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11 Drone Camera Moves for More Cinematic Video Production

Today, everybody has a drone, so aerial footage is nothing special. That’s why I wrote this definitive guide—to help you capture great aerial footage every time so it helps tell your story.

Video team in Haiti
Back in the Phantom 4 days. 2017, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The key to capturing story-ready aerial footage is to do three things:

#1. Dial in your settings for best picture quality.

#2. Understand how the camera moves you are doing are powerful emotive tools.

#3. Master 11 of these drone camera moves to capture more cinematic footage and tell your story better.

Before we dive in, a note about me. This article is based on my six years of piloting drones. I crashed my Phantom 1 more times than I’ll admit. Since then, I’ve tried to keep learning, using drone videography for all sorts of video productions, including Dorst MediaWorks’ video productions in Washington, DC and around the world. I’m not a specialized drone guy or even a drone fanboy. I’m a documentary guy, who’s trying to use a tool to tell stories.

In 2016, I became a certified pilot. That gave me a greater appreciation for everything that goes into flying a drone legally and safely. Since then, I conduct a pre-flight safety check and frequently check updates at the FAA site. Being a drone pilot is fairly easy, but being a safe, legal, capable drone pilot is not.

#1. Recommended Drone Settings for Best Picture Quality

First, make sure you have all your settings correct dialed in. I’ve settled on these after a online research and testing (I own the Mavic Pro 2): Manual, 4k/24, MP4, no style, color is D-cinelike, h.265 codec; ISO 100, shutter 1/50. Buy some ND filters and use them so you don’t have to change the ISO or shutter. I never push the ISO beyond 200. And honestly, the best time to fly your drone is dawn and dusk. When you take off, enter Cinematic mode, which makes your moves slower and more …. cinematic. Use “program” mode in most cases (T, P, and S on side). If you have other settings, please let me know. Experiment and see what works best for you. (I plan on doing a subsequent blog on LUTs and color grading).

#2. Where’s WALLDO?

Second, make sure you know what you’re saying with your drone camera moves. That’s where WALLDO comes in. No, I’m not talking about the character from a British series of children’s puzzle books (thanks Wikipedia!). WALLDO is a handy acronym that serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for video production videography in the field. It was developed before the introduction of drones, but it applies to aerial cinematography as well. 

WALLDO stands for Wide, Angled, Low, Linking, Depth, and Opposite. Each word has a purpose for storytelling. After all, cinematic language is more than 125 years old. Because we’re exposed to so much visual media, we’ve grown to have emotional responses to camera movements. If you’ve worked as a director or cinematographer, you’re probably very familiar with this already.

WIDE: Filming video from far away, or a wide shot, provides perspective and context. It gives viewers the lay of the land and helps establish a sense of place. This is rarely a problem for aerial videography since most lenses are fixed and you can’t zoom in (not the case for the Mavic Pro 2 Zoom). Moreover, with whirling blades, it’s not a good idea to get too close to your subjects (Unless you want a lawsuit). Most of the drone shots I see are wide shots.

ANGLED: Filming video right in front of your subject is one way to do it. Unfortunately, this can get dull if you do it exclusively. Capturing novel angles can enhance depth. It also tends to be more interesting and dynamic. Here’s how to turn on the gridlines on the DJI Go 4 App to help inform your compositional choices.

LOW: A few years ago, I directed and shot a broadcast TV show about a dog that survived brain cancer. It seemed that for half of our location video shoot day on the farm I was shooting from ground level, chasing the dog. This is “low.” It gives people a new perspective. It should be motivated by the content. How can you do that with the drone? Well, use it like you would the Ronin-S, holding it in your hand (without blades). On location in Pune, India recently, we didn’t have a gimbal, so we just held the drone in hand to follow our protagonist:

LINKING: Here, you want to connect two objects by moving the camera. This is editorial in nature—you’re making a point (otherwise, why move the camera, right?) Usually, it’s accomplished with a pan or perhaps a rack focus. One example of this move is the final 40 seconds of a video I produced for USAID in Haiti. I wanted to link our protagonist to the entire country in one conclusive shot. So I conceived of one long take, where the drone pushed in as the heroine approaches (denoting importance), but then as soon as she hit her mark, the camera does a neverending crane (see below) upwards as smooth and fast as possible:

DEPTH: Early in my career, I was lucky enough to team up a lot with talented cinematographer Stefan Wiesen. Born in Germany, one of Stefan’s favorite sayings was “vordegrund macht bild gesund,” which translates to “the foreground makes the picture.” And Stefan was a master at creating depth. This is incredibly important for aerial cinematography, arguably more so, since wide shots of faraway objects get dull quickly without a sense of perspective. How about a tree or two? Foreground elements help bring the viewer into the scene by making it feel three-dimensional.

OPPOSITE: The reverse angle, or reaction shot, is what you see when you turn around and show the opposite point of view. Film a preacher, then show the rapt congregation. I don’t use this one as much as I’d like, but I keep it on my cheat sheet to remind me to do it more.

#3. 11 Drone Camera Moves That Will Change your Life

Sometimes, when I’m piloting a drone, the technical operation takes all my brain bandwidth and I don’t have much creativity left to consider the best camera moves. That’s why I always have this list of 11 drone camera moves with me—and yes, they will change your life! 😊

It’s not really about being artistic or cinematic. It’s about using a diversity of techniques to help you tell the story best.

1. Neverending Crane.This shot helps link an object or a location to a wider context. Check out this Bjork video, directed by Spike Jonze. The final crane shot is surprising, majestic, and visually conclusive. You may not be able to get your talent to take a ride on a 70-foot crane, but you can do similar things with your drone shots:

 

2. Gimbal Down.This move features the drone camera tilted down to earth, with no horizon showing. It is best used when there’s dynamic action beneath it. It’s a unique perspective, and at its best when the movement below suggests shapes and geometry, perhaps that are undetectable to the terrestrial eye. Otherwise, why use it? For example, here are two gimbal down shots in a row for a video production in Medellin, Colombia, one with a mild rotation:

 

3. Gentle Rise. This camera move also uses a gimbal down, with no horizon showing, but the drone is rising here. The effect is making an object or location smaller or less important. Or it can link geographic elements. For enhanced effect in your video production, use it for a respite following a sequence that relies heavily on close-ups. Or use the very beginning of the rise and the very end, like this excerpt from a Hanoi, Vietnam traffic roundabout above. It compressed time and is entertaining for the viewer:

 

4. Fly-by. This drone camera move shows scale. Check out this video shot from a hillside above Bogota, Colombia. The trees in the foreground frame the impressive skyscrapers, giving us scale, turning what would be a flat skyscraper shot into something better.

 

5. Object Pull Out. You see this a lot—the drone camera pulls away from a sad person and it accentuates how remote and lonely she feels. In this video production for the International Monetary Fund, we get right to the point where this is a banking crisis and ensuing panic. So, we pull out from people walking on a pedestrian bridge:

 

6. Object Push In. By contrast, pushing in denotes importance, like this drone push into a factory in Senegal. The aerial composition has a clear focus and we push in on it from above:

 

7. Slider / Lateral. This is a long pan or dolly move. The drone gives us great power to stick with action longer from above or to link objects in new, creative ways. Formerly, you’d need to build long dolly tracks or hire expensive cranes and jibs. For example, check out this lateral aerial video shot from a promo video I made for one of the best cycling clubs, Squadra Coppi (ok, I’m a member!). They were riding 15mph, so no dolly was going to keep up with that (29-second mark):

 

8. Follow moving object forward. This tracking shot is even easier these days since various drones have the ability to lock on to a subject and follow it.

 

9. Follow moving object back. In traditional land-based camerawork, this is pretty standard visually, but difficult to accomplish without a gimbal, jib, or dolly. In this video production for the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Malawi, I followed Mary on her motorcycle. My idea was to contextualize Mary in the harsh environment and introduce her as a strong woman protagonist:

 

10. Rotate. This camera move sounds like what it is. Fly your drone to a spot, then rotate it above your object. Don’t overuse this, because it’s not a natural thing for the eye to see. But if you want to attract attention, or it serves the story, try it. For a narrative short video I’m directing, the protagonist was entering a dream state, so I decided to use it. Here’s a quick clip above the swimming pool.

 

11. Tilt. This is a powerful tool—follow your protagonist to the cliff’s edge, then tilt down to reveal the ravine below for example. It reveals new information, and shows space between two objects. Adjust the gimbal dial on the front-bottom left of the drone controller. This shot from the Squadra Coppi promo video links the peloton in the distance to the hills of Virginia in a majestic, conclusive shot. Tilting up to the sky lets us place a logo there as well (the end).

Hopefully these camera moves help take your drone footage to the next level, so it’s more of a storytelling tool. Thanks to all the talented people out there from whom I’ve begged, borrowed, and stolen good ideas, including Pro Church Toolsdroners.io, and dronelife.com.

Are you interested in how drone videography can help tell your story? Check out our Washington DC video production portfolio and services. Or come pay us a visit at the Dorst MediaWorks’ Washington DC video production offices at 1211 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

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A version of this article first appeared on the Z-Channel Films’ website.

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