There are many types of first-person view (FPV) drones ranging in various sizes, from Tiny Whoops and Cinewhoops to FPV Cinelifters.
If you’ve seen films such as The Gray Man, Red Notice, or Day Shift, you’ve seen footage captured using a Cinelifter.
These platforms can capture footage from a unique perspective that could not be filmed by a human camera operator in any other way.
As a professional FPV pilot, I have a unique perspective on Cinelifters.
Join me today as I guide you through the exciting world of Cinelifters. You won’t want to miss it!
To help, we’ve identified and reviewed the best drone courses for beginners and professionals.
What is a Cinelifter, anyway?
Cinelifters are FPV drones designed and built to carry cinema-grade cameras. Some are even capable of carrying a camera and gimbal!
These drones typically have propeller sizes ranging from seven to 11 inches and can carry cameras like a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera or a RED Komodo.
Cinelifters also come in various motor configurations; some have just four motors while others have eight.
Cinelifter design – what goes into it?
The design of a Cinelifter depends on the payload the drone will carry. Certain configurations also have benefits, such as the reduced impact of vibrations on flight characteristics.
For example, larger propellers tend to produce low-frequency vibrations, which can fall into a frequency range that’s difficult to filter out for the motion controller on board the drone.
Most consumer drones have four motors in an “X” configuration.
However, to manage heavier payloads without significantly increasing propeller size, some Cinelifters have been designed with either six motors in a hexagonal configuration, or eight motors with four co-axial pairs of motors arranged in an “X” configuration over each other.
A benefit of having motors arranged in co-axial pairs is that the overall design is more compact than a traditional octocopter. Also, propellers can be kept out of view of the camera.
Some Cinelifters have a caged design, with parts surrounding the propellers. This allows the drone to get closer to people without putting them at risk of being struck by a propeller.
Imagine a scaled-up Cinewhoop carrying a cinema camera. That’s what these Cinelifters look like!
A lot of thought also goes into the components used for a Cinelifter.
Reliability is the main focus here, with flight controllers, motors, and electronic speed controllers (ESC) sourced from reliable companies with a consistent history of high-quality components.
For example, even if competing companies use the same gyro chip, how that gyro chip is mounted to and interfaced with a flight controller may impact the quality of the gyro data being received by the flight controller.
Clean data from a gyro chip is very important for Cinelifters.
Cinelifter frames are also designed to bring the mass of the payload closer to the center of mass of the drone.
This helps with handling but also prevents the drone from toppling over from the camera’s weight when landing.
These frames are also stiff to support heavier motors mounted on long arms and the thrust from larger propellers.
Cinelifter camera setup
Filming with FPV drones differs from filming with a line-of-sight camera drone.
For example, most line-of-sight drones have a lens with a fixed focal length of around 24mm. However, for FPV drone shots, this focal length can be too restrictive, especially for dynamic shots in proximity to a subject.
As a result, many pilots use lenses of focal lengths ranging from 7mm to around 20mm. A fast autofocus is also helpful if shooting wide open on fast lenses.
Some pilots have also stripped cinema cameras down to their bare essentials, significantly reducing the camera’s weight.
This can help with the size and mass of the drone needed to carry cinema cameras, especially for longer scenes or more dynamic shots.
Are Cinelifters hard to fly?
Flying a Cinelifter is much like flying other FPV drones in acro mode, except that these drones are a lot more expensive, and so is the camera it carries.
Taking off and landing smoothly is incredibly important. No one wants to risk damaging an expensive cinema camera!
Vibrations from large propellers can affect how a Cinelifter flies. A lot of time goes into tuning a Cinelifter to minimize the effects of vibrations.
Filtering out vibrations, either mechanically or in software, will produce smooth flight characteristics and help pilots fly smoothly to produce cinematic footage.
Flying smoothly can be a challenge in and of itself. Pilots spend a lot of time setting up features like rates on their drones so that the controls feel natural to them.
Everyone is different, so one pilot’s rates could vary drastically from another pilot’s rates.
A lot of practice also goes into developing the skills needed to fly and film with FPV Cinelifters.
How to stabilize footage from a Cinelifter
With older cameras that don’t have built in gyroscopes or the ability to export gyro data, Cinelifter pilots use a gyro data logger mounted with or to the cinema camera.
Many use GoPro cameras for gyro data logging. The gyro data can then be used with stabilizing software like Gyroflow to stabilize footage from the cinema camera.
Newer cameras and recent firmware updates to some older cameras have introduced internal gyro logging to capture gyro data in real-time while filming.
This data can then be used with stabilization software packages to stabilize the footage.
Some pilots opt to only use minimal stabilization tools, such as those built into a video-editing suite like DaVinci Resolve or Adobe Premiere.
This can streamline workflow and get footage in a usable state quickly.
However, achieving smooth footage without other stabilization tools requires significant experience and incredible skill to fly in such a way that stabilization isn’t required.
Weather conditions, filming environment, and the subject being filmed can also impact drone stability and thus impact the final video stabilization – some vibrations and external forces can’t be handled smoothly.
How do I capture cinematic footage?
Most pilots have tried flying their drones slowly and smoothly to capture eye-pleasing footage.
Many drones have modes that make this easier, such as Cine Mode on DJI drones, which reduces the rate at which the drone moves with stick movements.
This kind of “Cine Mode” setup also applies to Cinelifters.
Cinelifters aren’t typically used for agile, freestyle maneuvers like you’d expect with smaller FPV drones.
Therefore, Cinelifters don’t need to be set up with a fast stick response from the controller; with less stick response comes more control.
Having more control allows pilots to fly cleanly, without making micro corrections on the controls. This helps keep a continuous flight line.
Planning is even more important if you already have the line you want to take in mind. Then you will likely fly that line or time your shot correctly.
This applies to filming with any drone, not just FPV drones or Cinelifters.
Practicing smooth flying gives you the muscle memory to relax while flying so you can focus on being creative with your filming.
In terms of cinematic camera settings, following the 180-degree shutter angle “rule” is a good start, setting the shutter speed to 1/2 times the frame rate.
This gives a natural amount of motion blur for most environments.
However, you can play with shutter speed to give your footage a look you want for your videos.
A Cinelifter is a large FPV drone capable of carrying cinema-grade cameras and lenses. They’re built with dynamic and close proximity drone shots in mind.
Like flying other FPV drones, Cinelifters take a lot of practice to fly confidently and smoothly to capture stable cinematic video.
The “rules” of capturing cinematic footage–e.g., 24 fps, 180-degree shutter angle–generally apply to filming with Cinelifters, but for capturing more dynamic footage, higher frame rates and faster shutter speeds may be required.