Some Thoughts on Moving Pictures–Or Putting Motion Into Your Corporate Video

The affordability, quality and ease of use of the GoPro has revolutionized video photography, since the compact, lightweight cameras were introduced in 2004 (although the first version used film). They are great for action shots and putting cameras where cameras have never safely gone before.

Meanwhile, drones, which often use GoPro technology as a base, are revolutionizing aerial photography.  I spent the first 14 years of my career in local TV news, and the helicopter was an essential newsgathering tool. Besides providing a platform for spectacular aerial news coverage of traffic accidents and fires, you could get to news events faster than the competition, and it could even provide a microwave relay to enable you to do a live shot from a distant location (years before remote satellite TV liveshots were affordable and practical). Of course, for your local TV station it’s kind of like your very own Goodyear Blimp, a noisy and visible aerial billboard which would allow you to make a spectacular entrance in public places like sporting events. A helicopter can be a very “sexy” promotional tool.

As many of us made the transition to higher paying jobs in corporate video, we encouraged the use of helicopter aerials for the added drama of course, but also because it was the only way to show certain facilities or to make a bland corporate headquarters building look more imposing and impressive. Enron changed a lot of things, and among them investors became a lot more discerning and suspicious. They didn’t want to invest in pipelines that didn’t exist ever again, so you better show them what they have. If they can’t see it in person, aerial video could be convincing.

But there are obvious cost considerations and drawbacks to using a helicopter as a platform. Rentals were often more than $1,000 per hour, and that does not include the camera crew. Although there are even more expensive specialty helicopter photography rigs you can rent, I never found anything better than having the cameraman hang out the side of the chopper, carefully strapped in of course, and putting the video monitor between me and the pilot in the front, and using the helicopter as the platform itself, i.e., always turning or “panning” the helicopter instead of trying to move the camera on a moving, hovering platform.

Among the many challenges though are restrictions in terms of altitude, weather and flight paths. If you were covering an oil slick on the water, the choppers’ blades might spread the oil slick inadvertently or in the wrong scenario fan the flames of the fire you’re trying to cover. There are the safety issues with getting on and off the helicopter, issues with power lines, etc. In the days I did a lot of helicopter based video photography we did not have GPS. Or cell phones, for that matter. We literally had to navigate by landmarks, circling water towers in small towns, etc. News often breaks in places you’ve never been to or never heard of and are as hard to find by air as by land. One time trying to cover a major forest fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we set down near a small town bar with a big empty parking lot. We were completely lost, and desperate to figure out where we were. I walked to the phone booth and there was an area code on the front of the local Yellow Pages that I didn’t even recognize. I asked the people in the bar what city we were in, and they said “Russellville”. They were looking at me like I had just beamed down from a UFO. Russellville didn’t ring a bell. I said, “What state is this?” It was Alabama. We weren’t even in the right state.

With a GoPro mounted to a drone, you can fly virtually almost anywhere, even indoors. In some cases you might even replace a jib for vertical shots. The advent of DSLR cameras, which can compete with the GoPro and the sliders and mini-jibs is also another important innovation. I haven’t seen DSLR work as well in drones, but they may be superior in other moving shots. Often times the cost is in the platform, whether it’s the helicopter or the dolly or the jib (similar to one of those basket trucks they use to repair power lines). With a small lightweight camera that doesn’t sacrifice quality, you can get by with smaller and much less expensive means to glide that camera smoothly.

There are drawbacks, though. While it is easy to mount a GoPro inside a car, it’s seldom flattering to the human subjects inside with the 170 degree, fish-eye style lens. Interviews are done on the GoPro, but that’s not what they were designed for and the subjects seldom look good in that scenario. We recently had a shoot where we tried to provide a child’s view of going to the dentist—and the end result of mounting the GoPro to the child to get his perspective made the trip to the dentist look unintentionally frightening and Hitchcockian, which was not the objective. Here’s a video that shows a few subtle moves as an example of what I’m talking about:

Thoughts, questions, comments—I’d love to hear your opinion.