main sail developed a tear and had to be replaced with a storm sail, and for about 5 days we were tacking into 25+ knot winds meaning the whole boat was heeling over at an impressive angle. Squalls hit us and night watches were particularly hard especially for a Green horn with practically no sailing experience. Our spirits were challenged by our slow hard going but camaraderie prevailed.
And finally after a week of bad weather and hard sailing we finally arrive at Christmas Island. Almost as soon as we drop anchor we crack open a celebratory beer. Even now I’m laughing at that moment of relief. Damn that beer tasted good.
We had a couple more days of filming and diving and coring left as we were joined by the Laboratory head Dr Anne Cohen. So the very next day we were out again, rounding off the research and ensuring the money shots were in the bag. For all the basic amenities available on Christmas island the diving was still phenomenal and the Dolphin population huge.
It looks idyllic…
Looks nice doesn’t it and postcards do, but what doesn’t come across is the heat, the flies, the heavy pack on your back, the blisters on your feet, did I mention the heat? Being an expedition cameraman is hard especially if you are a sole shooter. Even if you do have a team of sherpas to help carry your gear, you are still concerned about that gear. Is it packed properly? What if it gets dropped, will it survive that drop? Is that packing case properly waterproof? Insurance for your gear is of course something only a fool would avoid, but a busted camera in the middle of nowhere is still busted without a hope of being replaced for weeks. So, taking two of everything important is something you really need to consider doing. I had two drones, 4 cameras, extras of so many things just in case….
It means you don’t travel light, it’s impossible. If you are aiming to get aerial, underwater and topside shots at a professional level and have backups in case of accidents or failures…that’s a lot of equipment.
On this trip I nearly lost a drone, and one of the Underwater camera sensors had an obvious dust speck that I couldn’t clean. As it was I had a backup for both. Things could have been worse but thankfully the gear was packed well and stowed well on board a boat that was heeling over by 30 degrees at times.
Making it home
I approached this project with extreme caution, I made sure (as much as possible) that my personal gear was safe, that I was safe, that I would be able to bring home the footage (and duplicates) and that my client would be happy with the results. It was not easy, but then the best things in life are never easy. But it is one of the best things I have ever done and something I would jump at again.
I wish I could show you more of what I did on this trip and one day I may be able to but for now it’s still in the process of being edited so patience is key.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed, it’s a marathon post! I hope it’s given you some insight into both what we experienced and what it took for me to film this expedition in what was literally the middle of nowhere.
If you’d like to read more about what it takes to be an underwater cameraman this post might be of some interest.
If you like to contact me about any filming opportunities please find me at this address.
When it comes to filming wildlife in Palau there has been one species that has been on my bucket list for many years. Estimates suggest that there are only about 200 animals left in the population and they are spread over a huge range. It is large but extremely enigmatic. It has been hunted close to extinction and is now extremely wary of anyone approaching. I am of course referring to the Palau Dugong.
Palau Dugong natural history
The Dugong is one of only two extant vegetarian marine mammals. The other is the Manatee. The Palau Dugong’s ancestors most likely made the journey across the Philippine Sea from South east Asia possibly tens of thousands of years ago. They found Palau’s sheltered lagoons and huge seagrass beds perfect for living. However once humans settled in Palau their peaceful existence came under threat.
Due to Palau’s large distance from other populations of Dugong the Palauan population is extremely isolated. This is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly it is extremely unlikely that Dugongs from other Asian or Australasian populations will make the similar crossing to add to the Palau population. This means that the population will not increase due to migration from outside. It is isolated.
It is quite likely that Palau’s population could be descended from a single pregnant female that somehow made the crossing.
Love thy neighbor
Secondly the genetic bottlenecking that results from a population growing from a very limited number of individuals can result in a distinct lack of genetic diversity. This can cause such things as birth defects, low birth rate, higher infant mortality as well as raised incidence of sterility.
So given all those factors, it’s a wonder that there are any Dugongs in Palau at all. The chances of making it this far are stacked against them, yet they have survived. Dugong were traditionally hunted in Palau but the meat was reserved for only the highest chiefs. Due to declining numbers they have been given protected status and taking of Dugong is now illegal.
So you can see now why being able to film this extremely rare geographically isolated enigmatic creature is a real draw.
Filming the Palau Dugong
I have long been planning on using Drone technology to accomplish something like this. I wrote about using the technology here, but due to the rarity and highly protected status of Palau’s Dugong it was very hard to locate them. That is until a local NGO contacted me about a population in the north of Palau. I leapt at the opportunity of course and we headed out to the area and set about searching.
Dugong have very good hearing and the sound of a boat engine or even the slapping of kayak paddles will have them heading in the opposite direction.
Using drones for conservation filmmaking
By keeping a large distance between what we suspected was an animal and the boat and flying the gap between, we managed to position the drone over a herd of 15. This sort of number in one area at one time is almost unheard of in contemporary Palau. It gave us valuable insight into a possible local population size and age make-up. The use of a light, reasonably quiet drone allows us to observe these animals relatively closely without disturbing them. This is extremely important in the study of animal behavior. Any disturbance can change the animal’s natural behavior. The gyro stabilized High Resolution cameras available now are perfect for recording footage or taking photos at distances well over 1km from the pilot. or further reading on filming with drones you can check out this article.
The group of 15 included a Mother with a young calf, juveniles and a mature bull.
Geographic distribution and behavior
It became apparent that the areas we were sighting them in were predominantly sea grass beds. These areas are only however submerged in less than 1.5 meters of water at high tide. The Dugongs could only access this important feeding area during high tide. As the tide turned and started to recede the Dugong began to swim for deeper water.
It was possible to fly the drone at a low altitude without apparently disturbing the animals. Skin markings and scarring could be seen and enabled individuals to be identified on subsequent surveys. Mothers with their babies, boystrous juveniles and large Bulls could all be seen.
And then they vanished.
Day after day we went out and found no sign. Aerial surveys found other animals like Turtles, mating Stingrays, even the extremely rare Ornate Eagleray, but no Dugong…..
Where had they gone?
Dugong are still being hunted in Palau
A week or so later we hear reports that one has been killed. Parts of it’s body had been hung up far to the south for people to see. It was like a huge macabre shout of “laws don’t apply to us!”
We don’t know where this animal came from. There are other populations that frequent other areas of Palau. Koror and Malakal harbor having one of the highest densities.
It was still a huge blow.
This act however doesn’t go unnoticed. Those responsible are known to the community and like previous occasions of poaching, the culprits will eventually be found out, prosecuted and publicly shamed.
This could have been something beautiful, something so rare it almost defies odds by even existing. It has been killed before it had a chance. Greed and distrust are perpetuated by a few selfish individuals of our species for the sake of a tradition that can no longer be justified. Dugongs are a valuable tourism commodity in other parts of the world. If only those selfish individuals in Palau could realize that.
Further threats to Dugong in Palau
In addition the sea grass feeding area frequented by this population has been proposed as a site for sand dredging. This critical habitat for a huge number of species was actually going to be destroyed so that sand could be acquired to build the airport expansion in Palau. The Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB) assessed the site and according to the boat driver on the day they saw 7 Dugong. This is where we came in to document these animals and raise awareness to the potential habitat destruction.
Destruction of habitat used by protected species is prohibited by law in Palau. We await to see what will happen and hope that public conscience is greater than a few individuals greed.
This species hang on to existence. It would be a ecological disaster to loose such an iconic species in Palau and a terrible waste of beautiful animals.
For further information on previous work done to protect the Palau Dugong see here.
For a really good report on the Dugong status in Palau see here.
Are you a production company looking to film Palau? The Republic of Palau continues to provide great opportunities for Underwater and Aerial Media Production.
As an introduction to the many opportunities available for filming in Palau, I would like to take this opportunity to show you what Lightning Strike Productions has been doing over the course of the last year.
Lastly our show reel will share some of the highlights and our hopes for the future.
New media techniques and projects in Palau
Over the last 12 months we have continued to diversify our filming techniques.
Aerial filming in Palau
Aerial filming with Drones and Aircraft mounted action cams have provided great footage for our clients.
For this particular project we used a host of external and internally mounted action cams. Each aimed to catch the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Surveillance plane as it hunted for illegal fishing in Palau’s EEZ.
Underwater Time-lapse for Cinematic Documentary
Exciting 6K B-roll from Time-lapse techniques have also added to production value of a number of projects over the years.
Of particular note is the underwater time-lapse work we shot for the Netflix original documentary Chasing Corals. This involved returning to the same locations 6 times over the course of a few months. Each time positioning the camera with the aid of multiple references in exactly the same place as before.
360 VR filming in Palau
We have embraced 360 VR and continue to develop this new and exciting form of media. Mosaic panoramas provide a new and artistic form in addition to producing very high resolution images for printing. The beginning of the year saw us filming for a VR project here in Palau which ran in conjunction with a second project by the Economist magazine.
Underwater filming in Palau
Underwater filming in Palau is still incredible. New behaviors and environments were documented in greater detail this past year. Spawning aggregations of species previously undocumented in Palau as well as insights into the migrations of Manta Rays and Shark species were gained.
Our underwater cameras can output 4K Raw footage. This means we get the very best colors possible through post production techniques using the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of programs. Read more on underwater filming here.
Wildlife and conservation in Palau
Wildlife and conservation topics are still very close to our hearts. A large project on migratory shorebirds was completed in the Autumn. This milestone project commissioned by Palau Conservation Society raised local awareness for the need to protect certain coastal environments in Palau. It appears to have reached it’s desired audience and the proposed developments have thankfully been halted.
Plastic Pollution has become an incredibly damaging aspect of our world in this century. This film was our first venture into raising awareness of this issue. Plastic use continues to be one of the biggest problems facing us today and into the future. We take every opportunity to reduce our usage and impact in this regard.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your continued support into 2018 as we venture to new horizons. We have 2 filming expeditions planned. One to the remote South West Islands of Palau, and one with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This second trip takes us to the even more remote Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.
Together we can make Lightning Strike Productions grow further. We aim to provide more innovative and educational media for Palau, Micronesia and the world.
Are you thinking of filming in Palau? Are you looking for a reliable and professional media company to assist with your production?
Lightning Strike Productions has over 20 years filming experience. We have been filming in Palau for over 12 years. We can help you with all aspects of your production. Filming permits, accommodation, land transport. Underwater camera operator, boat hire, rental camera equipment. Interviews, drone pilots, on camera talent…..
Over the last 12 years we have filmed everywhere in Palau. From the far northern reefs of Velasco, to the far south and it’s remote islands of Helen, Tobi and Sonsorol.
How Lightning Strike Productions can help you
Lightning Strike Productions has worked with numerous broadcast entities in Palau over the years. Clients include the BBC, CNN, Arte, Thalassa 3, ABC, Channel 9 Australia, Animal Planet, National Geographic and Discovery Channel. It’s also a regular contributor to online news media through it’s stringer services.
Our cameras, both underwater and drone mounted output Raw footage, ensuring the very highest in 4K 16 bit quality.
Because of our long experience filming in Palau we can help you organize filming permits, arrange transport, accommodation, rental equipment, interviews and talent.
Whilst things have improved, Palau is still remote and does not have a huge amount of media production resources. There are no dedicated camera stores and spare parts etc need to be ordered in from overseas, which can take at least a week at best.
It’s regional and national government structures can be tricky to negotiate for filming permits and site access. We can help you navigate and succeed in this local arena.
If you are considering filming in Palau it’s well worth contacting us to find the lay of the land and get a bespoke solution for success.
The Republic of Palau has a huge variety of healthy and almost pristine ecosystems. Palau provides a huge wealth of opportunities for content. It is visually stunning with tropical islands, coral reefs, jungles and plentiful iconic species.
There are numerous conservation stories available. Tuna Fisheries, Marine enforcement, mangrove protection, migratory shorebirds, climate change resilience.
We have WW2 wrecks, their de-mining and recovery of human remains. Extensive underwater caverns and of course the many marine lakes with their millions of Jellyfish.
Additionally the other side of the coin is also available. Stories on illegal fishing and the black market trade in protected species. The need to balance tourism and development with conservation. Tuna economics, Climate Change, Ocean acidification, renewable energy, coral bleaching….
There are stories waiting to be told and new technologies waiting to tell them with and since we are based in Palau we can start production quickly.
Palau Stock Footage library
If you need footage quickly or something specific but time consuming, there is always the option of stock footage. As a result of filming here for over 12 years we have a huge stock footage library available.