Stunning film uses tiny drone to take viewers on “magic carpet” over Prague

Source: YouTube

There have been a number of time-lapse videos and would-be viral commercials making use of Prague’s beauty in recent times. But to my mind Magic Carpet Ride Over Prague is in a different league, capturing many of the Czech capital’s most spectacular views with gliding and fast-climbing aerial shots that take the breath away.

Jeffrey Martin, John Caulkins, photo: Ian Willoughby
The two-minute film is chiefly the work of Jeffrey Martin, a Prague-based, internationally successful panoramic photographer who has in the past won plaudits for a stunning interior of the library at Strahov Monastery – and created a zoomable panoramic shot of the entire crowd at Wembley Stadium during England’s FA Cup Final last year.

Martin shot Magic Carpet Ride early in the morning during the summer, mainly from a height of 20 to 80 metres above the ground, using an aerial filming device is small enough to be held in one hand.

“It’s called a DGI Phantom. It’s a pretty small white quadcopter, which means that it has four propellers. It’s got a camera mounted on a three-axis gimbal, which means that it’s very, very stabilised; when you turn the copter forward and backward or back and forth, the camera stays level.”

This is a departure for you, I think. You usually do panoramic still photos.

“That’s right. My work up to now has been almost all still photography, 360-degree photography. I became quite fascinated with the explosion of drones over the last few years, and finally I decided to get one.”

Were all the shots taken on the same drone, or did you use different machines?

“We used two different ones, but they were almost all shot from the single machine.”

What were the challenges of filming this kind of video in Prague?

“Well, I’m relatively new to the scene of flying unmanned aerial vehicles, so for quite some time I was practicing outside of Prague, in an open field, just getting the hang of it.

“It’s not a terribly difficult thing to do. It’s far, far easier than say a remote controlled helicopter, or airplane…

“Actually a remote controlled helicopter is harder to pilot than a real helicopter because when it’s facing the opposite direction from you, you have to reverse all the controls and it can be very, very confusing.

“A quadcopter is controlled by four motors. It’s mostly controlled by a computer, by electronic speed controllers. And it’s got various sensors on it which automatically stabilise it. So it’s quite easy actually to pilot.”

I noticed one shot above the tram stop at the National Theatre where there are wires beneath the camera, tram wires. Was that a danger?

“That was something that I was obviously aware of. When you’re piloting these things you obviously have to be aware of your surroundings and I was more than aware of the fact that I couldn’t just land the thing anywhere.

“It’s a fairly expensive piece of kit so I’m quite paranoid about crashing or breaking it, of course.”

Were people on the ground aware of what you were doing? Could they see that you were filming?

“In most of the shots there weren’t many people around, because we were shooting a little bit before sunrise, from 4:30 to 7 in the morning, so there were very few people in the streets.

“Yes – sometimes people could see the quadcopter. I guess it’s sort of what it was like shooting photographs in the year 1850. It was met with curiosity and bemusement.

“People were very charmed by this kind of UFO-looking thing. Many people had questions. It was quite fun. You always make new friends flying these things.”

There’s a wedding party in the film outside the Old Town Hall. Were they out and about so early, or how did you get them in the video?

“That was a sort of lucky coincidence when we were shooting, it was very picturesque at the Astronomical Clock at sunrise. Yes, there were some I think Korean or maybe Chinese ladies in wedding dresses.

“I think their custom is to shoot a book of photos and wedding portraits before their weddings. So they come to a European town like Prague and get a lot of picturesque shots and then at their wedding they have this nice big wedding book of their portraits – I guess that’s what they were doing.”

Did you consider filming indoors at all? Or was that not possible with your technology?

“It’s definitely possible in a largish interior space. I would love to fly inside a cathedral for example. I did fly inside Lucerna Passage. That was about 6:30 in the morning, so there were no people there.

“It was a beautiful way to see the place, especially the upside-down horse sculpture [by David Černý], to see it from above. That was really nice. There were a lot of interesting shots that didn’t make it into the film, of course.”

Watching Magic Carpet Ride Over Prague, the viewer floats across the Vltava, over Petřín, Malá Strana, Charles Bridge and the Old Town, and soars above the statue of St. Wenceslas on the square that bears his name. There is a spectacular shot when the camera spins above the junction at the Municipal House, while the vistas across the city are simply gorgeous.

Accompanying it all is a piece of music by the composer Geraldine Mucha entitled “For Erika”. The video’s producer, long-time Prague resident John Caulkins, explains how he and director Jeffrey Martin came to choose that particular composition.

Geraldine Mucha, photo: archive of Radio Prague
JC: “This past year I met the great pianist and she was a friend of Geraldine Mucha, who lived in Prague many years and like us was an expatriate. Her husband was the son of the son of Alphonse Mucha.

“Geraldine lived a very long life and died a few years ago. She also composed some very beautiful music and when we came across it we thought it was just a nice match.

“That said, you could apply a lot of different music to videos like this, depending what kind of mood you’d like to create. But I’m very pleased with it – it’s very simple, just piano and cello.”

Did you consider at any point different approaches, such as making it slower, making it faster? How did you settle on the approach that you ended up taking?

JC: “When you’re flying the drone it makes this buzzing sound that isn’t very nice. But when you switch that off, you can imagine an entirely different world and hear some beautiful music. It really is dreamy and peaceful. It’s otherworldly. We call it a magic carpet ride because that’s the closest we can get now [laughs].”

It’s a fabulous film. I’ve seen many videos shot in Prague but this is I think the best I’ve seen to date. What do you intend to do with it?

JC: “I would love to stimulate some discussion with this film. Because in a way it’s an illusion.

“The city is empty, it’s tranquil, when in fact most people who don’t wake up early and go up to towers see street-level Prague, which is busy and distracting and full of tourist nonsense.

“And there’s become this kind of us-versus-them with the locals and tourists, and I don’t like it both as an expat and a resident. Neither of us do.”

Have you got commercial plans for the film?

JC: “I hope so. And we could do this in other places, so…”

That was my next question – do you intend to take this elsewhere?

JC: “Jeffrey and I are talking to different people. There’s been some interest. We had debated whether to go directly to a client for whom this might match well with something they were hoping to promote or sell.

Source: YouTube
“But then we decided that we could put it out and hopefully it would go viral and have a ripple effect.

“A lot of these videos you see are not in built environments. What’s unique about Prague is that there are very few surface parking lots in the Old Town. With a lot of cities you’d probably see blight, you’d see building that wouldn’t match well.”

And Jeffrey do you have any dream cities you’d like to take this technology to?

JM: “Well, I’m also enjoying shooting panoramic photos from this copter. Because it’s also a very nice vantage point for still photos. So I’m enjoying that very much – shooting different landmarks in Prague.

“I would very much like to take it to some remote places, some non-European cities, like Bombay for example, or some of these more exotic places. That would be fantastic.”

The film was launched last week, I think. What’s been the reaction so far?

JC: “Everybody loves it. It’s been enormously popular. We really wanted it to appeal as much to a three-year-old as to anybody else. We didn’t really do any PR, because I felt the film is really self-explanatory.”

One reason I liked it myself was that it isn’t commercial. It isn’t selling me anything.

JC: “Yeah. Both of us love the city of Prague. There’s something unusual and magnificent about the place. There’s so many facets – it’s mysterious and just so enchanting and beautiful. I can’t say enough nice things about the city.

“Of course there’s a daily grind here too. But in moments like this we do create an illusion of it being this poetic, beautiful place.”