In this short documentary, Flight Club's aerial imaging pioneers share their stories and their passion for this emerging art form. See how sophisticated cameras and gimbals have made high-quality aerial imaging more accessible than ever, how cutting-edge software can convert quadcopter footage into 3D maps, and how aerial imaging can help educators incorporate art into STEM curricula.
You'll meet members who have helped fuel the aerial revolution, including Russell Brown, creative director at Adobe Systems; Eric Cheng, who took his expertise at underwater photography to the skies; Barry Blanchard, a jeweler and lifelong technologist; and Mark Johnson, who creates forensic visualizations for the legal field. And you'll meet Romeo Durscher, who left a 13-year career at NASA to start an education program at DJI, the maker of the world's most popular quadcopters.
These and other early adopters have helped bring about the new era of personal aerial imaging. This documentary celebrates both the tools and the spirit of lifelong learning and sharing that helps all new technologies grow and evolve.
Skill Level Intermediate
(bright music) - I've always been into cutting edge technology and things of that nature my entire life, as a child I'd take apart my grandmas radio and fix it for her. So naturally, when I found out about this drone stuff I was all in. (bright music) - When the first Phantom 1 came out and we put the GoPro camera on it, I put it in time lapse mode and I was flying around, and every few seconds the camera would take a shot, and I was so fascinated by seeing my surrounding from 30, 50 or even 100 feet up, and everything looked so different.
(bright music) - Once I got in the air I realized that I could go and visualize things like I'd never seen them before. (bright music) - One of the first shots that I was really stoked on, it was a 10 foot slider move, I was just floating the drone and I just moved 10 feet to the right, it was so simple.
Just that ease of being able to get shots with one piece of gear, that would have in the past taken a helicopter or a crane or a slider, it just was so cool to be able to get that. (bright music) - It's a photo of my friend Randy in a kayak with a whale not far from him, and that was the first photo that I saw where I knew that I had to start flying drones. (bright music) - We're in the midst of a technological explosion and a revolution that is all being facilitated by the fact that we can have sophisticated cameras aloft.
(bright music) It's just a beautiful view from up there. - It's funny because there are actually, I mean there are a whole bunch of little groups here and we all overlap. This particular group of people, I mean they just gathered around the love of aerial imagery. (bright music) - This all came about, it was just a fluke, I got into photography first, I actually am a, by day trade right now I'm a jewellery designer, I own a jewellery company and it was a startup that I created in my garage almost 24 years ago.
You know one day I get a call from Century Helicopter in San Jose, they said "Hey, we got this new helicopter, "we know you're good at shooting hummingbirds, "can you come take a picture of this?" And I said, naturally, "Yes." And somebody puts a little quadcopter up in the air, and I'm like "Oh my god, that's the coolest thing ever, "can I try?" And you know they said "Yeah." And I did, and I said "Where can I get one of these?" And I went out to Century Helicopter and bought the first edition of DJI's Phantom series. And I didn't know anything about these things, this is a whole new view to me.
Paul Pan who was working at Century Helicopter at the time says "You gotta meet Mark Johnson." - It's hard to believe it's such a short period of time but I was beginning to explore this technology, both from a professional and a personal standpoint. I was doing a lot of customization of my rigs and as a result, people that would have questions, they would say "Call Mark or call Barry." And eventually one day they said "Hey, you guys "need to hookup together." Because we were sort of the kind of local go to sources.
At about the same time I had brought my best friend Romeo Durscher into the mix because he used to fly RC jets, so he and I actually cobbled together our first FPV system, and that started everything from the two of us just building on that technology. (bright music) - We had already been testing a variety of different products, but back then they were not as reliable, they were not as easy to use, it was really trial and error in essence. We both then got into the Phantom 1, and we both loved what we could do, and just through that we started meeting other people, I remember one time we went to our local dealer in San Jose an we got introduced to Barry, and then we also met Russell Brown.
- My first experience with a drone, wasn't exactly with a drone but it was with a photograph I saw on Facebook. I clearly remember seeing some early photographs show up, which appeared to be like standard helicopter shots, but this seemed to be like 100 feet off the ground and in tight quarters, and I started to question just how the heck was this done because it seemed in a zone where you could not go in a helicopter. - So now we have Barry, Romeo and Doc I call him, Brown, and we began comparing notes, flying together, one thing led to another and we ended up creating a group that we just informally called Flight Club.
- Yeah, let's do this. (bright music) - If it means I get to go to Africa... - [Romeo] The group naturally became bigger and bigger, and it was really a lot of fun because we all had no idea about the technology and we all learned from each other. We learned from Russell a lot about aerial photography and videography and Mark was very much on the technical side so he would tinker with something until he figured out how it works, and then Barry, he has a lot of knowledge in surroundings, like where to go and fly, he knows all the people, he did some really great introductions to people.
So we all brought a little bit of a different component to the table. (bright music) - [Aaron] It made flying like a fun activity, where I would go with them, I'd be inspired to try new things or try a new piece of gear. (bright music) (blades rotating) - And now here we are a couple of years later and several of us either work for DJI or are affiliated with them, or those of us like myself have just continued to expand the use of the technology.
(bright music) - This is the very first one and it hasn't flown in quite some time. (blades rotating) God, it has almost no power. Before I joined DJI, I worked on a NASA space mission for almost 13 years and that had always been a childhood dream of mine. And as part of my job, I was doing education and public outreach, going not only into classrooms, or to science fairs, or to conferences, but to also via social media, spread the excitement of science technology, engineering, and math.
Now one thing that was always missing was the A for arts, STEAM in essence, and I really believe that STEAM, the artistic side of students and kids needs to be catered to as well. That's one of the beautiful things now about DJI because I can incorporate the A for arts into my educational plan because some of the things that we're seeing done with our platforms is truly art. (bright music) - The videos that I had seen were all pretty rudimentary as far as the cinematography side.
Like if it was a 10 minute flight, the video was 10 minutes, it was takeoff, this is me flying around, and landing, and there was no sort of editing or taking the best of. (western country music) - So it's the early Wild West days of aerial photography and we're thinking to ourselves, what's the coolest place we can go and see it from the sky? - [Aaron] The first flight we did was Russell and I went out to Arches National Monument, which was kind of (laughs) and definitely you can't do that anymore.
- And so we walk in there, it must have been four a.m. in the morning, Aaron flies through the arch, two and a half years ago when it was legal (laughs). - I edited it together and I sent Russell the video. He immediately knew it was awesome, but we had some questions of whether or not we should actually post it (laughs). - Should we post it, Do you think we should post it, Should we not, yes, no, yes, no, (laughs). It was early, must have been at six a.m.
- But he said to go for it and I said okay. So we posted it, but at the end we said thanks to the National Parks Service, you know, as kind of like a tribute to them. (bright music) - Also during the Wild West days, we headed off to Bodie, California, a ghost town. We actually paid them for the right to fly.
But they said, "You need to fly only when "there's no people there." And that was actually perfect for us because they close at six in the evening, the sun's setting, golden light coming across the town, and we get to fly. (bright music) - That was the biggest comment I got about that video is "I've never seen Bodie empty." You know, it's always so many people. The approach from the beginning was to try and have a beginning, middle and end to the videos, like a story or a subject, like Bodie was this ghost town where Utah was of national parks.
(bright music) If you're getting into flying, I would say to fly with other people and other styles of flying. Like for me, I never really do photography, aerial photography, that's all Russell does. So when we go out and fly, he'll do the stills and I'll do video, we both pull away different things.
(engine revving) (bright upbeat music) - The best advice that I ever got for any beginner fliers is fly conservatively, take your time, learn how to fly the drone first and then worry about your photos because flying and photography are two totally different things.
So once you learn how to fly and you're not thinking about what your hands or your thumbs are doing, it becomes very simple. (bright music) Before I started working for DJI, I was a housewife for 10 years. I'd just gotten into photography a couple of years before that, but only as a hobby. I took a whale watching tour and it's when I first experienced the humpback whales in Hawaii.
From that moment, I knew that I wanted to start taking photography more seriously. (bright music) I guess it goes back to a Photoshop World Conference that I attended and Russell Brown was teaching an aerial photography class. He had a whole bunch of sort of expert fliers there at the time and that were not only teaching photography, but also how to fly drones. (bright music) Now I started with a Phantom 1, there was no gimbal attached, I just had my little sports camera on an extension arm and some Moongel, so there was tons of vibration, I just set it to take a picture every two seconds, there really wasn't any composing, I just had that really wide angle lens and I was just throwing it up and hoping for the best.
(bright music) (blades rotating) - So you know, a drone has inertial measurement units that basically tell us what angle the drone is sitting at and you know, how it's moving, the acceleration in various axes, in three axes. And the gimbal is basically the same thing, so there's something that measures position and acceleration where the camera is, and then three motors wrap that camera platform and in real time, counteract any movements around it.
So you'll see the camera's staying completely level and very stable, even if the drone is doing something like shaking when it's fighting wind, you know, at the limits of its movement. So gimbals, in addition to drones, that combination basically has created this kind of revolution that we're in now. (bright upbeat music) (blades rotating) That's a lot of them in the air, I think I need to get away from more people, we have, how many are in the air? Six or seven, yeah it's pretty cool.
My background is actually both in technology and also in photography and publishing. So I started off as a software engineer and after a few years, I don't know, I felt like something was missing in my life and I ended up taking a break, which led me into the ocean. (bright music) I very quickly became an underwater photographer, both as a profession and also as a passion. (bright music) Spending most of my time in the water, I was getting used to moving really in three dimensions.
I realized that I had started to look at camera movements not only kind of in the plane that we're on here on the ground, but kind of moving over objects because, you know, as divers in the ocean we do get to move freely in three dimensions. So I started trying to get these aerial perspectives on land, well above land, as well and having a really hard time trying to get these establishing shots usually. Really when multirotors hit, you know these quadcopter designs. These platforms started to become very stable and you could attach cameras and be pretty sure that they weren't going to fall out of the sky or you know, I was going to be able to control it in a safe way.
(bright upbeat music) (blades rotating) - My company is called Visual Law Group, we specialize in forensic visualization, basically we work for lawyers or companies, anybody involved in either civil or criminal cases that needs a story told, and as a result of that, we end up producing recreated traffic collisions, airplane crashes, railroad disasters.
Since we're presenting that visually, you can imagine that aerial views were necessary from the beginning. But back in the early 90s, your options were pretty limited, you had to either commission a fixed wing plane, or at even greater expense, a helicopter to go shoot custom aerials. It was not until gee, very very late in the game when the company DJI first came out with the real commercially available at a reasonable price gimbal that would stabilize the camera and that meant we could shoot low altitude, high resolution video and in a company like mine, that's the golden ticket.
But the final peg in the puzzle for us was the ability to generate three dimensional models with photogrammetric processing. So with sophisticated software and processing, I mentioned the Pix4D program that we use, it uses artificial computer vision to study every image and it identifies high contrast points and whenever it finds the same point in more than three photographs, it pegs it and locates it.
So it can very precisely create a map, which is a planar or a survey type image that you can actually put a ruler to. So we're not shooting aerial images, we're actually capturing aerial data that is then translated into very precise spacial points so that when you're finished, you've got the whole area mapped both visually and then also three dimensionally.
You can pull up the topography, the actual ground surface, and you can see where water flows, you can actually see the extent to which erosion has taken place and you can use the same technology to map disease patterns, if the software's calibrated to calculate and measure the areas that are blighted. So it's a really revolutionary tool that's becoming accepted in a lot of fields. (bright upbeat music) - So I truly believe we have only scratched the surface of the iceberg, this technology has quickly evolved from just your very basic quadcopter to already a very sophisticated machine and we want to educate the new customer or the potential customer not only about our product, but what are the laws and regulations and what are the expectations.
When we use the word drone, the majority of people already have a bad feeling about the term drone, mostly stemming because of military applications with the technology. Now it's up to us to showcase the positive influences this technology has had and will have in the future. Lastly, my big goal is to get the technology into the classrooms so students can not only put together the hardware, but also do software coding and through that can learn and get motivated and inspired to take this technology to new heights.
(bright upbeat music) - Go. It's a new product that Zeiss has been working on called Cloud Live, there, so now we got a live view and you see it's like a stereoscopic old school view projectors and inside of here, I got that, so when I put it all together, I've got almost a 3D image, except I have the ability to when I turn this it turns the copter's gimbal. - Oh right. - Got the panning.
- That is amazing. - I'm loosing signal, are you? - I got it, but it's choppy. - [Bryan] Did you see how nice that is? - [Aaron] Yeah. - [Bryan] Very little practice needed, you know. (bright upbeat music) - Dude, it's just crazy. - Yeah, it works that good. - Holy. Ha! This is actually amazing.
- Yeah, it's really great technology. - This is like having an Oculus on your head. (bright upbeat music) - It's strange, any photograph you took from the sky two and a half years ago with one of these copters and a GoPro, like wow, that's the most amazing photograph and it's just somebody's garbage can and you're looking straight down on it, you know, it was the truth, it was really, really interesting and even Romeo Durscher and I have been chatting about this, we got to go to the next level, it cannot be just the garbage can next door, we're really trying to take really great photographs from the sky instead of just a photograph from the sky.
(upbeat electronic music) - There you go. Okay, batteries, copter, hold that, controller, iPhone, and I am ready to go. (upbeat electronic music) I'm going to light this rock with this light that's suspending below this quadcopter while my camera is taking a long exposure.
I am going to take off, Aaron, are you ready for this? Gentlemen, here we go, I'm going out to sea. Aaron, I'm going to hover here so we can start our exposure. - [Aaron] Here we go, oh wow. What is, I think we need to bathe some more of this-- - [Russell] I think so too, I'm going to bathe more light over here.
What's that? - [Aaron] Wait just a second. - Just a second. I'm going to stay at that same height, but just move around. (upbeat electronic music) - [Aaron] Well it looks bad ass. - It looks bad ass? - [Aaron] Yeah, check it out. - [Russell] Yes, that's bad ass. (upbeat electronic music)