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How Drone Cinematography Works

A drone is a way safer bet for catching mesmerizing images of the bubbling Bardarbunga volcano system.
A drone is a way safer bet for catching mesmerizing images of the bubbling Bardarbunga volcano system.

Against a black night, glowing red-orange, molten lava pours down the sides of a volcano in the remote wastelands of northern Iceland. The camera operator swoops closer and closer. You can almost feel the heat pouring through the screen as the lava bubbles and spews. You begin to worry about whoever's holding the camera and whoever's flying the helicopter. You've seen the set-up: a chopper zooming overhead, cinematographer hanging out the side, risking life and limb for the perfect shot. What if that volcano stops bubbling and begins to blow?

You can stop worrying; the operator is a safe distance away, holding a joystick and looking at the monitor on his cellphone. The camera is a GoPro attached to an off-the-shelf drone called a quadcopter. It's a good thing too, because when Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for drone maker DJI, steers his drone back, he finds that the face of his camera has melted off [source: Lam].

To get this shot, Cheng had to drive 15 hours outside of Reykjavik to within 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) of the volcano's main caldera before deploying his toy. Even then, he was having trouble getting the right shot. A policeman who accompanied him said that if he went any closer, he'd be proceeding at his own risk. Cheng decided to take the chance. He hiked close enough to send his drone in for a series of extraordinary shots that would be impossible for a human holding a camera to achieve. Even better, he recorded the footage wirelessly as it was shot — so even if the camera was destroyed, he'd still have the results.

It's easy to see why the film world is getting excited about drone shots. They're safer, cheaper, and easier, and that's why it seems likely that the spectacle of a cinematographer dangling from a copter may soon go the way of silent film.

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