How I Got the Shot: Capturing Breathtaking Aerial Footage of China’s Countryside
The chance to capture aerial footage of the expansive landscapes or cityscapes of China is an unusual, if not downright rare, experience. For VideoBlocks Marketplace contributor Stef Hoffer, it was an opportunity to see a country he loves and has traveled to a number of times from a wholly new perspective. Hoffer shares some of his most breathtaking drone shots with us, as well as a few tips for tourist filmmakers traveling to China.
VideoBlocks: What Inspired you to capture this footage?
Hoffer: Over the span of a decade, I was fortunate enough to visit the ‘Middle Kingdom’ multiple times, usually for several months on end, either to travel or study. During those years, I visited many regions, photographed a whole lot, and eventually filmed even more.
With the possibilities of aerial photography and videography literally taking a flight in recent years, I felt there was one missing perspective now in reach. So the idea grew to visit China again to try and capture (some of it) from the sky, which turned into a 3 month journey across the country.
VideoBlocks: What would you say are the most scenic destinations in China?
Hoffer: China is an incredibly diverse country in many ways. This means there will be something interesting or beautiful for any photographer, filmmaker, and traveler.
In terms of natural landscapes, the rough mountains in the far Western Xinjiang province are a personal favorite. That said, I think many travelers will want to visit some of the national parks, such as Zhangjiajie (often named as an inspiration for the popular ‘Avatar’ movie) and Jiuzhaigou (known for its turquoise blue lakes and alpine mountain scenery).
There are also the surreal limestone peaks around Guilin, and a number of stunning terraced rice fields that are found across the country. The mighty Yangtze river with its famous Three Gorges should also be high on anyone’s list, not in the least because of its importance for the development of China as a civilization.
Villages and cities provide a completely different perspective. You can feel lost in time in the rural backwaters of Fujian province, while mega cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are just a (high speed) train ride away. It’s really up to the traveler what he or she is most interested in. I’m sure there is something for everyone when visiting China.
Shot at the Zhangye Danxia national geopark in China’s inner Gansu province. The park’s nickname is the Rainbow Mountains. Download it from our Contributor Marketplace.
VideoBlocks: When do you think is the best time of year to visit these places?
Hoffer: As with most places in China, the best time to visit are probably the Spring and Autumn. Summers can be ferociously hot or humid, while Winters require several layers of clothing–except for in Southern provinces like Guangxi and Yunnan.
Foreign visitors should also take into account a number of Chinese national holidays, especially those around May 1st and October 1st, as well as the Chinese New Year, when it almost feels as if the entire country is on vacation. While most cities are fine to visit during these holidays, many of the national parks and popular destinations like Beijing and Shanghai can become extremely crowded and expensive.
This aerial video was shot in the Gubekou and Jinshanling sections of the Wall, about a 2 hour drive from Beijing. Download it from our Contributor Marketplace.
VideoBlocks: Does being a stock filmmaker affect the way you travel and see the world?
Hoffer: Yes. I think the biggest difference compared is that have to plan more. On certain occasions, I find myself compiling lists of subjects I would like to film and photograph. Most of the times, the items on the list converge with what a ‘regular’ tourist would want to see, like nature, cultural gatherings, bustling street markets, or places of worship.
Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get a particular shot that you know could be useful, but that you might not be able to get if you’re traveling without a whole set of cameras. Visual subjects like a traffic jam in New Delhi during rush hour, a political protest in Ankara, or filming inside a garment factory in Vietnam–all of these require extra cameras or rigging. That said, many of these shoots are also very rewarding, especially when you realize the efforts you’ve made to get to the right place at the right time.
Drone flight above the Hainanese coastline. Download it from our Contributor Marketplace.
VideoBlocks: What should filmmaker travelers know before they go to China?
Hoffer: China is a very safe country to visit, especially for foreigners like myself. More and more people are learning English, and several apps make life on the road a lot easier than before. As with any trip, of course, there will be moments that things don’t go as you wished or planned for. Sometimes you can still feel like you are ‘lost in translation’, even if you speak a bit of Mandarin. As long as you stay calm, however, people are usually very eager to help you. Do read up on customs and habits of the particular region you are traveling to.
It’s important to remember to avoid photographing or filming in sensitive areas. Like in many countries, the Chinese don’t like foreigners or locals taking photos of, for instance, military areas or nuclear power stations. When someone, uniformed or not, tells you not to take a photo of something, then don’t. It saves you, and the people involved, a lot of trouble.
A Chinese rower, wearing a classic dress and a modern watch, in Hunan province. Photo courtesy Stef Hoffer.
VideoBlocks: What are your favorite memories from the trip?
Hoffer: Many of my favorite moments involved setting up the drone. It drew a lot of attention, probably even more so because a foreigner was operating it. I took the occasional picture with the drone, but was usually too busy making sure everything would go right. There are (and will be) some snapshots on my Instagram account.
A Chinese boy looks at a camera drone at the ancient city walls of Pingyao. Photo courtesy Stef Hoffer.
VideoBlocks: What are the most challenging aspects of doing aerial videography in these locations?
Hoffer: I underestimated the climate aspect. The drones that are made these days are phenomenal and the camera gimbals can deal with a lot of wind. A storm, however, is just a bit too much to create stable videos. Even though the drone could theoretically deal with a bit of rain, the footage became instantly useless when a drop of rain hit the lens. Because aerial videography was my main goal on this trip, I had to divert and change plans more often than usual because of the weather.
Another thing to take into account is that foreigners cannot drive cars in China except for a few cities, unless they own a Chinese driver’s’ license. This can only be obtained with a residence permit. The only way to get to certain locations was by renting taxis and cars with a driver for a day or more.
Clouds race past Shanghai’s three tallest skyscrapers in the modern Pudong district. Download this clip from our Contributor Marketplace.
VideoBlocks: What’s the best drone to consider when traveling?
Hoffer: The DJI Phantom 4 is the only drone I have owned. When traveling by yourself, I think size and portability are extremely important. The P4 was small enough to travel around with, even though it made carrying extra gear a bit of a challenge. The recent announcements of the GoPro Karma and DJI Mavic Pro have caught my attention. If I were traveling with two or more people, however, I’d probably still choose the P4 over both of these new models.
Ready to take your own aerial tour of China? You can download Stef’s footage from our Contributor Marketplace. The independent filmmakers in our Marketplace receive 100% of all proceeds from sales. Every purchase helps support their creative endeavours.
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