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Flying with an Octocopter

Laura Beth May 26

1510607_301434580016014_8562313256845024938_nLast week, I implemented my first drone-operated-camera-rig on a commercial shoot, working with the Wild Rabbit Aerial team .  We flew a Red Epic with Zeiss T1.3 Mk II Superspeeds (mostly 25mm and 35mm) on an octocopter.   The lenses were chosen for weight, as we had a 7-9 lb limitation. We were totally stripped down to bare bones, with the camera being powered by batteries provided by the aerial crew.

This was our second day of shooting, leaving me unavailable on Day 1 to prep the copter, but the aerial crew picked up the Red Epic and lenses to fully prep the day before.

Our task was to track with a flying toy, in the air.  I taped an optical flat to the Zeiss lenses incase the toy got shredded in the blades of the copter.  Strangely enough, the crew said that don’t usually see anyone tape an optical flat to the lens… even though it’s flying through the air…  It seemed common sense to me.  In fact, the copter shredded at least two toys right in front of the lens.  (Thank you, David Elkins!)

As this was only my first drone-mounted-camera experience, and it was part of a very full day of shooting, my observations will be brief:

  • With the camera/copter prepped the day before, the crew arrived ready to fly.  I added my filter, they took two minutes to adjust balance, and were ready for a test flight.
  • The Wild Rabbit Aerial Crew guys were very professional and very quick.  They inspired confidence, and took great care to maintain safety precautions.
  • The Epic could fly for about 8 minutes at a time.
  • A very loud beeping cues the operators and crew that the batteries are nearing end of life, and it’s time to begin landing protocols.  There were two distinct types of beeps, a “warning” for a minute or so, followed by the “land now” beep.
  • They were proactive about limitations and safety concerns when shooting actors.  The crew informed me that they would fly no closer than 10 or 12 feet to our actors.  That’s pretty damn close, and certainly worked for our needs.  Any closer and the prop wash would make the shot a little silly anyway.
  • It’s loud.  You aren’t shooting clean dialogue unless the copter’s way up in the air.  Even then, you had better plan for some post work.
  • Consider the “launchpad” area.  If you are shooting on rocks, sand, or if your set incorporates carefully placed light-weight objects, you’ll need to arrange a separate “launching area”.  Common sense.  It’s a copter; it kicks up dust and anything else immediately underneath it.
  • They can fly in up to 30mph winds.  When wind approached the limit, (the first time the copter changed its behavior) they immediately landed and explained that it wasn’t safe.
  • Remember to gauge line-of-sight for the video transmitter correctly.  We were flying in a field with trees.  As the copter can fly on any axis, we kept losing signal to the wireless transmitter every time a tree blocked the transmission.  This is no different from wireless setups with steadicam, you just have to remember that the copter will operate on a different plane from where your ACs are setting up video village. 🙂This is a reminder to everyone (ACs), everywhere that the wireless receiver should ALWAYS be on a stand separate from the monitor.  The monitor usually needs to be shaded and hidden, the receiver needs to have “line of sight” to the transmitter!


  • The actual camera is controlled by a joystick (same controller I’ve seen for the movi).  These are really tricky.  Our shots were very reactive and improvisational by necessity.  But, if I was using this for a narrative project, or for any type of shot that required a rehearsed move with precision execution, I’d want to compare the success of operators using the joystick vs a “gear head-type wheels” adapter.

We also had a separate movi with us that day, and while prepping it became obvious to me that the movi was really only likely to be useful to me with a skilled camera op (be it joystick or wheels) in addition to the movi op.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to go hunting the day before the shoot. (Our aerial op would have stepped in, but we didn’t end up using the movi that day.)

Leading up to the shoot, I was both excited and concerned about the octocopter.  I left the shoot feeling confident that this tool can be safely operated and can be a very useful creative tool.

I look forward to my next shoot with the Wild Rabbit Aerial team!


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