A Drone’s View of Christian Community (and a Farm)

Once a year people from all over England get together to pick apples. Well that’s the excuse to meet up anyway. The location is New Creation Farm in Northamptonshire, home to agricultural business – cow and sheep rearing, fruit orchards, firewood production, as well as a Christian community house.
After last years inaugural success with the fruit pick I thought it would be a good idea to film a little of what went on as it shows Christian community at its best: serving, chatting, laughing, and eating. People from all walks of life and all ages. This is the end result and I think it captures something of the location and the day quite well.

The majority of this was filmed with a drone – I don’t like the word drone as it has too many bad connotations with war but quadcopter or UAV isn’t clear to most people. The DJI Phantom 2 that I borrowed is small, lightweight, and fairly easy to control. Underneath is attached a GoPro 3+ on a gimbal which stops vibrations ruining the video. I’ve pulled in some screenshots from the film and I’ll explain what went on.

The opening shot

The opening shots were planned to make the most of early morning light – in this case at 7am as the sun was just rising. It helps having a highly accurate MET office weather forecast so you know which mornings are just right.

It's hard to fathom how vast the expanse of poplar trees is.

It’s hard to fathom how vast the expanse of poplar trees is. The top down view going across the top of the trees was inspired by the BBC Planet Earth series. Now I just need to find some polar bears to film.

In a remote corner of the

In a remote corner of the farmland is a peaceful copse, despite it being right next to a railway line. The early morning sun made for some brilliant long shadows. Keeping the Phantom in a slow straight line was hard work though.

Tractor from above

I trailed one of the tractors carrying a load of freshly picked apples whilst moving upwards and at a slight angle. Pleased with the framing of this shot showing numerous rows of perfect apple trees.

Attaching

The suction mount I recently used in the Life On The Rocks video came in useful to get some close up shots of the tractor.

Derek

Derek and his happy face and farmers cap. He managed to keep a straight face for long enough to include in the final film.

Cows

The cows showed a keen interest in what I was doing, which meant I could get some great close up shots with the 100-300mm lens (200 – 600mm full frame equivalent).

Baaaa

Baaaaa. The sheep were less inquisitive than the cows but more inclined to run about even without the drone flying above them.

The big pick

The “big pick”as it is informally known saw up to 300 people come from Liverpool, Sheffield, Brighton, London, Birmingham, Coventry and other places. Three hours of fruit picking and then a BBQ, a great day had by all.

Young and old

Young and old came, people from all walks of life. I went round getting some close up shots with a GH3 as did Viv with his A7S.

Huw

Clive and Huw. Top guys.

Yup

Yup – that’s a cooking apple. Actually in fairness to Kath this was a set-up filmed a couple of days after the big pick. And even more respect for that fact that she’s allergic to apples as it is! So please give her chocolate to heal the wounds.

River Farmhouse

River Farmhouse – this was taken mid morning to allow for the sun to get into the farmyard. The weather was perfect with bright low sun and hardly any wind.

Cow ring

My favourite shot of the whole film – looking straight down at cows eating silage in feeding rings. Symmetry at its best.

getting towards the legal height that a drone can fly

100 metres. This was getting towards the legal height that a drone can fly in the UK – the legal ceiling is 120 metres. Even from this height it’s amazing how far you can see and just how different everything looks.

Going back a couple of years I would never have imagined I would be able to make a video like this with aerial shots, shallow depth of field close ups, and film colour grade techniques. It’s a privilege to live in a time when there aren’t many limits to creativity.

Making A Short Christian Film – Life On The Rocks

It gripped me 15 years ago when I first heard it. Now it’s a short film about despair, hope, and redemption.

I thoroughly enjoyed making this with Loz, Jens, and Viv. It took a few months of planning in my spare time, three days of filming, and then a week to edit.

Kit used
Sony A7S camera + Voigtländer Nokton 35mm f1.2 ASPH II lens + Voigtländer Ultron 21mm f1.8 lens + Genus Eclipse ND filter
Panasonic GH3 camera + Panasonic 12-35 2.8 lens
DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter + H3-3D Gimbal + GoPro Hero 3+ Black
Konova K5 slider
Tascam DR-60D audio recorder + Rode NTG-3 mic
Lishuai LED508AK LED light
Black Pearl 7″ HDMI monitor
Twin suction camera mount (ebay)

Car – Mercedes C63 AMG

Background
Back in 2002 I was captivated by a recording on The Poor: The Heartcry album of the Life on the Rocks poem – six minutes of spoken word that had me hooked from the first word. Loz describes how the poem came about.

“I was asked to write a poem for a Sunday night evening meeting and I decided to write a first person narrative that was loosely based on my own experiences of despair and pain. I never thought about driving over a cliff, but I certainly remember driving and thinking about what it would be like to crash into a wall. I combined those memories with a sense that God intervenes in our desperation, and pulls us back from the brink; and there began the inspiration. A man literally on the brink being made to see sense through a numinous encounter with an ageless power greater than himself.”

I’d thought for the last couple of years that it would make a good video, as did Loz unbeknown to me. A few months ago we both went to Cambridge with some other guys for a punt down the Cam and ended up discussing turning it into a short film. I’d come to the end of making various information / promotional videos (and the end of my teather in the process) and decided it would be good to do something different and creative – so after chatting with Loz, Jens, and Viv we arranged a suitable time to film.

Wide-car

A still from the film – motorway driving with the street lights on Jens face, and an LED panel in the passenger footwell adding extra fill to the side of his face.

Visual Style
For some reason I had always seen it as black and white in my imagination – lots of high contrast shots with motorway lighting on his face, a white car, white cliffs and dark seas, black clothes, white face, and marbled rock.

Planning
Jens was up for being the main character and using his Mercedes car, Loz would direct the character development, Viv would help with kit, record audio and be someone to bounce technical ideas off, and I would be filming.
Due to the sensitive nature of the film Loz contacted the Samaritans media team and took advice from them. I then used Google Maps and streetview to find a location that wasn’t a known suicide location and sufficiently out the way of the public.

A cheerful chappy

Loz – a cheerful chappy

I went to see Loz a couple of times to work through the ending until Loz hit on what the final twist would be. Over a period of a couple of months I wrote an extensive storyboard to try and plan every shot I’d need for the whole film, and ended up with an 18 page document with a detailed list of shots and then the order we would film them over the three days.

Filming
This was the first time I used the Sony A7S camera. Viv had played around with it a few weeks after he bought it to work out various functions but it was still a bit of trial and error on the shoot. The A7S excells in low light which was a key requirement and it certainly lived up to its reputation.

The Sony A7S with 35mm lens and Genus Eclipse variable ND fader. Attached to the window with the suction mount.

The Sony A7S with 35mm lens and Genus Eclipse variable ND fader. Attached to the window with the suction mount.

I used my usual camera – the GH3 – on exterior shots of the car as the 12-35 lens has image stabilisation which helped enourmously when attaching it to the side of a car.
We split the filming into four sections – Thursday night motorway, Friday afternoon cliff edge, Friday evening driving, and Saturday morning cliff edge to get the quadcopter and ending shots. This pretty much went to plan.

The GH3 on the bonnet of the Mercedes held with the suction mount. One of the few places it could be mounted on the Merc!

The GH3 on the bonnet of the Mercedes held with the suction mount. One of the few places it could be mounted on the Merc!

Although all the shots had been storyboarded it’s never quite that easy in real life, so there was still lots of opportunities to be creative and overcome problems to get the shots we needed – be it shoving the camera on a jumper to keep it steady, or working out where the suction mount can actually fit on a Zafira or Mercedes. Answer – hardly anywhere.

Using the HDMI out of the A7S into a black pearl 7" monitor so I could frame and focus accurately.

Using the HDMI out of the A7S into a black pearl 7″ monitor so I could frame and focus accurately.

My Dad very generously loaned me a quadcopter to film the aerial shots as I knew we had to go airbourne to get the line “and I saw myself from way above”. A cinematogropher I follow called Philip Bloom had recently produced an amazing quadcopter film in Thailand  so I knew what was possible.
http://vimeo.com/97455734
After a week of practicing controlling the quadcopter (it’s a mission at first) I was ready to tackle flying it at the cliff edge. I looked into the legal requirements with unmanned aerial vehicles to see what was and wasn’t allowed.

Phantom 2 quadcopter with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal which keeps the GoPro Hero 3+ Black steady.

Phantom 2 quadcopter with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal which keeps the GoPro Hero 3+ Black steady.

One thing I was keen to avoid was too many dramatic shots which could distract the viewer from Jens’ plight. Only two slider shots were used and limited quadcopter shots. Most of the film is static camera shots to allow the viewer to really engage with Jens.

Answers To Prayer
When the filming was over we all reflected on the many answers to prayer we had. The weather was perfect for each session – the motorway driving had just been raining, the Friday cliff top session needed to be dry and windy, Friday evening had to be pouring with rain, and then the Saturday morning perfectly calm to fly the quadcopter. And all these happened. The location itself was ideal as there were hardly any passers-by with a rough but accessible track to tall white cliffs.

The quadcopter hovering above the waves.

The quadcopter hovering above the waves.

We had major problems on Friday evening when it appeared the SD card used on the A7S camera that day had corrupted and we’d lost all the footage from the cliff top. To say the mood at dinner time was low would be a big understatement. After trying various fixes Viv booted his laptop into Ubuntu Linux and did a disc clone to see what data came off it and left it running overnight while we went out for the next filming session in the hope it would work. And joy came in the morning as the files were found! The mood improved considerably.

A still from the film - Jens wearing the guardian jacket walking Loz away from the cliff edge.

A still from the film – Jens wearing the guardian jacket walking Loz away from the cliff edge.

Another answer to prayer came as we tried to find a hi-vis jacket for Jens to wear in the closing scenes. We had a small waistcoat style jacket but needed something bigger ideally. And out of the blue on Friday evening we were handed a jacket by Len, whose house we were staying at, and he apologised that there was writing on the back. We looked and what was written?  “Guardian”. Perfect!

The parting gift as we left on the Saturday evening.

The parting gift as we left on the Saturday evening.

Post production
Once we’d arrived back home after filming I had 5 days to edit it to play at a national Church meeting the following Saturday. The editing proved to be quite tricky and I could have done with some different angles and takes – despite planning carefully you can never have enough footage to work with. Still it was an opportunity to be inventive with some shots and use footage from other scenes.

Editing with a three monitor setup. On the left is the storyboard, middle is Premiere Pro, and right is the preview.

Editing with a three monitor setup. On the left is the storyboard, middle is Premiere Pro, and right is the preview.

I chose a wide aspect ratio for the film, 2.35:1, as this is wide enough to look cinematic but tall enough to have enough content in like the tall cliffs.
The editing process went something like this:

Voiceover -> Basic edit of shots -> Add music -> Additional sound design -> Colour grading -> Film grain

Having a fixed deadline is a great way to really focus efforts on finishing it. I managed to get a rough edit done by Thursday and then shared it with various people who gave some helpful feedback.

The film playing at Sheffield Praise Day

The film playing at Sheffield Praise Day – watch the day again on Livestream

Improvements to make
There were a few things I’d have changed in hindsight. I’d have got some wider shots of Jens to help when it came to editing. The A7S seemed to be over exposed for a few shots which made grading difficult and I could have done with stabilising shots with a chest stabiliser or tripod. On the GoPro / quadcopter shots you can see the jello effect, especially when the camera is moving up the cliffs. I’ll have to try and get an ND filter for the GoPro and work on there being less vibration.

The Phantom 2 ready to do the shot looking down on Jens.

The Phantom 2 ready to do the shot looking down on Jens.

Conclusion
I think this video does what we set out to do – to make people think. What is this guy doing? What stopped the car? What was the ending about? Was Jesus in it?
I’m at a stage with film-making where I want to leave the viewer with more questions than answers at the end. If people go away thinking then I’ve done my job.

Many thanks to Jens, Loz, and Viv for volunteering their time and services to make this happen.

Looking forward to the next project.