Thor:Ragnarok: an Aerial Masterpiece with XM2 and Teradek Bolt 3K

Thor Ragnarok aerial footage was filmed using XM2 drone and Teradek Bolt 2000

Check out our previous XM2 post for their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Thor:Ragnarok breakdown:
  • XM2 Romeo drone
  • ARRI Alexa Mini
  • Primo V lens
  • Teradek Bolt 3000
  • RT Motion follow focus

With the launch of another highly-anticipated addition to the Marvel cinematic universe last week, I’m reminded yet again that I REALLY need to catch up on the massive storyline. Seriously, what’s going on in there? How many superheroes are there now?

But joking aside, Marvel should really be commended for their commitment to production value. The superhero brand and progenitor of childhood memories seems to spare no expense when it comes to acquiring the best shots for their movies, and Marvel’s recent $12 billion revenue milestone is a testament to that success.

Shot of cruise ship on Thor Ragnarok made possible with drone cinematography and wireless monitoring live video.
Shot captured by XM2 Romeo drone for Thor:Ragnarok

For their newest film Thor:Ragnarok, getting the right shots meant having the right team, and they chose none other than XM2 to get the best aerial footage. XM2 is an Australian-based production company that specializes in drone cinematography with locations in Los Angeles, Seoul and Queenstown. As members of the internationally-recognized Ausfilm consortium, XM2 has worked on some crazy big titles like Pirates of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim, Aquaman (2018) and Westworld S2 (2018).

“XM2 has been in the scene since 2012, and we’ve grown from just a couple of guys who enjoyed engineering drones to working with major blockbuster cinema productions,” says Stephen Oh, CEO of XM2. Stephen has worked in the film industry for 25 years, giving him an extensive understanding of what big clients want.

“For Thor, our biggest job was shooting background plates that the studios use to develop into cities with VFX. These backgrounds are used for green screen action filming in the studios and landscape shots to create the cities.”

The Setup

For the shoot, Stephen and his crew employed their own specially-designed UAV, the XM2 Romeo, along with the ARRI Alexa Mini and Primo V lens. Connected to the camera was the Teradek Bolt 3000 video transmitter, a zero-delay wireless system that sends live video to a receiver up to 3000 ft. away.

XM2 Romeo with ARRI Alexa Mini and Teradek Bolt 3000
XM2 Romeo drone with Alexa Mini and Teradek Bolt 3000

On the ground, the production team set up a Bolt receiver connected to a Teradek Antenna Array, which offers stronger and more robust signal detection through RF interference. This picked up a real-time video feed from the drone, which pushed the feed to the Bolt receiver and then to an Atomos Shogun monitor, which they used to see and maneuver the drone. RT Motion was used for remote follow focus.

An Alternative to Traditional Aerial

Drones have become an essential tool for modern-day filmmaking, and was especially useful in capturing the grandeur of landscapes in the Thor universe. Since 90% of Marvel movies are post-production VFX, plates were essential for the movie, and aerial shots were a big part of it.

While traditional aerial gear like a Technocrane or helicopter would be used to get the right shots, bringing that type of equipment through mountainous terrain would’ve been expensive and impractical. Not only are those tools heavy to transport, they offer little mobility and don't have the maneuverability for this kind of scenario.

XM2 crew preparing drone for a day of shooting for Thor Ragnarok
Preparing the drone for operation.

That’s where XM2 comes in. Under instructions from Director Taika Waititi and VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison, XM2 shot background plates in New Zealand and Western Australia that would be used for many Asgard scenes, including the scene with jet-fighting above the junkyard.

“One of the aerial shots they wanted was at the bottom of a waterfall,” Stephen explains. “If we had a Technocrane or traditional gear, it’d be almost impossible to get the right angles, not to mention the rocky terrain that ground gear would sit on.”

“With our drone, all we had to do was hike to the bottom of the cliff, get the drone in the air, capture the shots and we were done. By using drones, you cut the setup time by a huge amount, which means less time spent on location and more time for the VFX team in post.”

Bolt of Lightning

While drones can accomplish a lot in cinematography these days, there’s one asset that’s critical for every drone workflow: zero-delay video. Time is a premium when filming on location, and giving the DP a real-time view of the shot is critical to acquisition especially on tricky aerial shots.

Bolt antenna array on set of Thor Ragnarok with XM2
Teradek Bolt Antenna Array was used to ensure lossless live video transmission for real-time monitoring.

For this, XM2 relied on Teradek’s Bolt 3000. The Bolt 3000 delivers real-time video to receivers up to 3000 ft. away, which gave Stephen and his crew more than enough range to always have a clear view. It also allowed them to make adjustments in real-time, making their workflow much more efficient than shooting blind or with extra frames of latency.

“We absolutely need that instant imagery when we’re shooting. When you have 700-800 people on set, there can’t be any delays, so we need it to be working guaranteed every time,” says Stephen. “In the thousands of hours we’ve spent on set using it on our drones, the Teradek has never failed us once. We’ve tested other products out there before, but Teradek is truly the brand big productions expect to see on set.”

Mountains of New Zealand for Thor Ragnarok

“In the next few months, we’ll be seeing a lot of releases where we played a major part in the cinematography: Aquaman, Pacific Rim 2, Westworld Season 2, and Asura. Of course, the Bolt was used on all of those as well, so we can expect some more great stories too!”

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