While shooting the demolition of Sparrows Point, MD in 2013, the company I was working for acquired a single propeller flying wing that could carry the GoPro up 400 ft. and carry out a series of turns along a predetermined flight path, before returning to its take off point five minutes later. The views were interesting but there was no control over the flight path. I began researching ways to put a camera in the sky. Strolling through an airport one day I picked up a smart phone controlled drone. I reprogrammed and “teched” it out with all the aftermarket upgrades but it was just too flimsy and unpredictable outdoors. Then, DJI came out with its Phantom 1. The footage I saw from this small quadcopter was extraordinary. A fluid crane move, climbing to the top of a 12-story structure in seconds for a true eagle’s eye view.
Seamless dolly moves across a rough terrain construction site. Flying over the site, like a full size helicopter, to capture the process of loading trucks. I was hooked. I showed my then employer some footage on YouTube and he gave me the go ahead to try it out, at my own expense. Two DJI Phantom 1’s later—one still sits at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay with a Go Pro attached—I was out $1,700. While the Phantom 1 showed promise it was far from perfect. GPS signal was iffy, the static GoPro mount was choppy and the ability to control the flight was like trying to row in choppy seas with one oar.
I put the idea of flying a drone on hold until technology was ready for me.
In 2015 I returned to Boston after a four-year photography expedition in the Midwest and I settled into a new position with a recently formed, but growing, demolition company as a junior safety advisor and site photographer. I had seen the footage of DJI’s new Phantom 3 Professional and thought that maybe it was time to make my acquaintance with this amazing flying platform again. I asked the owners if they had ever thought about a drone and by the end of the week they took possession of a new unit.
The Phantom 3 Professional is, hands down, my tool of choice for all my video and aerial photography needs. My GoPros have sat dormant and have only come out once, in 4 months, to get a secondary view. The ability to deploy the unit in a few minutes, fly over a site, pick a vantage point and let go of the controls while the unit hovers with a totally still picture is incredible. One of my first projects to shoot was the selective demolition of an 1880’s church in Boston’s South End. Our task was to remove the roof and inner structure. The drone paid for itself 10 times on its 4th flight when I was able to to supply the project manager with footage and stills of the inner structure from a completely inaccessible area. Priceless. Every view, vantage point and cinematic camera move that I’ve ever dreamed of is possible with this extraordinary piece of equipment.
The realization of the quadcopter’s true power came toward the end of the church demolition project when we were loading out the wood scrap left over from the demolition process.
There were actions happening inside the shell of the church and the outside simultaneously. Understanding and seeing three-dimensional space is a priceless commodity from the air. Seamless transitions were made possible by the fact that there were no windows in the walls nor a roof to impede vision. I looked at the site and what was happening and made a mental ‘shot list’ of the story I wanted to tell. I walked through the site and around the building with my still camera and envisioned the process, making a flight path as I walked through the space. I went to the basement to see the excavator tearing out the floor and the skidsteer moving material. Outside a truck was being loaded with debris and the high reach excavator was being used to move material from the edge of the outside wall into piles. I began to storyboard in my head, thinking of what I wanted to story to say using the quadcopter to help define three-dimension space. It is an immersive experience. One of my biggest challenges of shooting this video was to fly through an open window in the rear parking lot area and into the open inner space of the church. I had seen it done but never tried it. A hair raising experience I trusted technology and my vision and that became my second shot to get the viewer into the building. While my list of shots I wanted to obtain didn’t happen in the order I envisioned them I went through the process to capture everything I needed to tell the story of the process. Human scale was important in this situation and while most of the action was at ground level I was able to capture a laborer in a man-lift performing cleanup of the church’s inner walls. One of the most important aspects of telling a video or photographic story in construction or demolition is how each individual has a task that all works toward the end result. Identifying the key characters and showing what they accomplished was paramount in my short 1 minute and 51 second story. https://vimeo.com/150710036
Once the footage was obtained I begin the editing process. Taking 40-60 minutes of raw footage and chiseling it down to 111 seconds takes a lot more than just learning how to fly the quadcopter. You have to know the end vision of what you want to convey, how you want to show the world what you see in the field and to share your vision of the story you want to tell to show the client or our demolition company’s capability. The drone is simply just another tool, an amazing tool to say the least. Like any tool, just because you own one doesn’t make you an expert. Although, it sure has eliminated all of my engineered and constructed mechanical solutions in an attempt to get the shots that were only flights of fancy just a few short years ago.
Stephen SetteDucati is an award-winning photographer who specializes in construction and demolition and lives in New Hampshire. www.theprojectphotographer.com, demophotog on Twitter, thedemophotog on Instagram.