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The Greatest Showman Had the First Ever Drone Catch in a Major Motion Picture

The entire crew is huddled around the cinematographer and director. They’re all looking at an animated pre-vis of the opening sequence, trying to figure out how to execute the exact shot that Seamus McGarvey had envisioned. It starts in the top corner of a circus tent, circles around the talent as it descends, and ends within a foot of Hugh Jackman’s face as he finishes the first musical act of the film.

A dolly wouldn’t have enough range of motion, a wirecam wouldn’t be able to move the camera along the dynamic pathway, and, well, a helicopter wasn’t going to fit in the tent. So McGarvey consulted Aerobo to see whether this was a drone job.

After watching the sequence, VFX supervisor Anthony Jacques knew the answer: It’s a drone catch.

What the Hell’s a Drone Catch?

A drone catch a maneuver in which a crew member catches a drone mid-air and continues filming the drone shot as a handheld shot.

The challenge in pulling off a drone catch in a film is keeping the camera steady. The hand-off between the drone pilot and the key grip needs to be so seamless that the catch is imperceptible to the audience, who are particularly sensitive to any shakiness or abrupt stops.

Various drone manufactures, such as DJI and Parrot, have accomplished drone catches in some promotional videos, but the actual footage often ends up shaky and low-grade.

This maneuver would be the only way to start the camera path in the air, bring it spiraling down around the perimeter of the tent, and finish with a tight shot of Hugh Jackman. Flying the drone for the entire duration of the camera path would be impossible. Drones are illegal and unsafe to fly so close to people— particularly those with 55-million dollar cheekbones.

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To pull this off, we’d need a custom rig.

Building The Rig

The engineers at a drone cinematography company are used to designing custom hardware for specific jobs. In this nascent field, there aren’t any manufactured drone extensions that are built for high-end filmmaking, specifically.

And since no one has ever successfully executed this maneuver, there’s no Youtube video to consult, and no experts to speak to. We needed to build some sort of attachment that would enable someone to snatch a drone that’s flying at top speed out of midair.

While constructing the rig, there were a number of factors that our engineers had to take into consideration:

  • Weight: The team planned on using an Inspire 2 drone, which can only lift about four pounds. The X5S camera weighs about one pound, so the payload could only carry a remaining sum of 3 lbs.
  • Pliability: The rig needs to give a bit, so that the camera doesn’t experience a jolt once the camera operator catches the drone.
  • Aerodynamics: Since we were operating in a confined space, with poles, seats and people, the entire contraption needed to take up as little space as possible.

Under these constraints, Aerobo lead engineer Suresh Kumar came up with a rather simple solution: to create handles out of carbon fiber— an extremely lightweight, flexible material that is 5x stronger than steel, but can be as thin as a human hair. The material has a wide range of applications in aerospace, automotive, and computer technology, because of this unique combination of qualities.

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The handles were extended from the bottom of the landing gear, and wrapped in reflective red tape to indicate to the cameraman where he needed to place his hands as he caught the drone.

Getting the Drone Footage

To pull off a drone shot the day-of, you need two things: talent, and practice. Your pilot needs to have the dexterity and precision to consistently follow a pre-determined flight path— and they need time to become comfortable with the constraints of any given shoot.

Our crew spent several hours the day before, scouting the location and practicing the drone catch on set. “I cannot stress enough the importance of practicing any drone shot,” say chief pilot Dexter Kennedy. Once we’re on set, we only have an hour or so to nail the shot— and a lot of factors can compromise the entire operation.

By the time our crew— Jon Graham as pilot, and Dexter Kennedy as cam op— arrived on set the day-of, they had successfully performed over a dozen drone catches. But, even so, a request from the director caught them offguard:

They needed to time the drone catch to one distinct downbeat in the music.

The first few catches were well-executed, but they weren’t to the beat. On a set like this, where every minute is a dollar lost, the tension is high as everyone tries to bring to life the shot that the director and DP are expecting. But as our team became familiar with the size and shape of the tent, with the movement of the actors, and with the rhythm of the music, they were getting closer. The production team became happier with every shot.

An hour-and-a-half and 18 takes later, they had their shot. The camera path envisioned by Sean McGarvey and created in the animated pre-vis was, in fact, executable.

The Greatest Droneman

“The beauty of filming with a drone is that every shot is different,” says Aerobo drone pilot Jon Graham. This makes perfecting a take incredibly difficult. Just a millimeter off-target will totally change the look and feel of the drone footage. Add a custom-engineered rig to the equation, and the feat becomes near-impossible.

The Aerobo team takes on these challenges because we believe drones can be used for much more than sunsets and landscape shots. Drone cinematography is a relatively new field— the first films to use aerial footage came out in 2012. We’re still fine-tuning the ability to control the camera in 3D space, so there’s a lot of room for innovation.

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