Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A guide to creating flying videos

April 2013 Update - Since this was posted, I've made a few changes. Instead of the complicated intercom setup I now use an intercom recording cable; it was about $35 and works great. Software-wise, I think I have settled on using Adobe Premiere Elements 11. It has more than enough features for what I do and is a fraction of the cost of Premiere Pro CS6. I'll likely write a detailed update post about all this once I've learned the software a bit more thoroughly.

I first want to thank readers Jeff and Brent, who emailed asking about my video setup earlier this summer. Their requests really sparked my desire to write this post. Inquiries about my camera and videos come in semi-frequently and writing about my process in detail is a nice piece of content to add to the blog. Sorry it has taken so long (you all know about the wedding, now only a month away!) but I'm glad to finally be posting this.

It would be misleading for me to begin without first mentioning that there are some caveats and weak links in my current setup. So for those of you starting from scratch, please note the equipment I recommend at the end of this post. Some of what I currently have works very well but there are other areas where I plan to upgrade or change my approach but simply have not yet had an opportunity.

My Equipment

The best thing I can probably do is talk a little bit about my equipment, why I bought it, and what purpose it serves. So here goes...

We're talking about creating videos here, so the video camera is obviously a key element in the process. I purchased a Kodak Zi8 a little over two years ago for two primary reasons. First, I work for Kodak and the employee discount was nice. Second, and more importantly, it has an external mic input that allows me to hook it into the intercom to capture audio. It records in 720p or 1080p HD (I always use 720p / 30 fps) and the quality is more than sufficient for my sharing vehicle of choice, YouTube. Nearly all my flying is during the day so any low-light performance issues don't concern me. I'm not sure that any device in the pocket video camera segment has great low-light performance, so keep that in mind if you want to record at night.

Kodak Zi8 with RAM attachment in the tripod mount

I purchased a portable intercom through the AOPA Classifieds a few years ago. It was mainly because the 172 at Stewart only has a two-place intercom in the panel and I wanted to be able to talk to everyone when flying with more than one passenger. However, it also has an audio out jack that has become quite handy for piping intercom and radio chatter into the Zi8.

Sigtronics SPO-42 Portable Intercom with cable in "Audio Out" jack

Video editing software is an area where I'm currently just making do with what I have. I don't want to buy anything because I need a new computer and have not decided whether to get an iMac or a Windows machine. The MediaImpression software that comes with the Kodak cameras has been perfectly adequate - after all, every video of mine from the past two years has been edited in it - but some things that should be simple tend to be a time-consuming hassle. If you want to save yourself headaches or aren't familiar with video editing (which I am, and that's partially why I've continued to work around MediaImpression's limitations) I'd definitely recommend better software from the get-go.

Setup & Mounting

There are two setups I generally use, depending on the type of airplane. In the Cessnas, I attach the RAM Suction Mount to the side of the windshield to the left of the pilot. In the Cub, I often attach a RAM Yoke Mount to the tubing inside at the top of the cockpit. The camera hangs upside-down when I use that approach in the Cub, but it's simple to rotate the video 180 degrees in the editing software.

Fully-mounted camera in the 150

 View of the camera mount from the outside of the airplane

My main reason for doing things differently in the Cub is that I usually fly it with the door open. Mounting the camera further back with the suction mount places it in the blast of wind flowing through the open door. No matter how secure the mount is, that results in way too much vibration and buffering to produce a clean video.

RAM Yoke Mount and camera simulating the Cub mounting position

In either case, a RAM Long Arm attaches to the mount and I attach a RAM Tripod Mount to the other end of the arm. This allows full freedom of movement so I can position and rotate the camera to properly frame the desired field of view. I can't heap anything but praise on the RAM Mounts. They are incredibly sturdy and dissipate vibration quite well.

For the past year or so I've been using a Fisheye Lens adapter on the camera. It really expands the field of view, giving a sense of the peripheral sight picture that's so important when we're up there flying airplanes. A small magnetic ring is permanently adhered around the Zi8's lens and I just attach the lens to it every time I set things up in the airplane.

One final setup check, and this is important with the Zi8, is to ensure the Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) feature on the camera is OFF. I can't give you the exact technical reason, but something with mounting the camera in a fixed position facing the rotating propeller causes what I'll call a "porpoise effect" that is extremely visible and annoying on the recorded video. With the EIS turned off, everything looks great. So watch out for that!

You can see the Fisheye Lens protruding from front of the camera

If I want to capture audio, my current equipment dictates I have to use the portable intercom. Since we rarely wear headsets in the Cub, I don't ever capture intercom audio. Instead I simply allow the camera's built-in mic to record ambient cockpit noise. In the Cessnas, I'll plug the intercom into either the pilot or co-pilot's position. The 3.5 mm stereo audio cable then runs from the intercom up to the camera. Depending on how I hook things up, it may run up the panel and across the glareshield or just up the left side of the airplane. Regardless, the most important thing is that you always ensure the audio cable is free of all controls and will remain securely in place in flight.

Portable intercom and audio cable in a 150

Running the audio cable across the glareshield

Video Editing

I'm not going to go into great detail about what I do in the editing process, mainly because everyone has their own way of doing things. What footage you cut, keep, and change around is really your own call when it comes to making a video. Same goes with adding captions and music. Experiment on your own and have some fun!

Still, I do tend to follow a few general considerations and methods:
  • Trim out repetitive footage - cornfields all look the same after a while!
  • Speed up the footage to shorten the playback (I've been doing this a lot lately)
  • Adjust the length of clips to match music tracks
  • Label airports where I'm taking off and landing at with captions
  • Be mindful of overall video length, especially as it relates to YouTube's limits
  • Mute the recorded cockpit/intercom audio when it's distracting or choppy
  • Use crossfade transitions between all clips

The main Make Movie screen in MediaImpression - timeline is at the bottom

Video editing window - you can adjust the start and end with the sliders

Example of inserting a caption into a video clip

Selecting the Cross Fade transition (double-click on it to add it to the movie)

As far as music goes, for the longest time I used instrumental jazz playing softly in the background. The reason for this is quite simple - when I have intercom audio in the video, any music with lyrics tends to become distracting very quickly. Nearly all those songs came from All About Jazz, an awesome site I highly recommend because it has a ton of free downloads. However, I've been recording a lot less intercom audio lately (mainly because I'm not happy with the quality coming out of my current setup) and have used more traditional songs in conjunction with sped-up video footage.

I have only added a voice-over to a video one time, when I commented on flying kids at a Young Eagles rally last fall. It's a great tool if you want to explain something that won't fit in a short caption. Definitely something for you to keep in mind if it fits your own videos.

When the video is complete, I save it out of MediaImpression in .mp4 format using the highest bit rate available. That option is under the Save to PC button in the software. There is an ability to send your video straight to YouTube but I prefer to save it locally first so I have a copy archived for backup purposes. Once it's saved to your computer, just upload it to YouTube and it's out there for the world to see!

Recommended Equipment
Final Thoughts

Take a look at the list above, which basically shows what I would prefer to use in lieu of my MediaImpression software and portable intercom. If you're starting fresh and want the best quality videos you would be wise to consider these upgrades. That said, you've seen me produce pretty decent videos for over two years using my current setup so those products certainly aren't necessities.

There's no way around the fact that it takes some time to do all this - especially in the editing process, and especially if you're picky about the final result and want everything fit together just perfect. Once I start I tend not to stop until I feel it's finished - and that can mean many hours in front of the computer, sometimes late into the night. I think the end result is worth the time but you can probably now see why I post about plenty of flights sans video... if I know I won't have the time to edit, I don't even hook the equipment up.

Thanks again to you readers for inspiring this post. It's probably a lot longer and more detailed than you asked for but I wanted to cover all the bases. I really hope this gives you a good idea of how I capture video and audio, piece it all together, and form a somewhat coherent movie when all's said and done!


  1. Thanks for the detailed write up!

  2. Gtreat post! The details are very much appreciated.

    I really need to update what I have for flight video. Maybe I'll finally take the plunge and step up in equipment.

  3. One thing I think I'd really like to add to my collection is some sort of helmet-cam. I really like the idea of capturing everything from the pilot's POV.

    The main issue that has kept me from buying one to date is that most don't have external mic inputs. However, I have seen at least one newer camera with that functionality. There's always the other solution of using a separate audio recorder and syncing the audio/video in editing - which I need better software for.

    If I had two cameras, I could have a lot more fun and be a bit more creative piecing the whole thing together. It would be fun to have a camera on our faces along with the POV to the outside.

    One of my favorite recent vids (because of the smiling kids' faces) is this one ( from a Young Eagles rally. Great stuff.

  4. Forgot to tell you that this was a great post ... can we share is on the site?

    Also thought of you while watching this:

  5. @Rich - absolutely, feel free to share.

    Love that video, too!

  6. Steve,
    Great information! I'm in the process of setting up a YouTube channel for my Pilots Association chapter, and I've been looking at various cameras to use. This helps out quite a bit!

    1. Glad it helped! If I were to start today, I'd probably get a new GoPro. Make sure whatever you get has an external input if you want to record intercom audio, though. I've also been using an intercom recording cable that's way better in quality and simplicity than my older setup. Finally, I think I've settled on Adobe Premiere Elements 11 as my software of choice - lots of features and it won't break the bank.

  7. Hi Steve,

    I was wondering what specific cable you used for this operation to get the audio from the radios. The link you provided was to a selection of cables. I just want to make sure to buy the right one and not waste money as I may end up using this set up within the next couple of months.


    1. Andrew - the cable I settled on was made by Barnstormer Audio, though they don't appear to be in business anymore. But there are similar cables available that convert the headset output to a 3.5mm audio plug.

      Aircraft Spruce has a nice selection: