Life After Gravity Field Notes: Episode Two

“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 second episode of our original sci-fi miniseries, Life After Gravity. Each episode will be accompanied by one of these blogs in which we’ll dive deep into the technical details that went into filming it.

Background

The whole concept behind Solo is simple: Make it easy for anyone to get cinematic shots. We’re filming this miniseries on Solo — and only on Solo — to illustrate just what this means for filmmaking. For most of these shots we used Solo’s Smart Shot technology, which not only makes it easy, but gives each shot a polish nearly impossible to replicate with 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. Solo is an entire video production unit in a backpack: Most of the costs of production went to travel; other costs were relatively negligible.

Smart Shots are only possible because of Solo’s 1 GHz companion computer that works with the traditional autopilot system, and a gimbal that functions intelligently within that system. This means Solo not only flies on set tracks in space, but can actually point the camera for you, allowing you to set not only flight paths but also frame-to-frame narration.

The significance of Smart Shots wasn’t at first obvious even to us until we started shooting this series. But with these blogs and the behind-the-scenes field reports, we’ll show you everything Smart Shots can do.

Here’s how Smart Shots contributed to the second episode.

Episode two field notes

In Episode 2 (watch here!), a lab team from EON — a global, trillion-dollar corporation with as-yet unknown motives — tests what seems to be a supernatural element discovered in a cave in the Mexican jungle during episode one. They call this element “the anomaly.” The anomaly, we learn in this episode, appears to have powers that affect and possibly even defy gravity.

The element they’ve discovered is the “6th Signature.” EON is using this element, which was delivered from somewhere in space, to test for gravitational anomalies based on the lifefield resonance. This is represented here in the animations around the technicians at the Otomi site with a “.Hu” unit of measurement (1 Hu is the median lifefield resonance of a human) as well as with particle effects in the UI shots.

Here’s how we used Solo to tell this part of the story.

The Calakmul Building, Mexico City

Title card shot: Eon Space Agency — Cable cam

This shot is a testament to Solo’s usefulness as a run-n-gun tool that allows you to shoot spontaneously.

This building — Mexico City’s Calakmul Building (named after a pre-Hispanic Mayan city, and nicknamed “the washing machine”) — wasn’t on the initial shot list. In fact, the shot wasn’t picked up by our team at all, but by a local production team who on the way to the shoot saw the strange structure from the freeway and thought it’d be a nice complement for the film. And if they pulled over quickly to get Solo in the air and shoot it, it wouldn’t impact the shot schedule for the rest of the day. So they parked on the side of the freeway, put their blinkers on, got Solo up in the air and set a Cable cam.

Like a similar shot in the last episode, they set Solo’s first frame close in so the viewer can’t tell just what this structure is. Then Solo pulls back along its cable from the first keyframe to the last, revealing as the frame expands the full building and the context of Mexico City. And because you can engage with Solo even when it’s in fully automatic mode, they were able to give the camera a gentle nudge at the end to accentuate the pan, adding another dynamic. Again, this was unplanned, but it was such an interesting shot and done so well that we used it for the title card — narratively, it illustrates EON’s scope.

How we did it:

  • Park on freeway; put hazards on for safety
  • Select “Cable cam” from Smart Shot menu
  • Fly to first keyframe; take your time and set it carefully so you get the frame you want. In this case we didn’t want to show the building at first
  • When you’ve got the exact frame your want, hit A to set it
  • Fly back to set the last keyframe; in this case with a slow pan that reveals more of the city; hit A to set it
  • Hit A again to fly along cable to first frame; hit B to fly back to the second frame
  • Use the right stick to “nudge” the camera for a more dynamic pan
  • Hit Return to Home, pack up and head to the location

What we learned:

Shooting with Solo is fast and easy, and it enables spontaneity even in a packed shooting schedule. Also, you can nail shots literally on the go — a perfect complement to a run-n-gun style of shooting.

“Mexico City” card — Selfie

Solo has a Smart Shot called “Selfie,” and while yes, it’s an easy and practically perfect automatic aerial selfie, we like to also think of it as “Reveal.” This shot, though simple to execute, illustrates how Selfie can also be a really useful narrative device.

In Selfie, Solo fixes its camera on a subject and then flies up and back to a predetermined distance and height, revealing a greater context as it goes. The Selfie subject doesn’t have to be a person, though — just set the focal point for the camera where you want it. In this instance we began by setting our starting frame, then setting in the app the height and distance we wanted Solo to reach at its zenith — making sure it would reveal not only the skyline in front but also the dome to the left. We also set the speed of Solo’s ascent, and it might be helpful to note here that as you pull away, the rate of the frame’s expansion will appear to slow, which added a dramatic effect here as we lifted the curtain on Mexico City.

We hit “play,” and we had the scene.

How we did it:

  • Select “Selfie” from the Smart Shots menu
  • Take your time to set your first frame and Selfie focal point
  • Make sure you have a clear and safe flight path behind Solo for its ascent
  • Press A to lock in the starting frame
  • Set the height, distance and speed you want; you can adjust these in the app if you need more takes
  • Press play

What we learned: Selfie is a more sophisticated storytelling tool than its name implies.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 5.15.55 PM

Soccer field — Orbit

We storyboarded some very specific shots for this scene. But when we got to the soccer field with our actors, a storm was about to roll in. Time was so short that on any other shoot we would have had to scrap the day. We were running really tight on time — had maybe 20 minutes before we got dumped on, which meant one flight on one battery — so we just got Solo up in the air, set a focus point for Orbit and hit “play.”

With the center marker set and Solo locked on its track, the pilot (who had limited experience as a cinema pilot) could get a feel for the angles and visuals that he wanted. Soon he was comfortable enough to start functioning as a DP and not a pilot, manipulating the altitude and radius of the Orbit with the sticks on the controller and discovering interesting angles. When he had a feel for what he wanted to do in the space, the crew could then direct the soccer players, knowing exactly where Solo would be.

Now the pilot could swoop down from the sky and improvise with Solo steadily curving for him. He could come down for low dolly shot, then swoop up and around and suddenly take the camera hundreds of feet away. Solo’s camera control handled the framing perfectly, like a true 5-axis cam move. All he needed to do is say high or low or close or far, and Solo maintained speed and direction (both adjustable). Not only that, but Solo also automates the hardest part of filming with a drone — the camerawork.

How we did it:

  • Pop Solo up, select Orbit
  • Set the center mark you want Solo to circle and film
  • Begin experimenting with altitude and radius using the left and right sticks (respectively) on the controller, turning a flat circle into a three-dimensional spiral
  • Use FPV on your phone or tablet to get a visual for the camera moves you want
  • Use these frames to direct your actors as needed

What we learned:

Solo can handle the challenges of flexibility: time; location; distance; affordability.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 5.16.09 PM

Soccer field, soccer ball POV — Cable cam

In the same location, under the same time crunch, and on the very same flight and battery, we used Cable cam to get one shot that we absolutely needed: the POV of the soccer ball slowing to float in the air as the anomaly’s gravitational flux acts on it. To get this on a traditional shoot, you’d have to break down the gear from the first shot (would have been a crane) and then set up the dolly for the second shot. By then, everything would have been drenched.

We used Cable cam to mimic the trajectory of the shot on goal, then slowed Solo to a stop to hover in place. (The ball itself was inserted in post.) We knew we would use Cable cam, because in this mode Solo automatically eases to a stop as it approaches the end frame. What’s more, in Cable cam you can adjust speed midflight to control both Solo’s velocity and the rate it slows down.

Traditionally you’d need either a dolly or a skilled pilot to get a shot like this, someone who can ease a drone to an imperceptible halt. Not only is it next to impossible to get a camera to hit a mark smoothly

In our case this would have also meant the pilot would fly a drone up close to an actor, which we wouldn’t have wanted to attempt with that human variability in the mix. But because Solo’s companion computer controlled the positioning precisely, we were comfortable with the shot: We knew Solo would ease itself to a stop at the cable’s end point, so we just had to set the path and the framing. The first pass was a little slow at the start, so we rewound the cable and set another speed to mimic the initial kick. Two takes and we were done — with no human variability, all you have to do is set it in the app and you know exactly how Solo will react.

We wrapped the whole shoot in twenty minutes, and got out before the rain hit — both literally antediluvian and space age.

How we did it:

  • With one tap take Solo from Orbit to Cable cam
  • Fly down to set the first and last frame, careful of framing and actors
  • Have Solo fly the cable, easing to a stop and hovering in place
  • Rewind cable and adjust speed for a second take

What we learned:

First, you can move quickly from shot to shot without having to take time to set up additional gear. Second, Solo’s computer-controlled flight guarantees smooth starts and stops for your footage — no longer do these shots have to remain in motion; this opens up ideas for shots we never would or could have conceived of otherwise. What’s more, with precise computer control — and Solo’s small size — you can fly much closer to your actors than you could with any other drone, which would have to be piloted to achieve the same smoothness and positioning.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 5.18.49 PM

Otomi cones — Cable cam

We shot about half of this episode at the Otomi Cultural Center, on a ceremonial stage built for the Otomi people in the 1980s. (You might recognize is from License to Kill.) For this shoot we had a precise shot list, and thanks to Solo’s automation we nailed every shot as planned. There are lots of cable shots in these scenes, and the cuts are fairly quick, so we’ll address a few of them here conceptually.

We took a lot of shots around and between these great conical stone structures, where EON techs in lab suits were testing the anomaly. This means we had to navigate Solo safely between these cones and around moving actors. To accomplish this, we used Cable cam to set clear and safe flight paths so we could be certain that on every take Solo would fly clear.

Cable cam is really a narrative, which is all about framing. It’s a great linear device. For instance, one of these Otomi shots starts on nothing but foliage, and as we pull back we get a feel for the site’s architecture, and then pulling back further we get a new feeling when characters enter the scene. We set our first frame and the last, and in between we can introduce new elements one by one, which builds the narrative nicely.

If the actors didn’t quite get where we wanted them when we wanted them, we would rewind the cable, press play and take it again without worrying about the camera’s role. This freed us to direct the actors. We reset some of these Otomi shots three or four times until the actors got it just right.

What we learned:

Solo is like having an expert DP on set, but you don’t need the personnel — instead, you’re the director and the camera operator and you don’t need to coordinate with anyone. Solo also empowers you to do more with less: You get high production quality, a low footprint, and you get what you need better, safer and faster. Cable cam transforms droning for film, because it’s not just about big aerials, but real scenes and stories.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 5.20.17 PM

Otomi tracking shot following tech — Cable cam

Normally we don’t think of using drones two feet off the ground. And yes, if you’re flying low you’ve really got to pay close attention to your position. Solo’s automation accounts for so much of this variability that we felt quite comfortable setting up this low tracking shot.

If you were to set this up with a track or a dolly, it would take a long time to get the gear in place, and then you’d have to control the speed. But you can get Solo in place, even moving seamlessly from a previous shot, without any extra gear. It’s small enough to be safe: A bigger (and more expensive) drone wouldn’t be safe around the actors. Solo’s speed is also controlled by computer, so you know exactly where it will be and when.

How we did it:

  • Select Cable cam
  • Set first frame on actor’s mark
  • Fly to actor’s final mark, set last frame
  • Return to first frame, call action and press play
  • Watch your footage in real time to check framing as it plays out
  • Direct actors or adjust Solo’s speed as needed
  • Repeat until you nail the shot

What we learned:

Solo is a Swiss Army knife for a filmmaker: We used it here as a helicopter, a dolly, a crane, a jib, a slider and a handheld camera. Add up the cost of that gear, then stuff it all in a backpack.

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