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Ten years ago, Tabb Firchau wanted to use a toy helicopter to shoot a scene that would have been otherwise impossible to capture. But just strapping a camera onto the bottom of the helicopter produced shaky footage, and the machine wasn’t really powerful enough to move the camera in the way he wanted. So he started building his own flying camera rig.

Tabb Firchau

Ever since, Firchau has been tinkering with unmanned aircraft in a quest to enable shots that were previously unthinkable. He eventually developed a custom helicopter rig with complicated gimbal systems to keep shots steady and control the camera in while it was in the air. He used his systems to film all kinds of stunning shots, from shoots for National Geographic to 360-degree panoramas for his own startup.

But he was just about the only one who could actually fly the things.

“Those models were next to impossible to get to produce reliable, beautiful results. You almost had to be like a musician,” Firchau said. “Sure I could sell you the helicopter, but you’re gonna have to spend the next decade of your life trying to understand all the ways in which it sucks and how to fix them.”

Two Movi systems being used to shoot a BBC documentary in the Australian Outback. Image via Freefly Systems

However, as quadrocopter technology improved, it got easier to keep unmanned aerial vehicles stable and made learning how to fly one much simpler. Firchau teamed up with brushless motor expert David Bloomfield, veteran camera operator Hugh Bell and lawyer Megan Fogel to create drones for the film industry.

Their company, Freefly Systems, based in Woodinville, Wash., was founded to give camera operators new ways to move their cameras. The company was profitable from the start, relying on revenue from its creative arm, Freefly Cinema. Its first product was a bulky eight-rotor helicopter called the CineStar that allowed for vast improvements over traditional camera movement methods, but Freefly has continued to develop innovative camera movement systems for a wide range of applications.

The CineStar was Freefly’s first commercial product

Before Freefly debuted the CineStar, camera crews would have to set up tracks to move a camera steadily through uneven terrain, or get a crane to lift up a camera for shots from above. With the CineStar, camera operators could glide over just about anything and capture scenes from new angles with minimal setup needed.

“The vision is not necessarily all something flying, but it’s about camera movement,” Firchau said. “So how do we enable cinematographers to create that new shot or do something they didn’t think of before?”

The Movi is one way to Freefly is letting filmmakers get those shots.

While the company got its start with drones, the Movi may be at the heart of Freefly Systems. The device uses the tech Freefly developed to keep the camera steady when on a drone, but puts it in a handheld package that can be used for more traditional filming scenarios.

By taking away the drone part, Freefly was left with a chassis that holds the camera steady while the camera operator moves around to capture the shot. Small motors allow a second operator to pan and tilt the camera, keeping the lens trained on the subject. As seen in the video below, it allows the camera to fit in tight spaces and fluidly move between camera operators to get longer, more immersive shots.

Freefly used the Movi system, which starts at $3,995, to build out more camera movement devices. They’ve built a beefed up version of an RC car that can get low and steady shots, and their newest product is the Alta, the successor to the CineStar. The Alta, which starts at $8,495, is full of features that help enable more inventive shots, and make operating the drone more reliable so getting the shot doesn’t take all day to capture.

The most obvious difference between the CineStar and the Alta are the mounting options. While camera operators can sling the camera below the Alta just like on the CineStar, they can also mount it on top for stunning forward motion shots or to shoot from below subjects where the CineStar rotors would get in the way.

The Alta also folds up into a compact custom carrying case and can be deployed in minutes. Six simple clamps hold the unfolded rotor arms in place, a Movi clicks into the top or bottom of the Alta and it’s ready to capture crazy footage from even crazier angles.

The Alta can also perform some automated tasks, like slowly rising at a designated speed or hold position for extended periods of time. This allows camera operators to focus more on getting shots and less on piloting drones.

Freefly doesn’t just build the drones; it also has to test every single one before they’re sent out into the field. These drones aren’t holding a $100 video camera, they’re supporting $10,000 cameras, plus lenses and other electronics, and flying over the heads of famous movie stars, so they need to perform to the highest standards. Freefly tests all their drones at their Woodinville facility before they’re sent out, flying them in actual outdoor conditions and testing individual parts for flaws.

There is some competition from off-the-shelf drones manufacturers, but not from the drones themselves. While a DJI Inspire 1 can get some great shots with a its 4K camera, it’s not powerful enough to lift and control film-quality cameras with their lenses and other accessories needed for movie making.

However, DJI has developed stabilization technology that also came out of their drone business. The Ronin has many of the same features that Freefly’s Movi comes with, but it’s a bulkier, heavier package meant for more traditional filming scenarios.

DJI also makes cinematic drones, which compete more directly with Freefly’s business model. However, it’s systems are closer to the CineStar than the Alta, requiring more setup time and using more traditional drone technology. DJI has focused on hobbyist drones recently, but Freefly has seen success building drones for the film industry.

Right now, Freefly says it will continue pushing its 65 employees to build better software and hardware that enables professionals to shoot whatever they can think up. The next time you’re wondering how a scene was shot, whether it’s from an impossible angle or the camera is making incredible movements, Freefly’s drones may be making it happen.

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