Gary Yost has been photographing people and nature for over 40 years. Initially crazy enough to attempt a career in photography, he became sidetracked by computer animation software development in the 1980s and was responsible for the first open-architecture 3D animation systems before leading the development of the most widely-used 3D production system in the world (Autodesk 3ds Max, which in 2010 celebrated its 20th anniversary). We talked with Gary to find out about his highly successful renewed forays into the film and photography world.
Tell us about yourself and your background. Please mention your awards and the viral videos you’ve made.
I’m in my 50s and have been photographing and making short films about people and nature since I was 10. My intention was always to have some sort of filmmaking career, but in my 20s I was “sidetracked” by developing computer software. In those days (the 80s) software held so many promises of being able to expand your creative powers inside the machine… and of course it was a wide-open landscape for anyone with good ideas. In my case I was obsessed with how 3D modeling and animation had the potential to allow people to create anything in their imagination, to essentially build worlds inside the computer. By 1988 I had started a small company that created Autodesk 3D Studio and eventually 3ds Max, which has been the world’s most popular 3D animation tool for 25 years. But the virtual world was never as interesting to me as reality, and I sold Max to Autodesk in 1999; for the past 16 years I’ve rekindled my first love, photography. Four years ago I jumped into video with a short film about my volunteer life as a Fire Lookout on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.
A Day in the Life of a Lookout went viral, and the filmmaking experience was so much fun that I wanted to do more. I spent 16 months from 2012-2014 making a 20-minute short doc about a hidden-in-plain site story of the mountain in my backyard, Mt. Tamalpais. Revealing hidden mysteries is what truly floats my boat and “The Invisible Peak” is about the US military’s removal of the top of Mt. Tamalpais and its subsequent abandonment of the air force station it built there. Shooting the film required aerial cinematography to provide context (more on that later) and it’s part documentary, part time-lapse showcase, and part philosophical treatise on the collision of cultures. My friends Peter Coyote, George Daly and Jamie Clay helped me create something special; it’s been broadcast on PBS, has won numerous awards and was selected to be screened by fifteen film festivals, including the prestigious American Documentary Film Festival.
I do experiment in other genres, and my short film about Puddles the Sad Clown with the Golden Voice is also currently on the film festival circuit and has been played almost 500,000 times on Youtube and Vimeo.
You mentioned that you’ve hired helicopters in the past to help you with aerial filming. What projects have you worked on and what is involved in filming with the aid of a helicopter?
Aerials are both fun and sometimes incredibly important for telling the full story. I’ve hired one heli and have tried to find the budget to do it again. I needed epic establishing shots on “The Invisible Peak” starting at the Golden Gate Bridge, along Sausalito and then above the old Air Force Station on Mt. Tam. At the time in late 2012 no quad-copter was able to accomplish those shots, so I had to find the resources to make that happen with a Bell Jet Ranger. Those beasts are expensive to operate! Budget is the biggest impediment to working at that scale, although other issues such as access and low-altitude capability are huge challenges. Using a DSLR on a heli is also fraught with issues due to stabilization requirements… you can’t just handhold a camera pointed out the door and expect a stable shot. I ended up renting an ATM 3-axis active gyro mount and strapped that to the body of the heli while I hung out over the open door. It’s exhilarating to be up there with the wind rushing around you, but also a lot of pressure… a high-stress environment. Now of course I could’ve done the entire thing with the Inspire 1.
Here’s a BTS that I shot for the Invisible Peak heli session:
Since then I’ve wanted to hire the same chopper for other projects but have never been able to get clients to commit the budget. Hence the move to RC Helicopters, which I rented in 2012 and 2013 along with a 2-operator crew and very large (6’ rotor) craft but was ultimately disappointed with the results, mostly due to the lack of active gimbal stabilization and how any appreciable wind would cause rolling shutter and make 90% of shots unusable.
How did you get involved with drones and how was the transition from filming with a helicopter to shooting with a drone? What prompted you to make the switch?
I was recently asked to make a film during summer 2015 that requires significant aerials. It includes the budget for at least one helicopter shoot but I decided that for the price of that heli ride, I could buy a drone that could be used in all sorts of creative ways. I was about to buy a Phantom/Lightbridge/GoPro rig in October when a friend told me that DJI had something coming and to wait until the November 12th announcement. I watched that streamed live and as soon as I saw that Lightbridge was built in, it had a 4K camera and especially support for dual-operator mode, I placed my order the same day.
Filming in a heli was much more complex than shooting with UAVs. I carefully previsualized our flight plan with the pilot, including rendering a 3D simulation of the flight plan using Google Earth and custom camera path animation tools.
Of course helicopters have tremendous range, but as it turned out I ended up only using bits and pieces from that Invisible Peak shoot, so I could’ve accomplished the same effect with a drone and driving from location to location.
As I mentioned, traditional helicopter shoots are so expensive that they were cost-prohibitive for almost all of my work. And RC helicopters were tremendously unstable in the weather conditions I needed to shoot in. So I started looking at quad-copters.
Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.
What are the benefits of using a drone as opposed to a helicopter?
Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. First, and foremost… You can choose your weather conditions! Scheduling heli time always happens in advance, and if the weather isn’t right you’re pretty much stuck with what you get. Most of my work involves shooting weather that’s dramatic and you’ll see that used to great effect in the Chalk Mountain piece. Helicopters are very flight-limited in foggy/cloudy weather and we could only shoot on bright, sunny (boring) days. Being able to fly in moody weather is a huge benefit! Of course cost is another major benefit, and finally adaptability. With a drone you can slow way down, relax and think carefully about what you’re doing. Footage can be played back in the field, and shots can be attempted over and over until you’re confident that you have what you need. With a helicopter, good luck (unless you have unlimited budget).
The Inspire 1 was an obvious choice
because it’s a complete turnkey system.
What is your drone of choice and why?
The Inspire 1 was an obvious choice because it’s a complete turnkey system. As someone unfamiliar with RC anything, I didn’t want to have to build up a dual-operator system from scratch. With the Inspire, I literally had it going within a day of receiving the unit; everything about it just makes sense. Given my background in software development, I’m incredibly impressed that, for a release 1 of a new technology (both hardware and software), the Inspire 1 is production-worthy right out of the box.
I’m hoping to see a new camera pod for
the Inspire 1 that incorporates the larger sensor
What type of camera are you using with your drone?
The Inspire 1 uses the same Sony Exmoor sensor that’s in the GoPro Hero4, which is reasonable enough to get started with but there are issues (which is normal for a first release of a new tech). The 60Mbps data rate is too low for 4K, exhibiting more compression artifacts than I’d like to see. The sharpening algorithm DJI is using now is too heavy-handed at the default value of 0, but way too soft at -1. The craft ships with a moderate (about 2-stops) ND filter, but that’s nowhere near enough to keep the shutter speeds to 180-degrees, usually optimally at 1/50-1/100th of a second. This makes rolling shutter artifacts much worse than they should be, but thankfully the gimbal does such a great job that this has only been a nuisance. I’m confident that there will be updates to the camera software (a 2.7K 60bps mode would be a godsend) and 3rd party NDs will be available soon. Of course now that DJI has joined the Micro43 consortium, I’m hoping to see a new camera pod for the Inspire 1 that incorporates the larger sensor.
For now, I deal with the compression artifacts by using Neat Video’s temporal noise reduction feature, and I mitigate the over-sharpened output by applying a very slight gaussian blur in Davinci Resolve. I’ve experimented with using RE:Vision Effects Reelsmart Motion Blur to help with the lack of strong ND and that can be very effective in certain circumstances.
If anyone from DJI is listening,
my contact info is on my website
so please give me a shout: www.garyyost.com
How do you manage to fly and do the composition at the same time, or are you working with a partner?
A partner is the best way to achieve great aerial cinematography, and dual-op support is a critical feature of the Inspire 1. If you want great composition, it requires more focus than is possible (for me anyway) while also flying the craft. I do have some projects coming up that will require me to handle both roles simultaneously, and so I practice flying and shooting by myself at least once a week.
One thing that I’m looking forward to is more sophisticated software to assist in automating flight plans, similar to the way POI works on the Phantom. I’m familiar with Lorenz Meier’s QGroundControl open source app, and we obviously need something like that on the Inspire. I’d like to be able to set keyframes in 3D space and then adjust bezier curves to control interpolation through those keyframes, with the ability to apply eases inter- and intra-keyframe, allowing dynamic motion effects both on a per key basis and globally for the entire flight track. And then of course to do the same thing with the gimbal, so I could tweak the shot until it’s exactly what I’m looking for. As a matter of fact, I’m interested in getting ahold of the SDK for the Inspire ASAP and I’ve got a very talented software engineer with plenty of experience in this field primed and ready to produce amazing Aerial Cinematography tools now. If anyone from DJI is listening, my contact info is on my website so please give me a shout: www.garyyost.com.
Grading is critical for Inspire footage…
Describe the process that you use in planning, flying, capturing and editing your footage.
Planning at this point involves downloading Google Earth maps and drawing flight plans in photoshop while developing the storyboards for a shoot. Once that’s done, I screen capture those and put them on the iPad that runs the Inspire’s Pilot app, giving me access to those plans in the field. Then I use the Pilot app’s freehand drawing function to reproduce those flight plans as we go through the shots, and we modify our approach as necessary based on sun direction, weather, topology and obstacles. I usually capture in the DJI log mode at 4K/30 (although I shot in 24 for the Chalk Mountain piece), which gives me the flexibility to slow the shot down by 20% in a 24fps timeline. I edit in FCPX and then round-trip to Davinci Resolve. Grading is critical for Inspire footage because the white balance is a bit funky (showing heavy color casts), the log mode needs some contrast adjustment, and carefully matching the Inspire footage to shots from other cameras is critical. I made a little video of how I approach Inspire footage in Resolve here:
Do you have a pre-flight checklist, and what is it?
I do use a checklist every time I fly. Here it is:
- At home: Cache map for shoot before packing up.
- Camera: Check that the mSD card is installed and formatted. Check that ND filter is installed.
- Prop and prop lock install. Double Check tightness.
- Final A/C check.
- Make sure flight mode switch is set to GPS
- Open Pilot app (in both pilot and camera op tablets)
- Turn airplane mode on both devices. Make sure all other apps have been closed.
- Turn Tx on
- Turn A/C on. Check cached map and distance/height limits.
- Calibrate compass and let A/C warm up for a few minutes before 1st flight in new location, to essentially soak in the GPS coords.
- Status check for slow green flashing light
- Check video frame rates, resolution, white balance, etc.
- Turn record on.
- Take off, then gear up.
- Watch for any gimbal horizon alignment issues and adjust if necessary.
You mentioned that DJI Inspire 1 is the first platform that you jumped on right away. What is it about this platform that really resonates with you and how does it help a photographer or a filmmaker accomplish the desired goals?
It’s a turnkey system. I want to just think about getting the shot, not keeping the bird flying. This is much more than a hobbyist platform… it’s a professional filmmaking tool (or at least the start of one). Once DJI gets the camera dialed in better, and even more once they get a better camera platform integrated with the system, this is an unstoppable combination of price, performance and ease-of-use.
While waiting for the Inspire to arrive I practiced with a Nano Blade QX “palm-copter.” That gave me the confidence to jump right in with flight-testing and here are links to my first three very satisfying tests, preparing me very well for the Chalk Mountain shoot.
It amazes me that I was able to get such great results during flight testing, and that on the fourth time out we achieved our goals on Mt. Tamalpais.
What advice would you give to others who want to get started flying drones?
Get insurance. I never would’ve been able to fly on public lands without being able to have two different insurance certificates assigned to the Marin Municipal Water District. I have a $1M photography business liability policy and another $1M drone-specific liability policy (with Wings Aviation). Proving to the district that I was able to take responsibility for any potential accident was essential to making the Chalk Mountain video happen.
Be considerate. We want to give the public a positive view of how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles can be used for the public good. In my case, I’m raising awareness for a restoration project that will cost between $7-9M, and will take almost 10 years to accomplish. Without aerial views of this amazing place, the public would never understand the scope of the project. Please fly your drones with respect for other people and wildlife!
Know the rules. There are FAA rules and there are local rules. Be informed.
Always use a spotter. My team includes three people… pilot, camera op, and spotter. This is the safest way to fly.
Where do you see drones and drone technology in the future? Give an example of a real-world application of drone technology that you envision other than photography.
One thing I learned when we created 3ds Max is that if you open up the tool with a robust Software Development Kit (SDK), and have a wide-range set of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), then almost anything is possible. The manufacturer will never be able to anticipate the creativity of the community of software engineers that can add value to the platform. And when there are more sophisticated sensors on the craft that can be used as input, autonomous flight will be possible, opening up even more avenues of creativity. We’ve already seen things as crazy as drone ballet on YouTube, and we will continually be astonished at what new applications can be created… applications that were previously completely unforeseen.
Thank you so much for your insights. Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like to share?
I appreciate your interest in my work and thank you for all that you’re doing for the UAV community. Droneblog is a fantastic resource and a huge source of inspiration.
Droneblog is a fantastic resource and
a huge source of inspiration.
– Gary Yost
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