Drones Are About to Change How Directors Make Movies
I’m facing off against Thor. With a drone. Well, that’s the story I’ll tell, anyway.
I’m in Calvert Vaux Park in Brooklyn, trying to learn how to fly Horizon Hobby’s 350 QX3 AP Combo drone. Winter Storm Thor—not, alas, Dashing Hunk Chris Hemsworth Thor—is threatening to drown my drone in frigid rain.
Steve Petrotto, Horizon Hobby’s exceedingly patient brand manager, is giving me an excellent lesson in drone cinematography. Despite his best efforts, it looks like my dream of capturing the perfect aerial shot might be dashed. This thing is pretty simple to fly, but my thumbs have the grace of Kanye West at an awards show. Instead of sweeping panoramas, I mostly just capture up-down, back-and-forth, and so on. There’s also a lot of random spinning.
But I know it’s possible; I’ve seen it before. In the fun short YouTube film Superman with a GoPro, filmmakers from Los Angeles used a camera-carrying drone to create a movie that looks a lot like what the Man of Steel’s forehead-cam footage might look like. I saw the same trick in Aerial NYC.
Those folks made it look so easy, but it turns out I may not be the Superwoman of drone cinematography.
But despite my n00b status this little white quadcopter—it’s about the size of a backpack and feels lighter than the average hardback book—executes what moves I do try surprisingly well. And I know, because Petrotto told me, that the drone’s camera has three-axis stabilization, so my images should look smooth, even if my cinematography skills are wonky.
Then, just when I’m thinking “Hey, I could drop $1,000 on one of these. I could be the Quentin Tarantino of drone filmmaking!” Petrotto takes control. I was trying to swoop the drone past us and got a little too cavalier.
“Sorry, I got nervous there,” Petrotto says, using his “buddy box”—the drone equivalent of the brake pedal your driver’s ed instructor always used—to steer my quad well clear of a lamppost.
Surprisingly, after only a couple close calls, I start to get the hang of it. Turns out, filming with a camera-equipped drone isn’t hard at all. The controls, familiar to anyone who ever used a remote-control car, are easy to operate. The hardest part is keeping an eye on the drone and another on the smartphone displaying its video feed (they’re connected via WiFi). Soon I’m speeding around the park, trying different angles. I even manage a “dronie,” which is of course a selfie taken with a drone.
It’s easy to see why this is the new favorite trick of a lot of cinematographers out there.
The emergence of pilotless aircraft presents some very unique opportunities for filmmakers. With drones, things like aerial shots and even crane shots become much easier and more viable. That beautiful 70mm swirling shot of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music? Today a relatively cheap rig operated by a really good pilot could capture that with no problem. Think of it as the most epic “dronie” of 1965.
And now that the Federal Aviation Administration is starting to allow the use of drones by aerial photography companies working with Hollywood studios and high-definition cameras are getting more durable and compact, those formerly tough and expensive shots are only going to get easier. The cinematic possibilities are vast—and definitely give unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) a better rap than drones used for war or surveillance get.
“It’s like when you look at your iPhone, it has more production capabilities in your little handset than NBC had in the 1990s—they surely couldn’t shoot in HD and edit and all that other stuff without millions of dollars worth of gear,” says Randy Scott Slavin, the founder of the New York City Drone Film Festival being held this weekend. “It’s the same with drones—people are taking drones to the ends of the earth and shooting beautiful amazing things that in the past would’ve cost—I mean, actually, who knows if it even would’ve been possible?”
By way of example, Slavin mentions a recent Good Morning America segment tagged “Game of Drones” in which Eric Cheng from DJI—another company that produces drones for filmmaking—got an amazing aerial shot of an erupting volcano in Iceland that was way too dangerous for any human camera operator to go near. The footage was beautiful, it looked like a nature documentary, and was captured from a safe distance nearly a mile away. (“…When we flew right over it, it was hot,” GMA meteorologist Ginger Zee understated.)
And capturing images previously unattainable, or attainable only by spending thousands of dollars a day or helicopters, is just the start of what drones can do for movies. “Drones literally go to places people couldn’t get to,” Slavin says, noting that the possibilities for drones for documentary filmmaking are particularly exciting. “I have a small drone that fits in a backpack. I can take it on my back, travel wherever I want and get amazing footage.”
Indie filmmakers like Slavin are in a good position to be at the forefront of drone cinematography. As long as they follow local ordinances and few other guidelines (the very helpful web site Know Before You Fly gives most the details amateurs need) they can power up their drones and get all kinds of incredible shots, Petrotto tells me.
Commercial outfits working with Hollywood studios need to get the go-ahead from the FAA, but the agency started allowing exemptions for that kind of filming late last year. (Previously, movies like Skyfall and the Harry Potter films had used drones, but they’d been shot outside the US, where they’re permitted.) There’s talk that the rules may change for civilian use of drones—the FAA is under a congressional mandate to craft some by September 2015, though they could miss that deadline—but Slavin says he imagines one day getting the right clearance to film a drone shot won’t feel that much different to filmmakers than getting permission to close off a street to film a chase scene.
Slavin’s festival, with its inaugural event Saturday, will showcase the possibilities UAVs offer to pros and amateurs alike while also making people ponder what, exactly, “drone filmmaking” is. The festival’s 35 films—culled from 152 eligible submissions—represent a wide swath of the kinds of movies that can be made using drones—from fun bits like the music video for OK Go’s “I Won’t Let You Down” to more sci-fi offerings like Our Drone Future. Slavin, himself a music video director who found viral fame with Aerial NYC, says the goal is to show what’s really possible with drone cinematography.
So whereas most film festivals have categories like “Narrative” or “World Documentary,” the Drone Film Festival is honoring things like “Technical Flying” and “X-Factor.” There is, of course, a more standard “Narrative” section, but even that one has less-conventional films like Superman with a GoPro.
The festival’s more nuanced categories also demonstrate that at this point in the drone filmmaking world, the medium is still the message. A lot of drone films are experiments to see what can be done.
Eventually, those techniques will, hopefully, just become another toolset cinematographers can use, like tracking or Steadicam shots. Until then, the use of drones for filmmaking is far from common, so film festivals like Saturday’s are necessary to celebrate an art form many in the film world don’t know exists, and would have no idea how to use.
Luckily, though, directors are born tinkerers, so learning a new trick comes easy. It’s even a bit fun.
“I think filmmaking as a profession shares a lot
with drones in that it is both a very technical profession aligned with something that has a lot of expression and artistry and craftsmanship in it, so the same learning curve applied to drones,” says Nikolas Pueringer, one of the directors behind Superman with a GoPro. “But it’s always just nice to experiment.”
There are, of course, technical hurdles to full-fledged drone filmmaking beyond learning to fly a drone. (FYI, Pueringer says it’s a little easier to do if you’re a gamer like he is.) Image quality and stabilization are still a challenge, and the battery life of drones doesn’t allow for long shoots—if the UAV is carrying something as heavy as a Red camera the flight time can be as little as three minutes.
But for directors willing to learn how to do it, or hire pilots that have, the future of “drone shots” (let’s just start calling them that now, yes?) is wide open.
However, it turns out the “how to do it” part isn’t so easy if you’re not already a filmmaker.
Back at the drone flying grounds, I’ve realized that while it didn’t take long to learn not to hit things, my shot-framing skills aren’t the work of a true auteur. Thor’s rains have pushed us back into our car and Petrotto pulls up my work on his Samsung Galaxy S5. It sports a cool bird’s eye view of the Earth, but my attempt to swoop the camera around and capture my very own Julie Andrews Moment was little more than spinning the camera around in a motion-sickness-inducing twirl. Most of my “dronie” is the top of my head as I stare down at the controls.
We laugh and call it a day, but heading back into the city I think, “I could get better at this…” And I’m sure I’m not the only one.