Quadcoptors have introduced a new visual language in filmmaking. These four-rotor UAVs, when equipped with a high definition camera, fly out and capture shots of sweeping landscapes, football matches and even active volcanoes. But drone cinematography of this kind, for the most part, has been a manual and challenging process. It takes an expert, sometimes two, to fly a drone and steer the camera to capture artistic shots at the same time. A team of computer graphics PhD students at Stanford University recognized this camera control problem. They spent the last two years building an app that allows even a novice to design and execute aerial shots like a pro.
“Camera control is a classic problem in computer graphics,” Mike Roberts, co-creator of the app told Engadget. “If you want to generate an image of a virtual environment using a computer…you need to decide where to position the virtual camera.” It’s a decision that plagued the animation industry for decades. But over the years, it was made easier with intuitive tools that allow animators to choose the viewpoints that would help create the computer-generated shots.
The Stanford team’s interactive tool follows that premise. It allows users to control the motion of a camera in a virtual setting to capture a desired frame. It lets you pre-plan a shot right down to the twists, turns and timings before the aircraft even takes off. You start by picking keyframes and assigning camera orientations at specific times based on a 3D preview of the camera shot and a 2D map of the route. The tool then uses your input to map a feasible trajectory for the drone between the chosen frames. While it charts a plan, it also keeps track of the physical limitations of the quadrotor so that it doesn’t crash to the ground.
Unlike existing flight planning tools, where the user has no way of knowing what the final shot might look like, this hands-free app lets you preview your shot in Google Earth’s virtual environment to tweak it or hit capture. When you choose the latter, the app commands the quadrotor to follow the planned trajectory autonomously. “The real video footage is faithful to the virtual preview shown in our app,” says Roberts. “The workflow is similar to how an animator at Pixar might set up a camera path for an animated movie.”
With the FAA regulations shifting in favor of commercial drones for movie and TV productions this year, drones are expected to replace the bulk and expense of helicopters that have long been employed for aerial settings. This new app could make that replacement a lot easier. “There are a hundred problems that our app doesn’t solve,” says Roberts. “But for the domain of pre-scripted aerial cinematography, we’ve made a step forward. You can use our app to express yourself and you don’t have to know how to fly a drone to do it.”