MINI-CINE DRONES/DJI PHANTOM+MAVIC
These are what most people buy for their first drone. They’re great for getting web content, and for the record I’ve had TV shows use my footage shot with them.
Welcome to part 4 of 5: 5 Essential questions a producer should ask a drone pilot. This is the most crucial part of the process, and the part that is the most confusion. And while the latest-greatest drone does not a pilot make, a good pilot can only do so much with his available technology. This is an industry that changes every 6 months to a year, so subsequently this is the one blog I have toi constantly update. Now grab hold of your controller, and read on!
It’s well known that DJI owns a very large chunk of the market, in fact it’s 54% of the global market which includes industrial applications. While they make very good drones, they have incorporated geofencing into their OS making it very hard to fly in many locations. This is good for the fact that amateurs can’t launch in the landing approach to LAX, but can give responsible pilots headaches, and getting restrictions legally circumvented.
Often times productions only know that they need a drone and tend to lump all UAV’s into one category.
What you should be looking for is, a skilled and licensed pilot or crew that has thecorrect camera/drone combination for your production.
Please read this entire blog(s) and hopefully my 10 years of professional drone piloting will help narrow down your questions. Or if you’re in Southern California, you can contact Dronewrx and we can help you get your production the right drone/pilot for the right price. Our direct number: 323-899-8400 We travel, and have valid passports! Also note that we provide various types of specialty camera, from car-to-car, 3D WireCam (AKA SpiderCam), rail cam, point-to point cable cam and regular ‘ol shooting on sticks and editing.
While there are many drones on the market there’s really only 5 or 6 that are commonly used in our industry, and DJI makes most of them. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of the process. So many people just ask for ‘a drone”. That’s like walking into a camera rental house and saying “I want a camera” of course there aren’t THAT many viable choices as there are for cameras, but here are the drones you should consider.
No “history of cinematic drones” list would be complete without the The DJI Phantom. It has a shape that’s ubiquitous to drones in general and it’s practically the official emoji for drones. The Phantom 1 is the drone that started the whole revolution and got many people in the air, including yours truly, and stuck around the longest. It was a big deal to buy a drone that you didn’t have to assemble from parts that you ordered from the back of a magazine (remember magazines?), and it came with it’s own controller. They’ve progressed thru many version, and ended on the Phantom 4 Pro which for many productions (think web release) is excellent. Perhaps the most valuable of all DJI features started off with the Phantom 3, which is the ability to control all camera functions from an app that doubles as a screen.Up until the most recent DJI release the Mavic 3, the Phantom was far and above the low budget leader, now it’s got some completion. However, The Phantom 4 Pro is a great platform for lower budgeted/web projects. The camera is very good in daylight, and it shoots in LOG making it’s easy to match other cameras footage.
One niche for the Phantom is “delivery simulation”. We’ve done w few jobs where the Phantoms hearty build and ability of fuselage made it the star of the Rich Brian music video Bali. See pictures in the gallery or for a deep dive click on the link to check out out our blog about it.
The DJI Mavic has now been around long enough to be considered a mainstay of the industry. Every time you turn around they’re releasing a newer, smaller drone. When the Mavic 1 was released it’s “reason” was that it was foldable and small, but the camera was only so-so. Then came the Mavic 2 which had the Hasseblad camera with the 1″ sensor, but even better its VERY quiet with the add on low noise props. DJI has 6 or 7 flavors of Mavic but if we’re talking about the one’s that you should be hiring, it’s a Mavic 2 or 3. One feature that’s of interest to hobbyists is the autonomous follow feature. This allows you to capture yourself doing all sorts of sport, without having to fly the drone. The obstacle avoidance is pretty good as well. Not as good as the American made Skydio, but that is pretty much a purpose built drone.
With the brand new Mavic 3 they’ve added a micro-four-thirds sensor, 45 minute flight times, smoother flight algorithms, and it’s as fast or even faster than the Phantom 4. You combine these factors, and that it’s incredibly quiet and this makes it very desirable.
The Mavic 3 Cine version is the drone you should be looking for as shoots in up to 5.1K Pro Res 422 HQ, and has a second lens which allows you to zoom. The zoom aspect is huge as you can now do in camera moves the until this little drone were reserved for the most high end heavy lift drones. There’s also a Pro controller which has a built-in Day-Bright screen and an HDMI output. This makes it very usable for live streaming for providing a picture for video village. These two aspects are huge and this little drone sells for upwards of $5k.
FPV (First Person View) Drones were the new big thing a couple of years ago. The original sport saw racers dawn goggles to view a live video feed through a camera on the drone and race through a course. Network television was broadcasting the world championship races. The goggles give the operator a feeling of being in the craft and make it easier to navigate thru obstacles. The drones are available a range of sizes from something that can fit in your palm to a foot wide, and a new product hits the market every 5 minutes making this a retailers dream. Small drones like this can fly between tiny spaces and some go as fast as 100 mph creating exciting, up close shots. There’s also a DIY aspect to the hobby as you can download and 3D print parts. Take a trip to your local RC field and you’ll see enthusiastic hobbyists with multiple crafts ready to take flight. If you like accessorizing, and constantly upgrading, this could be a hobby for you!
There’s a popular niche in this category known as a “CineWhoop” which is specifically for getting extremely up-close and dynamic shots, or flying thru tight spots. These drones are on the smaller size and the propellors have ducts around them making them safe to fly around people. Because of the small size you’re stuck with a GoPro or similar, and up till very recently (like yesterday 12/15/’21) there were no gimbals on the market so no tilting the camera, and so all stabilization happens in post. The most popular software is called Reel Steady. There was a very famous CineWhoop video in Venice beach called “Rise and Shine” which was shot on a 250mm quad with a GoPro 4, then reversed and stabilized to give a dramatic effect. This video popularized these sorts of drones, and ulitlized Reel Steady. The small size and cost makes this so popular because it’s easy to get into, and if you loose a drone it’s “only” a loss of $800-$1,000.
This WAS one segment of the market that DJI didn’t have a hand in. But leave it to the industry giant to crash the party. DJI released their own version of an FPV drone in March of 2021, with some valuable features. Namely a large battery which gives 15+ minute flight times, a camera that tilts up and down, and a GPS allowing the drone to auto-hover, whereas all other drones in this segment require the pilot to be actively flying. DJI also brought digital downlinks and high quality goggles to the market which offer a better picture, but there’s no grey area as far as reception. Good thing they included return to launch and obstacle avoidance. The bad news is because of all the software overhead, big brother is watching…and always prompting.
The latest, and highest stakes game is putting a RED Komodo on a custom made FPV drone and zooming around the subject. These are what are now known as called Cinelifters. In 2021, there were only custom drones in this category, now there are a few factory built drones on the market, making this more accessible to more pilots.
ARRI Alexa Mini (16:9)
RED Raven (4.5K)
X5R / X5s or GH5 – Micro 4/3
Inspire 2 X7 Super 35
DJI revolutionized the industry with its DJI Inspire thatwas introduced in November of 2014. The way the center of gravity sits lower when it’s in flight mode helps physically stabilize the camera, get it away from the propellors and angles the props in a *dihedral angle” (in this case it’s a slight outward angle which helps flight characteristics and reducing “dirty air” beneath the aircraft) AND makes it easier to transport. This drone has dominated the industry since it’s introduction, and what 70-80% of all big productions are shot on. It has the capability to move the camera independently of the drone making follow shots much more dynamic, and is better in wind when doing arcs. It can also fly up to 58 mph (I’ve had mine up to 62mph with a tail wind).
The original Inspire 1 came with the X3 camera, which is now is not even as good as the Phantom 4 Pro. They eventually released the X5R which was a huge improvement with a M4/3 Sensor (same as GH5 / GH6) and could record to RAW, but that was a pain in the ass because all footage had to be painstakingly transcoded. In November of 2016 they released the Inspire 2 which took the platform to the stratosphere of innovation. In October of 2017 DJI released the X7 camera which boasts a Super 35 Image sensor (which is almost identical to the Alexa Mini’s) and carbon fiber lenses (for weight savings), shoots directly to ProRes – HQ422 & 4444 XQ, DNG and Cinema DNG, plus it has more available frame rates and resolution up to 5.2gb.
The X5S camera that was first available on the Inspire 2 shoots directly to ProRes – HQ422 & 4444 XQ), DNG and Cinema DNG and has more available frame rates and resolution up to 5.2gb. This was the first camera releases on the I2. That camera was eclipsed by the X7 but still has value for night shoots because of the full stop faster lenses. The Inspire 2 has two batteries, two ESC’s (motor speed controllers) and two flight controllers. This all adds up to a much safer bird as almost anything could fail has a back-up.
Since the introduction of the X7 camera in October of 2017 it’s even more the industry standard. The X7 has a super 35 sensor, shoots Pro-Res and DWG files up to 6.2K, and fancy custom carbon fiber lenses. It is known for matching up with the Alexa and Red Cameras very well. It hasn’t made heavy lift drones totally extinct, but the heavy lifters take hours to set-up, they’re cumbersome and in some cases you have to land to change settings. That alone is a huge pain in the ass and time gobbler. The bottom line is they cost 2-3 times more to operate.
This has always been the big leagues. Lifting a cinema sized camera is no joke and can produce some amazing results, but the cost of failure can be devastating. Crashing a $30K drone with a $100K camera can ruin your whole day! We had a whole section at one time devoted to all the different heavy lift drones that were on the market, but at this point the only one that anyone is using anymore are the Freefly Alta 8 and drone that capably lifts up 35 pounds, the Alta X.
So while I’ve included some history throughout, it’s not worth spending your time learning about all the various heavy lifts that has lead us to where we are today. Consider this a lead in/sidebar to the following section. But enjoy these photos of what got us to heavy lift 2022!
There’s all the other heavy lift drones, then there’s the FreeFly, the Seattle based outlier in the industry. Currently they offer the Freefly Alta 6, 8 and the Alta X. Tho the’ve recently discontinued support for both the Alta 6 & 8. Freefly was a pioneer in the heavy lift arena with the Cinestar (that’s our Cinestar from 2013 as the 1st gallery image), and anyone reading this is probably familiar with the Movi electronic stabilizers. Freefly has a soft spot in my heart because they’re the only real American company that makes drones anyone cares about. We own a MoVI XL and MOVI PRO and are a boutique Freefly dealer. When I first wrote this blog post back in 2018, there were many heavy lift manufactures, now it’s pretty much Freefly Alta and a couple of custom builds. The market has really changed!
The Alta 6 was good for DSLR’s, up to a stripped down RED with a small lens. But putting anything larger on this drone is a bad decision. Frankly with its small payload it’s pretty much a non-starter, because for the money an Inspire is on par, or better than any DSLR.
The Alta 8 which has a 2olb carrying capacity, and when released pretty much made the Alta 6 obsolete. But when you consider that 20lbs is the gimbal plus batteries, that headroom goes away pretty quickly. You’re still going to be limited with an Alta 8 by either add ons, or flight time. I’ve been on jobs where we had to land after 4.5 minutes of flight. That is EXTREMELY hectic. Just keeping batteries charged is a big deal.
The latest/greatest Freefly drone the Alta X gives the flight crew the ability of carrying up to 35 lbs, but just like all the others, the more weight you pile on it, the less time it will fly. Freefly has a chart on their site that gives you “Flight time VS payload” for the x, which are anything but conservative, but Freefly builds a robust bird that is reliable and has some pretty useful built in features. One of the most unsung features of the X is the sound. It’s much lower and annoying than the smaller birds, which is less likely to be picked up by audio. On set, that’s huge!
Then there’s a couple smaller boutique companies that have heavy lift drones like Gryphon Dynamics,, the rest are custom builds by for lifting a Phantom 4K, a 360 ball, or 3D dual-camera rig. But chances are if you’re looking in this category, you probably don’t need to read this article. If you do need this sort of power, we’d be happy to help!
Please don’t hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to help you with all your aerial and dynamic camera shots.
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