An Interview with KopterCam, “ShowReel” Category Winner at the New York City Drone Film Festival
BY Zacc Dukowitz12 April 2017
As we watched all the reels at the film festival I had a feeling that theirs would win. The work was excellent in every reel, but KopterCam had achieved an extra level of quality in the syncing of their music with what was onscreen, and with the continuity of images from one shot to the next (just how they pulled this off is something we’ll touch on when we get into the interview in just a moment—turns out finding the right music and using that as a guidepost in editing is essential to their process).
The KopterCam team is based in Helsinki, Finland (some amazing work is coming out of Finland lately—it’s also where our recent interviewee, director and animator Lucas Zanotto, lives and works), and it’s worth mentioning that in addition to being incredible cinematographers and pilots, they’re also really nice guys.
We’re grateful they gave us the time for this in-depth interview, and we want to give a special shout out to Marco Godles, KopterCam’s CTO and one of their RC pilots, who was instrumental in getting this interview together.
Now let’s dive in.
UAV Coach: That opening shot in your reel with the snowboarder jumping from one roof to another is amazing. Can you tell us the story behind that?
KopterCam: This shot was filmed as part of a snowboarding documentary called Ender that was released last year, produced by Pablo Films and Red Bull.
The documentary is about the life of Eero Ettala, one of Finland’s greatest snowboarders, and tells the story of his passion and dedication in pushing the limits of snowboarding over the past decade. The shot was at a roof gap in Helsinki, shot in the early hours of the morning. The gap itself spans about 40ft with a drop of about 50ft. (Yikes!)
It’s spots like these that Eero has made iconic during his years snowboarding the streets of Helsinki. We’ve been filming with Eero for multiple projects during the past five years and there is never a dull moment. Only last week, he released his latest project Helsinki Transitions, which also pushed the limits of our drone filming.
UAV Coach: It looks like you guys do work for the movies (unless you just happened to come across pirates on the open ocean 🙂 ). Can you tell us about the movie that appears in the reel, and other movie work you do?
KopterCam: Our main focus is aerial work in TV and feature films. We specialize in heavy lift rigs, usually carrying cameras such as the RED epic or Alexa Mini.
The shots with the pirates at 00:13 and 00:46 were filmed as part of a Finnish TV series called Heroes of the Baltic Sea. It was a fully decked out pirate ship and we actually filmed in the middle of the Baltic Sea, between Finland and Estonia.
We were taking off and landing from a separate boat that was usually used for scuba diving, so it had a large enough platform, but this also created the difficult challenges of flying from a moving object out at sea, wind speed, and also dealing with the generally unstable platform of a boat on water.
It’s situations like these where having a reliable team and equipment is really crucial. But when it all comes together, you manage to capture great moments!
The film industry in Finland is quite small compared to most countries, and we’ve been lucky enough to be part of most of major productions, especially as drone cinematography has really boomed over the last couple of years here. We have also done productions outside of Finland, working quite a lot in India and Morocco. One of the most recent projects last year was filming for the new season of Prison Break in Morocco. That was super fun!
UAV Coach: Describe what Koptercam does in one sentence.
KopterCam: We use the latest in UAV and camera technology combined to push the boundaries of what is possible to capture in digital cinema and media.
UAV Coach: There are so many amazing moments in your reel (one of our favorites is the high contrast shot on the sand dune at :58. So beautiful!). What are some of your favorite shots from the reel, and why?
KopterCam: It’s difficult to choose a stand-out favorite shot, but if I had to, it would definitely be the amusement park shot at 00:38.
To give you a small back story of the shot, it was filmed at an amusement park called Imagica, about two hrs south east of Mumbai, India.
During filming that area of the park was closed to the public and all the people on the ride were extras. They were all given directions by the Assistant Director, in accordance to the story board, to not look at or focus directly on the camera and drone at any time. But it seems that this one guy never got that message, and he gave us an epic reaction that wasn’t planned or wanted, and which produced an unusable (but amazing!) take.
Spontaneous moments like these are part of what makes drone filming so exciting, and that’s why that shot made it into the reel.
UAV Coach: Something that stands out in your reel is a sense for drama and pacing. Can you tell us about your editing process, the effect you were trying to create, and how you pulled it off?
KopterCam: Creating a reel showcasing your own work has to be one of the most challenging things to do as a creative process—not only do you as a creator have a visual connection to the footage, but you also have an emotional one.
Visually, it could be a very basic shot, but if it has a memorable back story (like the one I mentioned above), it will obviously feel more special to you than others. So it’s finding that middle ground of how you can use the footage to tell the story to your audience, and then a whole lot of compromising.
There were MANY shots that we cut out of the final result to get to this showreel. For our process specifically, we started with the music. We wanted to create a sense of epicness, and the music is the first thing that creates that mood.
We have attempted to edit projects in the past and then add music as the last step, and they never quite work out. Music is a key compliment to showcasing your footage.
Then it’s about compiling and cutting segments from original footage into a single location for ease of access and review. It’s then down to trusting the editor’s vision in placements, cuts, transitions, and flow. If you’re doing the edit on your own, it’s often worthwhile getting outside opinions that you trust to be objective, and asking people to give you constructive criticism. The first version of the reel never looks anything like the final version.
UAV Coach: What have been some of your favorite projects as aerial cinematographers? What have been some of the most difficult?
KopterCam: During 2016, we were heavily involved with filming for a World War 2 historical drama production called Unknown Soldier with Finnish director Aku Louhimies. It’s adapted from the best selling 1954 novel, and there are two previous film adaptations from 1955 and 1985.
This production stands out for us, for one, because it is a very significant movie release for the 100th anniversary of Finland Independence, and secondly, because of its ‘push-the-boundaries’ film techniques. Aku Louhimies and DoP, Mika Orasmaa, really tried to push the possibilities of what can be achieved with aerial cinematography today, and we were really stoked to be part of their vision.
There’s always the usual difficulties and hurdles you have to overcome when filming with UAVs—weather being the most common—and then things like limited flight times and equipment malfunction that can all cause unexpected down time.
Operating in extreme temperatures is also very difficult. We have filmed in -30°Celsius right up to +45°Celsius. It’s when you start to reach the extremes that you start to face restrictions in all your equipment, and you have to know your gear and understand where your limits are.
Apart from dealing with the elements, It’s those ‘one take’ shots that can be the most challenging.
The scenarios where there is some form of large action, explosion, or dangerous stunt that can only be done once, and you only get one chance at capturing it perfectly. In our reel, at 01:28, there is a car flipping on a dirt road. This was captured for a movie called Bodom, and it was one of those live stunts that could only be done once, driven by a stunt driver with multiple cameras and rigs set up to capture the same shot.
UAV Coach: How did your team first get involved with aerial cinematography?
KopterCam: I teamed up with my colleague David Brickhill-Jones back in 2010 as he was looking for new and out of the box ways to film the sport of orienteering.
David competed on a world class level and wanted to bring more interest into his sport with more dynamic videos. With our knowledge of RC systems and my basic skills in electrical engineering, we built and tested a couple different systems, and eventually had the most success with a system from MikroKopter, out of Germany.
It was very rudimentary and wasn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it worked. There was still a heavy amount of post-processing and stabilization to be done on the footage to make even half the captured material useable, but the initial concept was there and we continued to build on it.
It wasn’t until the brushless gimbal revolution in 2012 that we really started to see the boundaries being pushed of what was truly possible with drones and cinematography. I can say without a doubt that I don’t miss the sleepless nights in the garage fine-tuning settings, only to have a heavy landing the next day and then needing to rebuild yet again. But that’s what it took back then.
UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly, and what cameras do you use?
KopterCam: Our office is filled with different random drones we have built over the years, but right now we mainly fly custom built X8 heavy lift drones from Airborne.ee and Gryphon Dynamics. With these setups we lift the RED Epic or ARRI Alexa Mini, usually attached to a Freefly Movi gimbal. These setups generally range from 6-8kg depending on the lens configuration at the time.
We also have DJI’s S900 and S1000 rigged with Zenmuse gimbals and GH4 setups, and potentially other smaller camera setups. There are certain applications where we use Phantom or Inspire drones. We have just started using the Inspire 2—it’s truly a mind blowing machine.
UAV Coach: What are your predictions for the future of aerial cinematography and the drone industry in general? Please feel free to answer at length (what you see way down the road, what you see for next year, where you see regulations headed in the U.S. and abroad, new applications, etc.).
KopterCam: It has certainly been a rollercoaster ride to this point already, and its unreal to think of where we are headed.
The fact that there are already plans in place to have automated commercial drone fights in Dubai is incredible. The technology is getting pushed out at alarming rates—even as professionals in our field we find it difficult to keep up with the latest releases and trends. It’s really no wonder that every day a drone regulation somewhere is being changed, revised, or abolished.
Drones are becoming easier to fly, more robust and reliable, cheaper, and essentially more consumer friendly. These are all great things, and hopefully these improvements will level out the fluctuations of constantly changing regulations. I could honestly talk for days about drone regulations, but my biggest hope for the future is to have some form of standardization.
At least with aerial cinematography, I think there will always be a level of creativity, art form, and skill that any type of automation will not be able to replicate. Personally when I fly any Phantom or Inspire drone, I tend to turn off every sensor and automation that I can. Otherwise I just don’t quite feel in control while piloting (although it’s great to have those options).
But the manual option is one thing that could change quite rapidly. As regulations get tighter and stricter, the amount of manual overrides could start to diminish. It won’t surprise me if DJI’s GeoFencing will also start to include some sort of max height and distance limits based on geo-location and local authority limits.
Beyond regulatory limits, we’re also facing new travel limitations with drones every day, mainly because of batteries. Just recently we have seen certain airlines ban laptops and tablets from cabin luggage because of their batteries. Air travel is a large part of our operation and we have experienced many setbacks because of inconsistent airline information, and uninformed staff who aren’t familiar with correct procedures and limits (even with the same airlines on a different day or week).
To account for these uncertainties, we now have to pre-ship batteries to film locations. In some cases we’ve even purchased batteries at the location and left them in storage upon departure. I’m hoping that at least in the short-term future there could be the possibility to rent drone batteries, either from rental houses, or even from other drone companies in the areas of travel. In the long-term future, I’d love to see a new type of battery technology that could be safer, have a longer shelf life, and longer flight times.
360 Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, 3D Modeling, Mapping, Aerial Thermography… the list goes on! Aerial cinematography is only a small part of the ecosystem that drone technology has the potential to be.
It’s safe to say, I’m excited for the future!
Below are some more impressive videos from the KopterCam team. Enjoy!