Flying with the EpicMay 13th, 2016
Drone and Camera technologies have come a long way since we started flying (and crashing) cameras back in 2003. The RED Epic represented a major leap forward for drone operators, allowing us to create cinema quality images on small drones. Here we take a look at what makes the EPIC special and how we set it up to create aerial imagery.
What we look for in an Aerial Camera
I started experimenting with taking photos from drones a little over a decade ago. Back then, I was just focused on still photos and panoramas as I learned about RC helicopters, photography, photo editing, and running a small business. It took a few years for me to become proficient with my Joker and Digital Rebel. I eventually started to take compelling enough pictures that people were willing to pay for the service. This continued on with small improvements to the cameras, drones and support gear.
Then the 5D Mark II came out and my world changed. It showed me what was possible when you could fly a camera that created cinematic images. I remember the first time I got to play with one at a Canon event in Seattle, I was sold. The wait was excruciating, but we had lots of work to do to prepare. It was very clear early on that what worked for aerial photography, just wouldn’t cut it for video. Our stabilization on the photo drones was relatively simple and crude. For a photo you just need a single frame to be excellent, and you can take hundreds of shots per flight. For motion, you need each and every frame to be smooth, precise, and vibration free. Achieving this kicked my ass in a big way and was one of the most challenging and rewarding problems I have ever tackled. Read more about the first flight here.
Fast forward through many long nights, carbon fiber dust, a few crashes, and we actually have the 5D Mark II shooting decent video. At this point I am fully hooked on shooting cinematic video from drones and I start to wonder what’s next. We traveled to Hawaii with Vincent Laforet to shoot this piece at the very beginning of the 5D video madness. I started reading online and talking to my newfound cinema friends and they all say the same thing: “It sure would be cool if you could build a helicopter to fly the RED One.”
We did eventually build a chopper to fly the RED One and used it on a handful of jobs. In the end, the size, danger, lack of maneuverability left me less than excited about flying the RED… Until the Epic was announced.
When I first saw the Epic, I thought that RED had custom designed the camera for my needs! It hit all the right points for me:
I loved that the images coming out of this camera were completely defensible to cut with almost any project. For so long the work we had been doing with the drones was always viewed as inferior to the “A” camera. No longer!
This thing was tiny! That meant we could fly it on our multi-rotors, which opened a whole new world of camera movement possibilities. I remember just being shocked that it was possible to fly a 4K camera on a tiny drone the first time. RED has taken things even further with their newest cameras by using exotic materials like magnesium and carbon to bring weight down.
Aerials are such a great place to have resolution. There is so much detail to soak up from above. The extra resolution that the Epic offered meant that we could re-frame or post stabilize if needed (remember, this was pre-MōVI and the gimbals just did not stabilize as well back then).
The camera is a cube with no compound curves or bizarre shapes—what more could I ask for? I am so glad that the RED made such pragmatic choices with the form factor. Often times products are made that look really great but are a nightmare to work with. The Epic had a tough, industrial, and honest look. It had mounting points on the top and bottom which is key to getting a good solid mount in a stabilized gimbal. It packed in my backpack easily and was infinitely adaptable.
Drones crash and have hard landings, tip-overs, etc. It’s just a fact of life: if you are going to push the limits, you are going to break things. I decided early in this industry that I would pour my energy into building the best gear I could, but I would not let fear of breaking the gear limit what we create.
I’ve broken my fair share of gear, but I have also captured some incredible sequences that I am very proud of (I’ll talk about the time I crashed Tom Lowe’s brand new Epic into the Salton Sea in an upcoming post).
The ALTA 8 is our largest drone, and capable of a max takeoff weight of up to 40 lbs. The ALTA 8 is my go to machine for flying the largest cinema packages. For excursions that involve lighter, more agile setups, I will usually grab my ALTA 6 since it is lighter and easier to carry around the backcountry. In general, I like to keep things ultra-light and agile, so I can execute dynamic, exhilarating camera moves.
Full specs here.
The Epic Dragon is a beast. The main points that make it a killer aerial camera in my opinion are:
- 6K Resolution
- 16+ stops of dynamic range
- Huge Sensor (30.7 mm (h) x 15.8 mm (v) x 34.5 mm (d))
- Super convenient, fast, and small media
- Low power draw ~50W
You can read all about the Epic here.
This is a must! It saves so much time and effort to be able to remotely control start/stop on the EPIC. In the early days we had to hit record just before taking off, and then stop the roll when we landed. We absolutely chewed through the media, and wasted so much time transferring boring shots.
Now with the MōVI Controller/WEDGE combo, it’s as simple as adding this cable for full control of start/stop from up to 1 km away. If you are not using this combo, you can also wire in a remote start/stop using a normal RC switch like this wired up to the SYNC port on the Epic.
We run two different power setups for our Epic depending on the type of shooting we are doing. The IDX setup is more convenient, but heavier and less portable. When we are going backcountry and need to stay ultra lightweight we will use MōVI LiPo batteries.
We use the carbon V-lock plate to allow us to mount an IDX battery to the side of the Epic. The adapter plate is ultra lightweight and low profile which really helps on certain camera/lens combinations. This setup gives us around one hour of runtime on the Epic – depending on what we are doing – and is super convenient. The IDX batteries are a bit slower to charge than LiPos, and it means we have to bring yet another battery on the shoot.
I would say for ‘drop and drone’ style shooting where we are fairly close to our support vehicle, this is our preferred method.
We use lithium batteries when we need the best power density. We also like to use them for backcountry missions where we will need to carry as few batteries as possible and quick-charge them on site. These batteries are the ultimate in performance, but require some knowhow:
- There is no voltage cutoff, it’s up to the user to monitor pack voltage. We usually assign this task to the camera operator who can see a live readout of pack voltage on his live video preview via the Epic’s display.
- You have to make a custom Epic to JST cable, and you have to make sure not to get the polarity wrong and blow up your camera!
We use two main setups for wireless video. One uses HDMI and one uses HD-SDI.
The Connex is great for a few reasons:
- Adequate range
- Good price
- Low latency
- Small form factor
Using HDMI rubs some people the wrong way, but it has been pretty robust for me in practice. I am just ultra careful about how I strain-relief and protect my wiring.
For the HD-SDI snobs at Freefly, we typically run a Paralinx or Teradek system. Both work really well but are a bit more involved to configure than our ultra-compact Connex setup.
Tips / Tricks
We tend to set up our Epic to shoot 6K full frame at either 24fps or higher based on whether we need to capture a higher frame rate.
I like to chose a shutter angle that will give nice motion blur, but not too much. Default is to use 180 degree shutter and perhaps slow down just a touch from there.
Our preferred lenses for Aerial work are:
- Canon 16-35mm – All around workhorse
- Canon 24mm cine prime – Gorgeous, but heavier
- Canon 24-105mm – Lightweight and great range
- Nikon 17-35mm – Heavy but lovely
- Sigma 18-35mm – Beautiful lens
I tend to prioritize flexibility, size, and weight above snobbery when it comes to lenses. I can grab people’s attention with an incredible camera move much more easily than I can with a beautiful skin tone rendition!
Downlink Station/MōVI Controller
Here are a few photos of how we setup our MōVI Controller/downlink stations.
Here are some of our favorite pieces we have used the Epic on.