Have you ever watched one of those jaw-dropping films of a ballsy freeride skier floating down a powder covered precipice and wondered just how the camera can even keep up? Let alone produce such amazing imagery. We spoke to John Layden, the founder of Drone Alps (dronealps.com), to find out just how aerial filming using drones has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
First a bit about John…
After experiencing life as a seasonaire at the age of 18, he completely fell in love with the French Alps and life in a ski resort. Deciding that he should also consider a more solid future career, John then headed back to the UK at the end of his season to embark on a three-year university course in aerospace engineering. After completing his degree and then a short stint as a math teacher, the draw of the mountains proved too much, and John returned to France with thoughts of starting up a new business there.
As a keen RC flyer and videographer he decided that it would make for a fantastic opportunity to combine the two, and subsequently Drone Alps was born. This didn’t come without its challenges at the start – not least getting around the red tape and authorization issues in piloting a drone in France. This also meant the need to acquire a full pilot’s license, which involved a considerable amount of further study (in French!). Needless to say, it all worked out in the end, and he now has the opportunity to get involved with some amazing filming projects from sports to events to property showcasing.
We asked John to tell us a bit more about his operation:
Can you explain how the equipment works?
Our drones are battery powered and have 4 motors which turn the propellers. We use drones with built-in cameras predominately. With 4K resolution and a fully stabilized platform, the quality from the camera is incredible! We either fly with a pilot who controls both the drone and the camera simultaneously, or we use the pilot alongside a camera operator who has independent control over the camera. Our equipment is very portable and the drone can even be launched by hand. This allows us to film in very exposed places, such as on the edge of a cliff in Chamonix or even on a boat at sea!
What are the advantages of filming using a drone, over ground-based filming?
The main advantage of using a drone is the new types of shots that you can get, which were previously impossible or required an expensive helicopter. We can fly low to the ground, and then sweep up into the sky, so that you get that wow factor along with a real sense of perspective. This is great when filming mountain sports since the scenery is just as impressive as the action! Alternatively, drones are often used as “tripods in the sky” and a producer can pick anywhere they wish to place it, often at a second’s notice. It’s this flexibility which people like, which is why drones have become such a success.
Can you still get the same quality of footage from a drone?
Often better! Our drones are equipped with 3-axis stabilized platforms to eliminate camera shake and smooth unwanted movements. They can also drift effortlessly along a flight path with GPS precision, keeping the camera directed at a focus point. The quality of the camera is superb, if it wasn’t then the BBC wouldn’t use it! We can shoot in a variety of resolutions and frame rates and use ND filters to get that classic cinematic look. We are also testing the new “follow me” features to help film skiers and snowboarders down the slopes, although this type of technology will take a few more years of development to beat the skills of a good drone pilot!
What are the dangers/challenges of using a drone?
There is only one real danger of using a drone, and that is of crashing. The propellers appear innocuous but are actually very sharp and spin extremely fast. You only have to see what happened to Enrique Iglesias to understand this! However, the technology is so cutting-edge (no pun intended!) that all drone crashes occur due to pilot error. Here at Drone Alps we only use pilots we can trust, are highly skilled, and have the necessary flying authorizations.
The main challenge of flying drones is the planning and assessment. Some shots just don’t work with drones, and so we must look for opportunities and be flexible on shooting days. We must remember that the drone is just a tool, and one of many tools that a camera crew will be using.
What interesting projects do you have lined up for the winter?
We are looking to film on the pistes this winter. We have been testing and perfecting a new software that enables our drones to fly along a pre-defined route using GPS technology. Essentially, we’ll be able to create stunning videos of skiers doing a slalom course or snow park route, with complete safety and peace-of-mind. Another project involves real estate, and showcasing property with an aerial 360 fly-around video. This would be mesmerizing to watch!
The original brief
A group of skiers contacted us last spring to arrange aerial filming of a classic steep ski descent at the top of the world famous Aiguille du Midi, at an altitude of 3842m. It was a re-make of a great scene in the old ski film “The Blizzard of AAHHH’s” from 1988. The ski run is nicknamed the “Couloir Poubelle” due to the suspicion that toilet waste is ejected from the building above it!
Timeline for the project
We waited for a clear weather window and good snow conditions, which is rare at that location and so required a bit of planning (and luck) to get it just right. Although the weather was perfect, the snow conditions turned out to be pretty bad and made it difficult for the skiers to progress down the chute.
Once we arrived at the top, we quickly got the drone in action and used it to scout out the line using the onboard video camera. This photo we took was useful for the skiers to see where the rocks they needed to avoid were. The orange line shows the planned route. The drone pilot placed himself at the top of the ski decent, directly above the fall line. It was a difficult angle to fly and film from, with the controls being reversed and a few cables thrown in for good measure. Although this position allowed him to keep visual contact on the drone at all times, he was unable to see the position of the skiers further down the chute. The drones are equipped with a live video feedback so we are able to frame the shots remotely, which proved essential during this session.
How did you edit the footage and create the finished piece?
The final clips were given to the skiers to use in their own video edits. We also made a short edit ourselves and mixed in clips from The Blizzard of AAHHH’s to give it a twist. Our new drones shoot in resolutions of up to 4K and so we are keen to go back up to the Aiguille du Midi and get some even better footage this winter!