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“DRONE DIARIES: SOME FLIGHTS OF FANCY”

Posted in Feature

I remember – when the movie 3 idiots came in 2009, I was already doing short films with my friends. I was impressed by a scene in the film, where a character makes a ‘Quadcopter’ in that film.

Happy girls waving back at my flying friend

Me being a small town boy from Bankura in West Bengal, being ‘aspirational’ has always been ingrained in my nature – if you know what I mean.

I got besotted with this seemingly simple idea of making a flying camera – and attempted to make a DIY drone myself. A couple of desperate tries and amazing failures later – I realized this required skills that are more sophisticated than kite making.

For then, I dropped the idea; but the ‘thought’ of a Drone kept returning to me, through movies, short videos, and then you tube tutorials etc.

My first access to a drone camera was with Carrot Films. Around four years back, when I started my job here, I was somewhat overwhelmed with amount of equipment we had – with a vast variety of cameras and lenses. In the midst of all that, I saw a couple of drones.

You won’t imagine how happy I was to see my dream gadgets. 

But having access to an equipment at Carrot and to be really able to use it takes some time – since our Sir, as in Ashish Dutta at Carrot will always guide you towards the user’s manual first. His regular refrain is – “Pehle Padho, phir karo!” At that time is did seem quite frustrating. Here’s my dream gadget, right in front of me, and I am not being able to fly it unless I read through all pages of an 80 to 100 pages manual – and pass a test thereafter. Ashish sir expects us to know the nature and the operational principles of every piece of equipment before we use it – because that’s how he himself has learnt his ropes. He himself takes the test before allowing anyone to use equipment.  

But one fine morning everything was going to change. He was upstairs; I was at the parking with my colleagues. 

One Mountain Dew was enough for me to get over my ‘darr’ and jump the gun.

Here you go- my version of an otherwise mundane challenge 😛

I brought the drone from basement, unpacked it, installed the go pro , the memory card , completed calibration , switched the remote on  – and soon the drone was all set to go the distance. And then, I hit the fly button (there wasn’t any, you have to pull two trigger switch towards you in opposite corners).

I can still see myself 10 minutes later , revisiting the short flying memory!

The way it went up slowly was amazing! After a few milliseconds of smooth ascent, it came down rapidly, and landed right next to the rear tire of my sir’s car. Oh yes, did I mention that it first crashed on the second floor’s rampart of a window? In a nutshell, it was a stupendous disaster.

I broke two propellers and gave two scratch marks to the drone: P

Yeah that’s my first flight! 

Now – coming to the point when flying became an adventure; much later. 

You need to understand certain things first. Flying a drone is not easy; 

There are many things you need to take care of. 

  1. Magnetic Field
  2. Position
  3. Obstacles
  4. Birds who can attack your drone
  5. Drone losing its connection with the remote 
  6. Last but not the least ( regulations around flying the drone in India )
  7. Being prepared of the fact that sometimes airlines won’t allow you take the drone with you.

I have faced all these problems – and what I have mentioned above are all real life, genuine problems. In Oman, while we were shooting inside a steel factory, the drone went puzzled and started behaving strange. With all that molten iron ore and steel girders lying around – One can only imagine the cross-currents of magnetic field in there.

Similarly, In Odisha nature intervened. An old tree was somehow pulling the drone towards it – and it lost all sense of orientation. The drone actually crashed.

At Kali River, in Champawat, Uttarakhand – my remote lost connect with the drone – which wasn’t visible. Imagine my situation. I am standing over a wooden bridge in the middle of nowhere. At that point i was feeling, with every breathe the bridge is shaking more heavily. With 13% charge left in the drone remote and trying to distinguish the sound of the drone and the warning sound of low battery, a band of rowdy crows decided to give the drone a chase. Thankfully, latest versions of drones have a safety-mechanism built in, where the wayward drone comes back to the point from which it took off. But even then, it’s all guesswork. A few feet left or right, and the drone will land right in the middle of the river or will crash to a thin wire.

Moreover, if a sudden object comes too close to your drone lens – the automated particle sensor immediately stops the drone, effectively ruining your shot. This happened with me in Purulia last week, when a crow decided to peek into the lens of the flying drone.

The crow playing peekaboo with the drone. I think both were scared- the crow and me!

Much better than predators taking your drone for a ride – I suppose. That has happened too.

The shoot was somewhere in Jharkhand – if I remember it right, and we were taking a sunset shot using the drone; a bunch of pigeons suddenly appeared into the frame, making my composition even more beautiful. I took the opportunity and started following them, without realizing that I was not the one following the pigeon. A kite, which was in hot pursuit, didn’t like the competition – it seems. It snatched the drone mid-air and flew away. Shocked, I ran after it, through wheat fields. After a few pecks, the kite must have realized the inedible nature of its ‘catch’ and let it go. I was lucky that it stabilized in mid-air – and I was able to bring it down safely.

Thrilling!! Isn’t it! Perhaps a major scare too, but such things do happen on the field. There’s no avoiding them. Rather enjoy it, in afterthoughts.

While on the field, it often happens that the drone loses its connection with the remote and goes away from you. There’s no option but to run after it then, till the point you revive connection. Sometimes, you run out of land while running or can even have to cross a canal or culvert – it’s always unpredictable. That’s all the more reason why one has to practice a lot with the drone, before attempting to fly it. The purpose is not to take shots that look straight out of a physical geography textbook – the purpose is to emulate the vision of a bird or a pilot. That’s why, unless the script calls for it, I never attempt a straight drop down with the drone. It looks unnatural.

The majestic Rancer Island- in Pong, Himachal Pradesh

And then, there are national security concerns. You just can’t fly a drone in restricted zones – you need to take special permissions for that. From some airports – you can’t even fly with a drone. I remember being barred from entering a flight in Vizag, since I was carrying a drone. I had to take a bus all the way to Hyderabad during that UNICEF shoot, around three years back, and then take a flight from Hyderabad.

Which reminds me, for documentary film-makers like us travelling to remote corners of India – not all no-fly zones are restricted by the government.

This happened during our recent shoot deep inside the jungles of ‘Bastar’ Chhattisgarh. Our driver cautioned us in no uncertain terms that this was an ‘influenced’ area, and sometimes the ‘Maoists’ held their armed training camps here. That apart, there’s the BSF, which will gun down a drone as soon as they sight it – and they won’t give any explanations.

But the film we were doing for OXFAM called for landscape shots – with tribal characters in it. It was a film on tribal forest rights. We played a little dumb there and once we were sure there was no BSF around we took out the drone, in full view of the locals. In a bit ‘coy’ manner, I asked them, ‘I hope there’s no problem flying drones here…’

The beauty of landscapes in rural India

Many of them might be seeing a drone camera up-close for the first time. The leader among them came forward and told us, ‘Of course, absolutely no problem in this area – just don’t go to the valley beyond the jungle.’

It was a clear hint; smiles extra.

Revealing structures is also what is one of my best things to do with this little giant

I think I should call it a day here; since there are so much ‘flying’ memories I have, just one blog post will not suffice. Flying the drone is a learning experience and every new project brings up a fresh challenge; every flight of the tiny wonder-flyer also suggests solutions galore.

Just a week back I was in Pong Dam Lake – trying to shoot birds with my drone camera. Even there, I learnt something new. Flying a drone among birds is complicated. More than the alien object in the air, they have to get used to the sound of the drone. So you have to keep flying with them, for some time, till they get used to this atmospheric ‘disturbance’ and start flying normally. To get good drone shots of birds flying, you need loads and loads of patience.

But then, that’s the standard keyword for flying drones – patience.

Give it the time it deserves and it will give you the shots your film deserve, from a never-before seen perspective. That’s the magic of drone shoots. It gives you an unknown glimpse of the world you thought you know so well. By doing that, it changes your way of looking at things forever.

FILM DIRECTED BY: ISHANI K DUTTA & ASHISH DUTTA .

STORY & IMAGE: SWARNENDU BOSE

COPY EDITOR: ANIRBAN BHATTACHARYA

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One Comment

  1. Sinchita
    Sinchita

    Totally high after reading this 😎
    Great insight dronacharya😁😁

    27th February 2020
    |Reply

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