ONCE WE LAUGHED AT THESE DRONES
We used to dislike the DJI drones with integrated cameras. Actually, we used to dislike them very very much. The tiny tiny sensors and the h.264 codec just didn’t deliver anything close to what we and our clients expected. So instead we struggled with bulky and unreliable heavylifters that could carry a RED or Canon C300. And sure, the technical quality of the outcome was of course second to none, but how much impact was the actual footage making?
A heavylifter loaded with a RED Epic or Alexa Mini flies for approximately seven minutes. And with € 50 000 worth of camera gear in the air, it doesn’t matter how much guts you’re gifted with – you still fly very carefully. You go slow, you don’t go to low, you don’t go to high and not to far away. You treat the heavylifter like you would treat a 1936 Rolls Royce – carefully – and that does not benefit the artistic ambition of the director or the DoP.
A DECENT LEAP AHEAD
As DJI released the Zenmuse X5 RAW camera in 2015 things began to look a bit brighter. The micro 4/3 sensor was competent and the CinemaDNG files was a treat for the color graders. The DJI Inspire 1 drone, to which the X5R was fitted, could stay in the air for + 20 minutes and accelerate to 80 km/h. The X5 became a bit of a game changer, but this was nothing compared to what was about to come…
DO YOU FLY ALEXA?
Sometimes we wonder if DJI has been intercepting ours and our fellow drone operators’ email and cellphones. A typical inquiry would go something like ”We’re shooting a commercial out by the Baltic Sea. The actor is to be standing on the top of a lighthouse while the drone comes charging in from the from let’s say 800 meters, then passing the lighthouse with a margin of let’s say 1 meter and then bash on over land for at least 300 meters. We’re shooting with Alexa SXT and the color grader wants the same look on the drone footage. Do you fly Alexa Mini?” These requests either ended up with us succeeding in persuading the client to go for a lighter camera such as the Black Magic Pocket Cinema in a smaller and more versatile drone. Or with the client persuading us to go with the Alexa Mini anyway. Either way the client had to make a compromise between technical quality and footage impact.
THEY DID IT
Late 2017 DJI released the Zenmuse X7 camera. It holds a 6k Super 35 sensor giving 14 stops dynamic range at CinemaDNG raw recording. Our setup includes a set of prime lenses between 16 and 50 mm. Usually our Swedish humbleness keeps us from swinging the heavy superlatives, but this time we must say we're just totally flabbergasted!
The image below is one video frame shot at 6K resolution. Feel free to download the DNG-version together with a set of DNG:s from other shoots to experience the joy in grading this material.
Also the drone that the X7 sits on, Inspire 2, is a marvel in itself. It zips by at up to 100 km/h and soars towards the clouds at 6 m/s. It stays in the air for 25 minutes and can be flown up to 2 km away. We know drone operators who still struggle with Alexa Mini:s slung on heavylfting drones with a flying time around 8 minutes and range of a maximum of 300 meters. Bang for the bucks? Not much.
FINALLY, A REACH OUT TO ALL YOU COLOR GRADERS
From a grading artist’s point of view it's very convenient to have all the material in a production recorded on the same type of camera. And since the majority of the high end productions are shot on RED or Alexa, grading artist become particulary skilled in handling the output of these two standards. And when people get really used to something, we sometimes feel a bit of discomfort when stepping outside the box of convenience. That's why we've heard color grading artists and DoP:s say they won't accept anything that's not shot on a heavy and bulky Super 35mm camera with a German logo on it. Which is a shame. Try to imagine how many bold and breathtaking camera runs directors and producers have missed out on just because someone by the color grading station has fallen in love with the look of a particular image sensor . . . Well, at least hope the grading turned out AWSOME.