Az Balabanian is a Cinematographer and Photogrammetry Artist specializing in Virtual Reality. His work is largely based around a cutting-edge 3D mapping technique called Photogrammetry, which produces eerily familiar 3D reprojections of places from this world. His love for Aerial Cinematography has taken him from Iceland to Armenia, creating cinematic short films, and documenting a vast amount of history.
He is also the host of the Research VR Podcast, hosting discussions about the Science and Design of Virtual Reality and Spatial Computing.
Az was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.
Talk about how you got into filmmaking. What are you earliest memories of using a camera? When did it go from a hobby to a career?
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon training as a classical Cellist, playing in quartets and orchestras once I moved to Palo Alto, California. My love of photography, cameras, and film came afterwards once I started using my father’s old film SLR to shoot action sequences with Lego’s. I think having a strong background in music has been extremely effective to creating beautiful videos.
How about photogrammetry? How and when did that start?
I fully embraced my filmmaking talent at my first job as Head of Creative at Upload VR, a VR focused technology media company, where I built and grew their Youtube and Twitch presence. I became known for a real-time compositing technique called Green Screen Mixed Reality [GIF] which is a method of compositing players in VR within their virtual environment. Using that technology, I started shooting commercials for VR companies, game trailers, and hosted a popular weekly VR Art + Music show which was often featured on Twitch’s front page. Being a one-man army, I had to develop real-time directing tools to be able to shoot and direct between different camera feeds simultaneously.
As for Photogrammetry, it opened up a new chapter in my life. Ever since I became aware of its existence, I attempted to use it as a tool in my university VR research lab to move from 2d datasets, to 3d (as we were mapping facial features manually). However, back in 2015, I had limited expertise, cameras, and compute power to truly take advantage of this technology.
It was only until I bought a drone when I realized how incredible it is to have a “tripod in the sky”, to capture every angle that I needed to to have a complete, clean 3d model of a house, building, or even a person. Photogrammetry was and still is merely seen as an enterprise tool, used by construction companies, VFX, and archeology to map out large chunks of land. Being a visual artist, I strive to unlock the artistic potential in this technology.
What were some of your first jobs in film? What are some funny or crazy stories you tell people about your career? Early mistakes or mishaps that taught you a lot?
Out of pain and necessity, I had to TRULY learn about every component of every gear I used, especially when it came to live-streaming. I became obsessed with keeping batteries charged, gimbals calibrated, and having everything in order for a shoot, because at the end of the day, I was the only one responsible. As disorganized as I can be with things in my life, one thing I’m insanely organized with is my gear.
As for mistakes, messing up the audio capture has made me redo shoots more than I’d like to admit. Having no film school experience, I didn’t realize that I could hire specific people to take care of specific tasks (sound, lighting, editing) as I wanted full creative control. However today, I love the fact that I can outsource talent from around the world to work on a project together remotely.
When did you get into drones? What were your earlier drone videos like? How have they evolved since?
From the very first take that I shot with a drone, the footage just looked so smooth and cinematic that I KNEW I wanted to shoot beautiful visuals for beautiful music. At the risk of sounding corny, gimbals cameras on drones were exactly everything that I had hoped for.
That summer, I planned out a trip through Iceland, Denmark, Croatia, and finally Armenia to film Cinematic Shorts in each country. I ditched my laptop and brought only my iPhone 7, and using the DJI Go 4 app, I shot, edited, and published everything on mobile. The responses I got from my friends and follower were incredible. No fancy effects and or fancy editing, just pure composition, motion, and music to evoke emotion.
How would you describe your aesthetic these days? What do you do to try and stand out on platforms like Instagram?
Composition, motion, and music are the core of how I film. I mention music because despite film being a visual medium, I consider the music to be 60% of the emotional driver in my films.
Composition is everything. When you’re shooting with a drone, and the camera can be placed ANYWHERE, having an infinite amount of possibilities can make finding unique shots more difficult.
Instagram has become a must-have for anyone in visual arts. It’s the de facto way of showing your visual eye. One thing I love about my Mavic Pro is the Portrait Mode. Shooting short 15 second vertical clips from a drone is PERFECT for Instagram stories, and really helps my content stand out in a sea of selfies.
Where would you like to take things? What is your dream for the next evolution of photogrammetry and filmmaking with drones?
I want access to a swarm of drones to keep shooting people doing incredible things in inspiring locations. Whether that’s for a video, or a full-on VR photogrammetry experience, having more tools on my belt gives me the option of choosing the right medium for the content.
I think Photogrammetry, real time engines, motion capture, and automated capture systems will become a major tool for cinematographers over the next decade years. There is a HUGE benefit of being able to 3D scan a scene, light and shoot (or rather render) a scene in-engine in post. Once you have everything in 3D, you can render 2D videos, 3D videos, 360 videos, or even real-time VR or AR experiences. 3D is a rich data format for that reason.
Plus, with drones becoming fully autonomous, I can see the space opening up for creatives to use these flying cameras with less risk and more creative control.