Here are some easy post-production techniques to get a more filmic look out of your drone footage.
Top image via Cinema5D.
Drone footage is about as common on the internet as a cat picture. With the release of the Mavic and DJI’s new Spark, drone’s have become so affordable and easy to use in the last two to three years that everyone from your dad to your little brother probably has one (or really wants one). As a result, if you want your drone shots to really impress your viewer, you have to push the look to the next level. When you’re watching drone footage, the differences between someone who knows what they’re doing and someone who doesn’t becomes clear in seconds.
Obviously, you have to be able to fly the thing, but a big portion of that difference comes from the post-production process.
The video above was basically life-changing for me when it came to the look of my drone footage. This video from Seb at cinema5D is an installment of a four-part series that teaches you how to improve your drone footage, from shooting all the way through color-correction and post-production.
Be sure to watch the whole series (it’s fantastic), but right now I want to focus on the tips from part two.
(All of these tips are for Adobe After Effects, so if you’re working in Premiere, you’ll need to make sure to install After Effects. Then you can right-click your footage and select Replace With After Effects Composition.)
Footage via Shutterstock.
One of the limitations of more affordable drones is that they have a fixed aperture. As a result, you usually have to use a ridiculously fast shutter speed in order to correctly expose the image in most situations. Obviously, this will eliminate almost all natural motion blur. Motion blur is very important for creating a cinematic image, especially if your shot is moving very quickly.
In the above example, you can see how the image with motion blur (the left) looks a bit more cinematic than the image without (on the right).
To achieve the effect above, Pixel Motion Blur added motion blur back to the image (you can find this effect in the Time section of the effects dropdown). This is a much slower motion blur effect, so if you’re in a hurry, you can use CC Force Motion Blur — which looks good, but to my eye, doesn’t look quite as natural. While either is usually an acceptable solution, every once in a while the software can’t detect the motion blur for a particular shot — not to mention the astronomical render times.
Image via cinema5D.
At about 3:00 into the video, Seb describes a different process that uses Directional Blur and masks to fake motion blur for certain shots. In the above example, this approach creates some really beautiful and natural-looking motion blur.
Sometimes you have to get a bit more creative with how you achieve motion blur — but with dynamic link and After Effects, there are endless possibilities.
Footage via Cinema5D.
You may notice that your drone footage doesn’t have quite that same epic feel that you envisioned. Chances are it’s because of the speed of your drone. The DJI Inspire 1 has a top speed of about 49mph — and that is without wind resistance. By way of comparison, the suggested top speed of an Airbus AS355 Helicopter is 172mph (an aircraft sometimes used for aerial video). So, if you’re flying over a mountain, or capturing that cityscape at magic hour, your drone might not get quite the same result as what you see in the movie theater, just in sheer terms of speed. Sometimes, drone shots look like they’re moving incredibly slowly across large objects.
In the video at about 4:15, Seb shows us how to use an effect called Timewarp to effectively speed up the clip as well as add motion blur to the image.
The Timewarp effect (found in the Time effects dropdown) is the quickest and easiest way to achieve both motion blur and increased speed. You can also easily use this effect to ramp the time as well (using keyframes), which can create some really dynamic effects — all the while maintaining a natural-looking motion blur.
Stabilization and Alignment
Affordable drone cameras are small. Very small.
Even the slightest movement or wind gust can interrupt your image. The majority of these drones do a really fantastic job of dampening 99 percent of that movement, but due to the small size of these drones, it’s still sometimes easy to see the slightest changes in position. It’s my opinion that 90 percent of drone footage needs some post-stabilization. It helps if you deliver a milky-smooth camera move that is undeniably more cinematic.
The best way to achieve this in Premiere or After Effects is to use a Warp Stabilizer effect. Sometimes, I’ll even turn the stabilization smoothness down as low as 5 percent, just to smooth over some of the smallest bumps.
Image via Cinema 5D.
In the image above, Seb shows us a method that he uses to properly level his drone shots. Here, he keeps a horizontal red line element on top of his footage and positions it at the horizon line of his footage. Then he uses the Motion Controls to change the rotation of the clip. The difference can be as subtle as a .5 degree rotation one way or the other. As a result, you will need to slightly scale the footage up to cover the edges of the frame.
With these drones, even though the gimbals are very good at staying mostly level, once you start to travel at higher speeds, the shot will become slightly tilted. It’s unavoidable.
The alignment of drone footage is something that you’ll commonly see out of whack. Fixing it is an extra step that, in most cases, seems pretty unnoticeable. However, if you keep an eye on it and fix a tilt when it occurs, you’ll notice a major difference in the aesthetics of your drone footage.
A properly leveled and stabilized drone shot just looks better.
Don’t have a drone, but need aerial footage? Check out the aerial collection on Shutterstock.