The egalitarianism of modern creative tools is astounding. To make a well-produced film 20 years ago directors needed a few million dollars and a camera the size of a large dog. Luckily for us in the game of producing media on (slightly) smaller budgets, things have changed a lot. One major wave of advancement in the sea of change was the GoPro camera, released in its first relevant form in 2007 with a 3MP camera shooting 512×384 video. While that resolution was far from lending video a “high production value” look, in the six years after its release, the GoPro has evolved into an incredible, 4k-shooting, go-anywhere, do-anything action camera that can produce stunning results (if you need proof, just look at any high-test action-sports video from the past three years).
Once the portable, powerful camera had reached the masses, companies started to look for a way to leverage the GoPro’s small size and light weight — and the natural direction was up. Aerial shots, once unheard of for low-budget filmmakers without access to a couple-million-dollar helicopter, have become a reality with the smart pairing of the GoPro camera and aerial drones, which are, effectively, remote-controlled helicopters. Unsurprisingly, drones have exploded in popularity over the past two or three years and are finally beginning to arrive at price points that might make a budget-minded filmmaker’s ears perk up. With that in mind, we sought to find the best drones for aerial filmmaking; after some worthwhile learning experiences (don’t try and learn to fly one in a New York City office), we’ve arrived at our three favorites.
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DJI Phantom Aerial Drone Quadcopter
If you’re looking to get incredible imagery with a relatively shallow learning curve, the DJI Phantom Quadcopter is a great option. Straight out of the box the Phantom comes pre-paired with its minimalist but capable remote and is ready to fly following its sufficiently involved startup sequence. (Note: The startup sequence involved with all of these drones is one of the best parts. Something about all the sequential beeping and whirring motors makes you feel like CAPCOM at the beginning of an Apollo Mission.) Once you get the Phantom started up, it takes to the air with surprisingly little fanfare. This is partly thanks to its built-in GPS receiver, which works to stabilize the device and allows the pilot to think more about getting the shot than getting it stuck in a tree. The Phantom is the amateur videographer’s best friend (and the one we’ve been using for our Behind The Wheel films).
Blade 350 QX RTF
The Blade 350 QX shares a lot of qualities with the DJI Phantom — they both have similar price points and built-in GPS — but dynamically they take on very disparate identities. It’s immediately clear that the Blade has a relatively steep learning curve compared to the Phantom, if only from the significantly more button-heavy remote. The Blade is a little more complicated to set up (though the “RTF” version makes things easier), but once the rotors get spinning it can take on one of three very distinct airborne personalities depending on its mode.
In “Smart Mode” the 350 QX is at its most technologically savvy. The innovative SAFE Circle makes sure the drone gets no closer than 15 feet to its pilot, and GPS and Altimeter sensors work overtime to keep it steady in mid-air. Flip the switch to “Stability Mode” and the 350 QX takes on the personality of a very powerful sports car with the traction control on: you feel more involved in the flying process and get a bit more control, but things are still working in the background to avoid embarrassing you. Finally, for the Top Guns, a third push of the mode switch will get you into “Agility Mode” — likely a carryover from Blade’s other, more traditional RC aircraft. In Agility Mode the controls are sensitized and skilled pilots will be able to do barrel rolls, strafes and flips with ease (though the always-on SAFE Circle means you’ll never have permission to buzz the tower). The Blade 350 QX is the perfect drone for the aerial cinematographer who also enjoys a healthy dose of recreational RC pilotry.
DAMN THE TORPEDOES!
The Ziphius is not what most people would think of when they hear “Drone”, but if you’re looking to recreate the D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan or film a cut-rate homage to All Is Lost in Central Park’s sailboat pond, there is no substitute for this Aquatic drone. More than just a one-trick robot though, Ziphius floats a host of impressive tech. It pairs with a smartphone for intuitive and powerful control; its hydrodynamic design provides stability and speed when paired with its two aft-mounted turbines; and interactive features like augmented reality games and built-in HD camera will keep you busy once you’re done playing “Somali Pirate” at your local pool.
Lehmann Aviation LA100
The LA100 carries the highest price tag of our selections, and, from a distance, it may be hard to see why. For your 990 hard-earned Euros all you get is a three-foot long foam and carbon fiber wing with a propeller glued on the back, a rechargeable battery, and a Pelican case to put it all in. You don’t even get a remote!
Oh how deceiving first glances can be. The LA100 is, in fact, as close as you can get to a military reconnaissance UAV without donning a uniform. The Lehmann drone is a completely autonomous, GPS-guided, fixed-wing craft that — unlike the Blade and Phantom — is virtually un-crashable. Operating the LA100 is shockingly easy: attach a GoPro Camera on top or beneath the wing (or both), wait for the GPS to lock on and the prop to spin up, chuck it into the wind, and see if you can finish your beer in the five minutes it takes to do a half-kilometer long figure-eight at a height of 300 feet. When your drone touches down after its journey, you’ll have a memory card full of amazing shots and none of the life-shortening mental duress that comes from trying to safely pilot a remote-controlled vehicle. We, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.