Life After Gravity: Behind the scenes of episode one

Technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can’t by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. Actually a root word of technology, techne originally meant ‘art.’ The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.

– Robert Pirsig, Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Welcome to the first episode of our original sci-fi miniseries, Life After Gravity. (Watch the first episode here.) Each episode will be accompanied by one of these blogs in which we’ll dive deep into the technical details that went into shooting each episode.

Background

The whole concept behind Solo is simple: Make it easy for anyone to get cinematic shots. In the LAG series we’re filming on Solo — and only on Solo — to illustrate just what this means for filmmaking. Every shot here is made with Solo, and for most of them we use Solo’s Smart Shot technology, which not only makes it easy, but gives each shot a polish that’s nearly impossible to replicate without a professional pilot. We also wanted to illustrate that you can now tell an enormous story — this one is on a global scale — on a limited budget: most of the costs of production went to travel; all other production costs were relatively negligible.

(By the way, the users and 3DR team that contributed to this aren’t professional pilots — they’re filmmakers whom Solo has empowered to function as professional pilots. But more on that later.)

We achieved this ease of use and polish through the integration of two 1 GHz Linux computers with the traditional autopilot system, and the addition of a gimbal that works intelligently with that system. This means that Solo not only flies on set tracks in space, but it can actually point the camera for you, allowing you to set not only paths but also frame-to-frame narration.

The significance of this seemingly small bit of Solo’s technology wasn’t obvious even to us until we started shooting this series. With these blogs, and the behind-the-scenes field reports, we’ll show you everything Smart Shots can do.

Below you’ll find our behind-the-scenes video and a run-down of how Solo’s technology contributed to the making of the first episode.

Key shots from episode one

Opening shot: Man on bench at dawn; Cable cam

We got this shot with Cable cam. Interestingly enough, this shot — like many others in the series — was not originally on our shot list. We encountered it in the field when our team, on its way to get a shot that was on the list, walked by a man sitting contemplatively on a bench. Our director was struck by this image, and decided to capture it with one of our own actors.

This is a big part of the genesis of Solo: To have everything you need in one backpack, with absolute minimal assembly needed so you can quickly get in position to get the shot. This allows you to take advantage of moments — it’s as close as possible to having a drone, like a camera, around your neck.

While the rest of the team continued on its way to the original shot, our director Adam popped Solo out of the backpack and one of our actors sat on the bench. Adam set a cable not according to waypoints, but according to each frame in the narrative he wanted to capture. The narrative went like this: a dawn breaks over the sea; we drop down to reveal the character on the bench; and then rise back up to the sea, and a new day that now has been recontextualized by the movement between these frames as the beginning of a new era, and this man’s journey.

Cable cam setup here was simple:

  • Select Cable cam from the Smart Shot menu
  • Fly Solo to the first frame, get the camera in perfect position and hit the A button on the controller to set your first frame
  • Fly Solo to set your second frame — this wasn’t a straight camera move, but involved a slight twist that you’d otherwise have to execute manually — and hit the B button to set the second frame
  • Press A to return Solo to first frame, where it has memorized not only the point in space, but also the orientation and gimbal/camera position
  • Press B and Solo flies down the cable, automatically interpolating the camera from first frame to the second, including the slight twist, while automatically slowing as it approaches the end of the cable to smooth out the shot
  • Press A again and it returns up to the first frame, now changed by the newly revealed character in this context

On the first take, Solo moved a little too fast for Adam’s taste. He wanted to capture a shot with a “more cinematic, brooding” feel. Solution? Not flying another take — or several — and risking manual slips that might ruin shot, but simply going into Cable cam’s settings, right there in the app, and pushing back the slider for Solo’s speed. Two takes and Solo nailed the exact shot that Adam envisioned — the spontaneous shot that ended up becoming the opening to the entire series, with plenty of battery left over.

I should mention at this point that Adam is not a professional pilot — he’s a director, and on all of his shoots before Solo he’s relied on a pilot or two to bring his vision into reality. Only on this series with Solo has he himself, by himself, been able to execute with professional quality on that vision. What’s more, this relatively inexperienced pilot hardly ever looked up at the drone — instead, he could look at the controller and screen as if he were using a camera, and use that set up a true narrative.

What we learned from this shot:

  • Solo is so easy to assemble and use that it allows even new pilots to improvise or react to the moment without worrying about technical risks. We took advantage of this from here out.
  • Solo allows your thinking to shift from production and setup of a shot to finding and creating the magic of a moment. Instead of point to point, you can think of frame to frame — not flight paths, but a narrative, a story.
  • Instead of looking up to worry about the drone, you can look down at the screen in your hands, effectively turning the controller into a camera.

Mysterious Eon “honeycomb” building; Orbit

This is, in my opinion, one of the coolest shots of the whole series. As opposed to the shot described above, this one illustrates scouting and planning: design along with ease of execution.

We found this building with a Google search. It’s the Soumaya Museum, located in Mexico City. (Authorities were on site and had no issue with us flying and filming there.) In the film this building serves as one of the offices of Eon, an enormous global tech corporation with unknown and possibly dangerous or even sinister motives. This shot establishes this building, which as yet has a still unknown function; it’s possible the building contains a thorium reactor.

We first planned to use Orbit to get a wraparound shot that we designed specifically to establish this as an iconic building in the film, as well as to do the architecture justice. However, when we got on set we discovered what Orbit can really do: It’s dynamic absolutely amazing, and this discovery changed the way we approached just about every shot from there out.

Orbit, it turns out, it way more than a perfect circle — it’s a perfect circle with elasticity. You should first know that Orbit is not your everyday wraparound shot. It’s a dynamic Smart Shot that allows you to play with the elasticity of a circle in real time, while Solo automatically maintains its orbiting movement around your focal point. (The altitude of this focal point, by the way, is also adjustable in real time.) Kick Solo into an Orbit and you’re free to use the controller sticks to play with the circle’s radius and Solo’s altitude while Solo continues on its track, simultaneously adjusting its orientation and the camera in real time to accommodate whatever angular shifts you’re commanding. Once we discovered this, we changed the whole shot, and it became one of our favorites in the series.

Instead of starting with the entire building, we could now begin with a close-up of the strange honeycomb pattern of the wall, giving no context to what it was part of.

EON A

Then we put Solo into Orbit and pull the radius out while simultaneously pushing the altitude up and around to reveal this incredible futuristic work of art and architecture, a “corkscrew” move that allowed us to replicate artistically the compelling parabolic momentum of the architecture.

EON B

You can also notice that even though Solo maintains its constant airspeed (which actually is adjustable in the app), as we increase the circle’s radius the movement appears to slow down. This is physics: as you expand the radius you’re traveling without changing your ground speed, you reduce what’s called your “angular velocity”; that is, to cover the same circumference in the same amount of time Solo would have to travel faster as you pull back. You may have heard this about a record as it spins — a dot on the outer edge has to travel faster than a dot on the inner edge. The result here is that Solo appears to slow — as if you smoothly applied the brakes to the shot — which visually gives the building a feeling of weight and permanence as it becomes established.

EON C

Think about all of the possibilities and combinations that this gives you as a filmmaker: improvisation, speed, direction, height, distance, and combinations of all the above. This isn’t just an orbit in the way planet Earth orbits the sun — it’s as if Earth’s orbit could, well, defy gravity.

Only 3DR’s Smart Shots can get this kind of shot.

Here’s how we corkscrewed Solo:

  • Select the Orbit Smart Shot in the Solo app, then set your focal point by moving the map with your finger so the pin of your focal point is exactly where you want it
  • Fly Solo to where you want your Orbit to start, letting it hang there as long as you want while you get ready to execute the shot
  • Select which direction you want Solo to Orbit — in this case to the left
  • In the app, set the speed you’d like Solo to move
  • Press “play” to set Solo in motion
  • Solo begins its orbit, keeping the camera on the central point
  • Now you’re free to play with the radius and altitude using the controller
  • To perform this corkscrew shot, pull back on the left stick to expand the circle’s radius while pushing up on the right stick to raise Solo’s altitude
  • Solo maintains its speed and focus on its own, which means not only staying on the central point but also adjusting the camera for you as you change the circle’s altitude and elasticity

And voila: an aerial shot from design to execution in just a few minutes, doing justice to an incredible building that took years and years from design to execution.

What we learned:

  • Orbit is insane. And easy. See above.

But that’s not shot on Solo!

Some observant viewers no doubt noticed the first-person close-up on the controller and phone screen, with a pair of hands working the controls. Some of you might cry foul — that’s not shot on Solo! But it was.

We didn’t do this just to be cheeky and adhere technically to the promise of the series. It was actually easier to shoot this on Solo than it would have been using a chest-mounted camera.

How we did it:

  • Rest Solo on the pilot’s arms
  • Roll GoPro
Controller Insert

The pilot kept Solo level, and the gimbal kept the camera stable. A chest-mounted camera wouldn’t have been this stable. Plus, we could monitor the GoPro feed live, wirelessly and remotely, which is only possible through Solo.

For some of the cave shots we had to use a handheld Solo — for instance the shots looking up — with the gimbal keeping the camera stable. However, we shot in two caves, with one acting as a double. That cave double — the Cave of Swallows — is thousands of years old and deep enough to hold the Chrysler Building. This cave is sacred to the local Huastecs, as are the birds that live there. The birds in these shots (noted in the shot list below) are 100% real, but out of respect we didn’t want to fly Solo around them. We filmed instead with a handheld Solo.

What we learned:

  • You can easily substitute Solo for a handheld or body rig
  • Solo actually has advantages over handheld rigs, such as a stabilized and wireless live HD feed

The Birds

The birds coming out of the cave at the end were not shot on Solo. They were added later in animation. But except for them, and a few birds that flit right in front of the camera, all the other birds are real. Even the solitary white one in the swamp. See shot list below.

Birds 2

Shot List with Smart Shot modes:

  1. Beach: Cable cam
  2. Eon building: Orbit
  3. Meteorite strike: Cable cam
  4. Pachuca: Manual
  5. Pachuca road: Orbit
  6. Jungle van: Cable cam
  7. Solo air-to-air: Manual
  8. Solo air-to-air: Cable cam
  9. Controller: Armheld Solo
  10. Cave reveal: Cable cam
  11. Descent into cave: Manual (no GPS in a 800 ft-deep cave)
  12. Cave descender: Handheld Solo
  13. Cave interior pan: Manual
  14. Walkie communication: Handheld Solo
  15. Blue suit descending: Cable cam
  16. Cave pa to, explorer: Manual
  17. Swamp: Cable cam, then nudge the yaw stick to pan cam and follow birds
  18. Cave exploring, walkie: Handheld Solo
  19. Cabled descent into cave: Cable cam
  20. FPV inside mask: Manual
  21. Jungle explorers: Manual w/programmed tilt control
  22. Two explorers: Manual walking
  23. Swamp birds: Cable cam
  24. Breaching clouds: Manual w/programmed tilt control
  25. Birds escaping: Handheld Solo (Cave of Swallows)
  26. Exploring cave: Manual
  27. Bird vortex: Handheld with digital shake (Cave of Swallows)
  28. Discovering element: Manual
  29. Dangling rope: Handheld
  30. Birds escaping: Cable (animated birds)
  31. Ascent from cave: Cable
  32. Contemplation: Orbit

The Science behind the Series

In this series we present, draw inspiration from, and take liberties with science, theories and technologies we find compelling or useful.

Referenced or inspired in this episode:

00:51: EON’s HQ masquerading as a Thorium Reactor: A solution to our energy problems — or is it?

Yes, it is.

No, it’s not.

02:43, 03:37, 03:56: Birds of a distant lake respond to the experience of their cave dwelling cousins via Morphic Resonance. That we’re all connected in ways we can feel but not see is a romantic idea, but is it reality?

Yes, it is.

No, it’s not.

02:25: Hazmat suits, color by numbers.

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