Revisiting the Quay

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After last week’s exploits just playing around in the vast expanse of grassiness that is the Westwood I had a brief hour to squeeze a flight in before heading out biking onSaturday morning. I decided to go back to St. Andrew’s Quay for another play around the buildings and for a couple of shots I wanted to try out.

I only had time to fly a single battery (just under 17 minutes to 28% if you were wondering, but very cold – just over freezing at ground level) but the light was glorious and it was quiet out so I wanted to make the most of it. After a cursory spin around just to make sure everything was working properly I started to piece together the shots I’d loosely planned in my head.

First was a slow track past two ‘danger’ signs. Not the most exciting but the kind of B-roll footage that can add a bit of contrast and context to a shot quite nicely with a bit if careful editing. This took me over the overgrown quay itself in front of the Lord Line building, ready to set up the next shot. I’d tried this one before but it hadn’t quite worked so I wanted a second attempt.

The idea was to start flying straight towards the Lord Line building, slowly ascending as I approached to clear the frontage and reveal the roof and then the new docks behind. Sounds pretty simple in concept, but because it’s such a long single movement it actually throws up a bunch of challenges.

The first is getting the drone lined up right. It’s easy enough making sure it’s pointed straight at the building but at a few hundred metres away it’s very difficult to tell whether the approach is going to be perpendicular, or even close.

Second is making sure that the approach is perfectly straight. The GPS takes care of any lateral movement but I’ve noticed in flight that often when ascending my left thumb can wander a little on the stick, steering the drone left or right. It’s usually a tiny amount but enough that by the time I’ve noticed it I can be a good few degrees off course. I’m trying to pay really close attention to this whenever I fly but it’s not easy to remedy.

Finally is getting the ascent vector just right. Ideally you want it to look like the drone is almost going to hit the wall, just skimming over the top of it at the last minute whilst in fact there was never actually any real danger of collision. I’m not comfortable enough with the camera to be able to judge this on the screen quite yet, and watching the drone at an angle from 200 metres away isn’t much easier.

Next time I try this shot I think I’m going to pre-fly it first, probably in reverse, taking note of the height I want at specific parts of the flight, then use the Waypoint mode to program the move. I’m not sure how accurate the map will be for something that needs to be within a couple of metres but it should be interesting to find out. It would be nice to have an auto flight mode where I can store the waypoints manually – eg by flying to a spot then tapping a button to store the point – but I don’t know of any consumer drones that offer this.

The other option would be to do the shot in reverse first, which should hopefully get the angles correct then just do the ascent and skim by eye. It’ll be interesting to see which method works best, though I feel like manually flying is more of a challenge and a much better way to learn.

After chatting to a nice runner for a bit (who must have been freezing in his shorts) I had a couple more shots to try – both quite scary. First up was a low fly in towards the old lock gates. I wanted to come in really low across the water (because it looks cool, right?) then rise up over the gates to reveal the lock and the rest of the quay. Once again I struggled to get the angles perfect, though I was much closer to where I was flying it was a little easier, especially the ascent over the gates. It did mean that as I was coming in a few feet above the water I was actually flying below where I was stood, which was a bit of a new experience.

The next thing I wanted to try was flying close in over the Lord Line roof, trying some low flying tracking shots and some birds eye shots of features on the roof. There were also a lot of gulls congregated on the roof which make for pretty cool footage when they all fly off as the drone approaches!

It was a little bit windy to get super steady footage looking right down the skylights and central courtyard thingy, but I’m actually starting to quite like a little bit of movement in these shots. It was really interesting to be seeing down a staircase that I’d stood on naked a few years ago.

I really enjoyed pulling some low altitude tracks across the roof and it definitely makes for more dramatic footage than the usual slow pans you see from drones. It’s also a lot harder to pull off, a lot more likely to go wrong and quite a bit illegal (though trespass with a camera has never been something that’s overly concerned me). But I didn’t buy the drone to shoot the same footage everyone else does, and if that means taking a little bit more risk then so be it.

I’m looking forward to editing together some of the footage from this flight and trying some new techniques, but ultimately I’m becoming more and more aware that just going to an interesting spot and flying around with no plan or direction is only a starting point. I’m starting to hatch a few ideas for much more interesting 2-3 minute films but I need to improve my flying skills a lot before I’m able to pull any of them off.

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