You might not have noticed, but… these
days, things are lookin’ down. Literally.
Quick story: So, one fine day I’m sittin’
around the studio, polishin’ the capacitors and
waitin’ for the daily drama to begin, when an
express package is flung in my general direction.
Inside—footage I’ve been told to expect,
although I can’t say I was expectin’ to see it arrive
on those round, shiny plastic discs we used
to use. No matter… I’m up to the challenge.
Sent from Tatabánya, Hungary, these files were
every bit as foreign to me as their point of origin.
But strangely encoded, offbeat file formats turn
an ordinary offload into a Christmas present;
after all that work unwrapping it, you’re even
more convinced that it’s an extra-special treat.
I quickly scrub through the files… high-def
renders of a clean, pixel-perfect industrial complex
and the carefully textured fields of green
that surround it. Oh, those clever eastern Europeans—an animator’s tour de force, complete with little
human figures inside a giant glass lobby. Only… wait…
When I watch long enough, and the animation finishes
circling the building, I notice something funny, small, off in
the corner of the frame. Now, animators don’t usually model
and shade geometry only to stick it off-camera; makes no
sense. I go back and investigate.
It appears to be a small, Euro minivan with its side door
open. There are two human figures standing nearby, eyes
And one of them is holding a remote control box… for
a drone. I’ve been duped by aerial footage so smooth and
clean that I mistook it for CGI. Sheesh.
SKY’S THE LIMIT
Of course I was confused. Short of the Goodyear blimp,
and plus or minus a spare $20K, what are the odds of
shooting aerial footage in the Hungarian countryside for a
little project like this? Had to be 3D, in my mind.
As viewers, we’re in love with aerial footage. Aerial
gives life to our nighttime dreams of floating above the
earth, all-seeing, awash in the beauty of the cities, farmland
and mountains below. About 20 minutes after photography
itself was invented, Frenchman Gaspar Felix
Tournachon hopped into a hot air balloon and started
snapping—no mean feat, considering he had to bring a
darkroom aloft and process his collodion plates on the
spot. Our photographer-forebears have used kites, rockets
and even carrier pigeons to capture the aerial images
that set human imaginations aflame, and despite your self-pronounced
sophistication, you’re no different, baby. You
love it, too.
In my own defense, it’s no great shame to be fooled
by a perfect blend of technologies, aeronautical and optical.
’Ole Mario is part of a rapidly aging well-experienced
generation of camera platform liberators, after all. On our
watch, giant TV cameras got small, and left their pedestals
and tripods in favor of shoulders. And smaller cameras worked with traditional film gear, like jib arms, dollies and
cranes. The brilliant inventor, filmmaker and performer
Garrett Brown was one of us. Every year at the NAB Show, I watch him demonstrate crazy
new innovations on his ever-expanding
family of Steadicam
products—he invented that, ya
know. Molto bene.
But our “tiny” NTSC cameras
weighed 35 pounds; a
4K-capable GoPro weighs less
than 5 ounces. That’s a game-changer.
That means that an eight-rotor
remote-controlled helicopter can
propel a camera into the heavens
without breakin’ a sweat. Add all our
other relatively newfound technologies…
GPS, Wi-Fi, low-power RF…
and ya gotta call it a “platform”—a
self-contained ecosystem for making
GO FOR THE GIMBAL
But wait… there’s more! The
“smooth” part of my Hungarian footage
is credited to another legacy aerospace technology...
the gimbal. A self-leveling, stabilized mount takes away the
shakes, the jaunty angles and the sudden jerks. (Decades
of operating experience haven’t helped me…
maybe I need my own gimbal.)
The availability of small, low-cost gimbals has
made drone photography viable, and has led to
innovative earthbound stabilizers, too, such as
Freefly Systems’ handheld MoVI platform for
small cameras. Funny how great ideas sometimes
fall right out of the sky.
It ain’t simple, and that’s for sure. Not
simple to outfit a rig; not simple to fly.
And add two big question marks—
privacy concerns and the federal
government—and you realize that
even the legality ain’t simple. Nobody
wants drones peeking into
their windows and over fences; and
FAA rulemakers have said, at least for now,
that remote-controlled hobby aircraft are
OK, but if the same ’copter is flown for cash,
you’re an outlaw. Nice.
I want one. Significant cost aside, I really,
really want one. Would my drone kill
or maim someone with me at the helm?
I think not. But would it plunge directly
into the briny deep, or wind up a musciada
under an 18-wheeler? I smell financial
ruin, and it’s worse than last week’s
smelts. I can’t help thinkin’ about Tournachon
and his balloon… and then
about that intrepid lawn chair balloonist
over Los Angeles a few years ago. Hmmm…
garbage bags filled with helium… why not? Gasbag
with a camera. If I had a nickel for every time
I’ve heard that…
Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known
television engineer who wishes to
remain anonymous. Email him at email@example.com.