To mark the launch of Nescafé Azera Coffee to Go, the perfect coffee for your morning commute, Time Out teamed up with some drone-toting aerial filmmakers to create Seen Before Sunrise, a video showcasing early-morning London. David Clack set his alarm for 4.30am to see how they make the magic happen...
Londoners, on the whole, are not morning people. As a city, we're generally less fond of dawn choruses and dew-speckled lawns than we are of snooze buttons and 11am bacon sarnies. If we see the sun rise, it's because we accidentally stayed out too late. A rare exception to this general order of things, the specialist aerial cinematographers at Black Bee Films are often in the office well before the crack of dawn. Today, that office is the roof terrace of the One New Change shopping complex next to St Paul's Cathedral.
I'm there with Al and James from Black Bee, wearing an inappropriately flimsy jacket and wondering what awful childhood trauma it was that pointed them down the path of absurdly early alarm calls and chilly cab journeys through an eerily deserted city. It's 6am, we've been on location an hour and the team are just finishing their pre-shoot prep. Even considering the stirring sight of the dome of St Paul's silhouetted against the gradually brightening sky, the whole situation seems little more than a waste of precious rest.
But as Black Bee's drone leaps two metres into the air, my eyes suddenly widen. Whether it's my nerdish fascination with modern technology or the gust of cold air the four rotors blast back down into our faces, suddenly I'm not so tired. Perhaps it's fear – barely a day goes by without a drone-based horror story hitting the press; could this hovering beast be about to take us all out? Black Bee's crew fend off such worries on a daily basis, and, to put me at ease, they offer to talk me through their kit.
A team of two operates the drone via a pair of handheld controllers and attached tablets, which display the images picked up by the drone's super-high resolution camera. James is the pilot (approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, no less), while Al directs the shoot and controls the movement of the camera. A third team member is 'on the ground' marshalling any early-morning pedestrians who might stroll below the drone's flight path, which is a safety no-no.
Intrigued though I am, it's not until the fourth flight – just after dawn, at the start of what photographers call the 'golden hour' – that all their early-morning effort starts to make sense to me. London is, for good reason, one of the most photographed, shared and hashtagged cities in the world, and finding a unique perspective to observe it from has become virtually impossible.
Looking over Al's shoulder at his screen, I see the live image of what his drone sees. With Canary Wharf in the distance, the sun pokes over the horizon and glints off the City skyscrapers, casting elegant shadows across the screen and throwing a bright pinkish light onto St Paul's in front of me. It's easily one of the most beautiful images of London I've ever seen, and it's made even more special by the fact that right now, at about 7.30am, Iíd usually only just be forcing my reluctant eyelids apart. So d'you know what? You can keep your lie-ins and your lazy brunches – I've been converted. From this day forth, I'm a morning person.
The final video:
Four drone myths debunked
1) We can use them to spy on people. Not really. As Al from Black Bee explains: 'The cameras on most drones are really wide-angle, so I'd have to get right up to your window to be able to see anything.' And with four rotors making a hell of a racket, that's hardly the subtlest form of surveillance.
2) It's illegal to fly them in London. It's true that the rules of the sky ban flying drones in 'a congested area', which obviously includes London. This is why filmmakers like Black Bee only use licensed, qualified pilots who've been approved by the CAA, get permission from landowners and keep at least 50m away from people, vehicles or buildings. (Learn more about the dos and don'ts of droning at www.caa.co.uk/drones)
3) They're prone to falling out of the sky. We can't vouch for the dodgy knock-offs in your local pound shop, but professional drones have a safety feature that returns them to the point of take-off when the battery gets low. And to avoid collisions, a law-abiding pilot will always retain line of sight with their drone.
4) They'll soon be delivering your shopping. Black Bee's top drone, a DJI Inspire 1 Pro, gets 18 minutes of flying time out of a battery – and that's without a bag of groceries weighing it down. Drones may soon assume more practical uses, but, until the technology catches up, you'll have to go to the supermarket yourself – or have your shopping delivered by conventional ground-based transportation.