The following is a guest post by Sasha Rezvina, the Director of Marketing for Aerobo.
When you think of drone shots, you probably picture those graceful high-and-wide, distant aerials.
Not shots like this one:
It’s dangerous to fly so close to people, not to mention illegal most places. It’s incredibly difficult to get a tight, low-to-the-ground steady shot of a subject.
But the shot was pulled off—legally—with a drone. So how did they do it?
The aerial cinematographers at Aerobo executed the shot using a maneuver called a drone catch. A drone catch enables you to start a shot in the air, but then transition it to what looks like a Steadicam shot. As the drone descends, someone on the ground catches it and continues moving the camera manually from the ground, as the drone pilot carefully shuts off the drone.
The drone catch rig enables you to capture a long-take, transitioning seamlessly between aerial and on-the-ground shots. And if you have some basic tools and a drone, you can make one and try it for yourself. Here’s how.
Building a drone catch rig: the gear you’ll need
This guide explains how to build a drone catch rig for the Inspire 2— the same drone that was used for The Greatest Showman. Why is the Inspire 2 a good pick to build a drone catch rig with? 1: The gimbal is sophisticated enough that the shot isn’t compromised when the drone is caught, and 2: the landing gear is large enough such that any handles are on a lower plane than the camera and gimbal.
This rig requires less than $100, and should take you no longer than 30 minutes to build. Here’s all the equipment you need to start with:
- Carbon fiber tubing 22mm in diameter (you can get some on eBay for $17)
- Dremel (you can find one at Walmart for $49.99)
- Glow-in-the-dark, luminescent tape (available on Amazon for $5.88)
- Zip-ties (also on Amazon for $5.95)
- Drill Press (optional, since you can use your Dremel for this)
Ensure that you take proper precautions when working with carbon fiber, since small particles and shavings can irritate your skin, cut your eyes, and damage your lungs. If you don’t have proper protective gear already, you should also invest in:
- Latex gloves
- Protective goggles
- Half Facepiece Respirator (a simple one that you might use for sanding will suffice)
- Long sleeves
- Wet wipes
Lastly, make sure you’re in a well-ventilated area, so that once your project is complete, you can clear the harmful dust particles out of the air.
Steps for building a drone catch rig
Aerobo chief engineer Suresh Kumar designed the first rig for the Greatest Showman shoot. He opted to design and build his own when he saw that the supplementary handles manufactured by DJI were not conducive for catching the drone out of the air. His version utilized rods that connected the front and back leg of the landing gear on either side.
As a result, the handles were the lowest part of the drone, easily accessible upon descent:
Start with your 22mm carbon fiber tubing, and cut it to exactly 1′ 2.6”, the length between the front and the back legs of the landing gear.
Now use your Dremel to cut four rectangular notches, each about ¼” deep at the end of the tube. The notches should be 90 degrees from one another, so that they can be fastened on the leg of the Inspire 2. Use wet wipes to clean off the shavings from the inside and outside of the tube, and the surface where you’re working.
Flip the tube over and do the same so that the notches are on complete opposites sides of the tube. Each notch should be exactly across the notch on the other end of the tube.
Next, drill straight through the tube about 1 inch from the end of the tube, creating two holes that are lined up. We used a drill press, but you can make do with a Dremel, if that’s all you have.
From here, cover approximately the center third with luminescent tape. This will serve as an easy visual anchor for the person performing the drone catch. They’ll be able to spot the precise location even if the drone is approaching quickly.
Use the zip-ties to secure the tubes to the legs. The holes of the tubes should be pointing left and right, parallel to the ground, and the zip-ties should secure either side of the tube to a leg.
Once you’re finished, you’ve built your first drone catch rig. Time to learn how to use it.
How to use (and master) the drone catch rig
Catching a drone out of the air is a difficult stunt and can be dangerous if you don’t have much experience. Don’t compromise your safety and your drone by going for the drone catch as soon as the rig is built. Ease into it by practicing the two components of the maneuver separately: the descent and the transition.
Related read: Watch a film shot entirely on a DJI drone
First, have the team practice the transition from flight to manual carry. Start by having the pilot bring the drone up to about 50 feet. Then, have the drone catcher stand below the drone as the pilot very carefully lowers the throttle. As soon as it’s within arms reach, have the drone catcher grasp the two handles. Once they have a hold of the drone, have the pilot shut off the motors, as the drone catcher manually lowers the drone. Practice this several times.
Next, have your pilot practice a slow and steady diagonal descent with the drone. Rather than simply bringing the drone “home,” hovering it, and then slowly releasing the throttle, in this case the pilot will need to slowly release the throttle as they move the drone forward. The pilot might find it useful to have the heading of the drone pointing either to the left or right, so they can have precise control over the angle of the descent.
Once both components of the maneuver can be executed without any issues, you can start practicing the drone catch. The drone catcher should stay out of the path of the drone as it descends, and then step into the path as it’s low enough to catch. Expect it to take a number of tries before the drone catch can pull off the catch without disturbing the camera.
Untether your drones
Drone company Aerobo used these handles for a drone catch, but they can be used for any number of shots. You might start on the ground and then launch the drone into an aerial shot, or to transition back-and-forth in one long take. Or, perhaps, you might not want to fly the drone at all, and take advantage of the gimbal on the Inspire 2.
Related read: The best drone films of 2017
There’s no reason that cameras must stay tethered to the earth and drones must stay tethered to the skies. Building handles for your drone lets you mix Steadicam shots and aerials, without ever stopping to rebuild or re-rig, expanding the cinematic possibilities.
-By Sasha Rezvina
Sasha Rezvina is a Brooklyn-based writer who explores the intersection of art and technology. Throughout her career she’s worked with over 30 tech companies to help them shape their brand stories and tell the world about their products. She’s currently the Director of Marketing for Aerobo, one of the largest aerial cinematography companies in the U.S.