2015 is destined to go down in history books as the year of the drone. A quick scan of the floor at NAB revealed new, lower-cost, more advanced drone technology everywhere. As a producer, director or cinematographer, you may have merely a passing interest in drones, but your projects in the future undoubtedly will utilize them to capture shots that are barely conceivable today. Drones provide that sweet spot for placing your camera in locations that were never before possible, for significantly less money and simpler logistics than using full-sized aircraft. Drones are smaller, lighter and quicker to set up and use than long jib arms and Technocranes that typically max out at 15 to 30 feet in length.
BETWEEN TOY AND TOOL
A little research reveals that for a mere $89.99, you now can buy a Sky Viper Camera Drone Quadcopter from your local Toys R Us toy store. The Sky Viper is capable of flight up to 100 feet in altitude and is able to shoot up to 30 minutes of 640×480 standard-definition video or 25,000 still images. Think about the implications of this for a moment. For less than $100, you now can own a device capable of remote-control, unmanned flight while recording video and still images. While the Sky Viper is a toy, not a pro-quality tool, the fact that the same basic technology that recently cost tens of thousands of dollars is now available to anyone for such a minuscule cost means that drone technology finally has reached low-cost parity. Just as Moore’s Law first applied to computers, then smartphones, the technical sophistication and the quality of images drones are capable of capturing will continue to rapidly increase as the cost continues to rapidly fall. Better, cheaper and faster are the operating principles in this technology evolution.
CAMERA COMPANIES ARE IN, TOO
The latest generation of pro-level drones is capable of carrying heavier payloads for longer flight times. The days of drones only being capable of carrying GoPros or small DSLR-type cameras have evolved to octocopters capable of carrying heavier cameras like the RED EPIC DRAGON. ARRI introduced the ALEXA Mini at NAB 2015, specifically aimed at productions that are shooting on the ALEXA and need specialized shots that only a drone can obtain. What we’re seeing is maturity in how drones are deployed and used in all levels of film and television.
USING DRONES IN YOUR PRODUCTION
What are the practical aspects of successfully utilizing drones in your production? We checked in with several drone pilots and production companies on what it takes to put drones to work on projects from a producer’s perspective. Not surprisingly, there are many other considerations that go well beyond technology. Drones, like any newer, popular production tool, have experienced a period where innovation eclipses practical concerns. For a time, using drones in production has been a bit of an unregulated free-for-all. Where does the line fall between hobbyists utilizing their $2,500 drone for some beauty shots for their production versus a professional drone company utilizing their $50,000 octocopter for dazzling shots of a car chase for a feature spy movie? The U.S. government, through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), recently has created new legislation and rules that will directly affect your ability to utilize drones in your productions (more about Federal regulations and the Section 333 Exemption later).
Production insurance underwriters are working on standardizing policies to cover drone production. Anytime new technology like drones gains a foothold in film and television production, rules, regulations, safety concerns and workflow issues rapidly raise their heads. A valuable resource for producers to utilize in drone production is a newly formed alliance of camera drone users, enthusiasts and professionals. Founded in 2013, the Society of Aerial Cinematography (www.facebook.com/thesoac, twitter.com/@The_SOAC) is a new group that was initiated by aerial cinematography enthusiast Robert Rodriguez, who’s also director of technical operations for Technicolor Creative Services in Hollywood.
"What we’re doing is making sure that people have a central place to come to for information about drones and the practical aspects of using drones in production," explains Rodriguez. "Section 333 is the exemption you file under for commercial use of drones. In terms of the insurance, there’s sort of a weird gray area. Most of the professional drone operators and companies carry their own insurance. When the FAA implemented their new drone regulations and procedures, there were originally only seven companies exempted for commercial drone use in production, but now we have over a dozen companies who are exempted for production use, and the market is growing."
Like many aspects of production, working with top-notch, professional service providers costs more than "doing it yourself." With professional results available with relatively low-cost drones in the $1,200 to $4,000 range, why would a lower-budget production want to hire a professional drone company? There are several considerations to take into account, the primary being compliance with the law. Under the letter of the law, the FAA prohibits the use of drones in commercial enterprises (this covers many other uses of drones besides production), other than under an exemption to the law, which is only granted to a dozen or so approved drone production companies/operators. The FAA allows the use of personal drones for "model aircraft operations for hobby or recreational purposes only." This is where producers often opt for the do-it-yourself model in order to save budget, even though under the letter of the law, production generally isn’t a hobby or recreation, but a business.
There are risks to the do-it-yourself model that you need to become familiar with. Working with a Section 333-exempted drone company on a professional production requires the drone company to file with the FAA, obtaining flight plan permission, safety requirements, insurance and usually a team of two to four experts to safely coordinate and deploy the drone. Doing it yourself, producers often just will purchase a drone and camera system and start shooting with it. In the DIY model, there has been no notification to the FAA of flight plans, and a nonprofessional drone pilot might exceed the altitude ceiling the FAA allows, putting regular aircraft at risk if they collide with the drone, resulting in an air disaster. A nonprofessional drone operator might also lose control of the drone, injuring or killing innocent people. Buying your own drone and occasionally using it for a quick shot may seem tempting, especially when budgets are tight, but the smaller, lighter prosumer drones that are the most popular tend to give the neophyte pilot a false sense of skill because they seem to be so easy to fly.
If you’d like to take a look at the hoops that a company or pilot must jump through in order to legally fly drones for commercial usage, the following link connects you to instructions for petitioning the FAA for the Section 333 Exemption, www.faa.gov/uas/legislative_programs/section_333/. As of press time, there are currently about a dozen companies in the U.S. that are qualified, although it’s probable that this number will grow as drones increase in popularity.
THE TEAM APPROACH
As you might imagine, while less costly than hiring a full-sized aircraft, employing a drone company and doing it the right way costs a considerable amount of money. Keep in mind, though, that professional drone pilots are highly skilled, and it’s mandatory to have a drone pilot, separate camera operator and spotter on a professional drone team. This allows the pilot to concentrate on safely piloting the aircraft, avoiding obstacles and preventing dangerous or unsafe proximity to people, while a skilled camera operator optimizes the camera’s framing to capture what the director desires, angle to the sun or other light sources, often riding exposure, sometimes utilizing follow focus, and monitoring battery and media usage. The Internet is well populated with YouTube videos and accounts of amateur pilots accidentally crashing drones. Besides the obvious expense of destroying expensive equipment, there are serious safety considerations to take into account. With the 2014 train death of a crewmember in Georgia while filming a Gregg Allman biopic called Midnight Rider fresh in everyone’s mind, safety is now more of a consideration than it has ever been.
Drew Roberts is company founder, drone engineer and main pilot for Wild Rabbit Productions (wildrabbitproductions.com), a company that recently received their FAA 333 Exemption. Roberts explains, "We actually have an in-house producer who interfaces directly with all of the producers that we work with. Having somebody who can act as a liaison between the pilot team, the technical limitations of the gear and the producer/client’s needs has proven to be a valuable asset for us. We want to be in early on during the preproduction process because it helps us to be prepared for whatever the creative challenges may be in obtaining the shots the director wants. Things have become much more complicated on our end. David Radin, our producer, is an FAA-licensed pilot who’s familiar with charts, airspace, how the government works, pulling permits, getting our flight plans approved. Now that the FAA, the permit offices and local government are working together, it’s getting smoother, but it can still be a challenge. We’re constantly educating our clients about what can and can’t be done."
DRONE ADVANTAGES AND LIMITATIONS
It’s important that producers understand the reasons why one would want to use drones, as well as the limitations that drones have. "From a production standpoint, one of the main advantages of using a drone is fast setup, breakdown and quick relocation after initial setup," explains Rodriguez. "This allows for easy deployment in multiple locations in one day and allows for multiple takes in one flight. Drones generally require a small crew, and because drones are lightweight, the complete packages are fairly easy to travel with internationally, as far as air travel. Compared to traditional aircraft, drones are cost-effective, cause minimal disruptions on set and are extremely safe in the right hands. From a creative standpoint, drones allow for almost unlimited creative possibilities. You have your choice of fast, smooth compound camera movement in three axes, you can position your camera as low as five feet up to 400 feet above the ground, a drone can hover completely stationary or move at up to 30 miles per hour."
When asked about the limitations of drones, Rodriguez responds, "If dialogue is critical to the scene, the noise of the drone is too loud. If you need to capture the exact same take multiple times, drones aren’t a motion-control rig, there are variances in the movement. Some talent aren’t comfortable around drones, and you don’t want to use a drone anytime there’s a safety concern to cast or crew."
DIFFERENT TOOLS FOR DIFFERENT JOBS
Besides the crew and cost considerations, there are equipment decisions you need to make. You might think that a small, inexpensive camera like a GoPro HERO4 typically would be used only on small, lower-budget projects.
Dan Coplan, SOC, is the owner of Sky Bandit Pictures (skybanditpictures.com), an L.A.-based drone company. Coplan explains the differences between the sizes of drones he deploys for assorted types of projects, noting, "We have different drones to support a variety of cameras and productions. Cameras like the GoPro are often associated with and used for lower-budget projects, but even big-budget productions will use this kind of setup on a small quadcopter to put a camera where a larger camera and aerial platform won’t fit, like flying through a window. The choice of camera and drone isn’t always dictated solely by budget. The next step up is a hexacopter or an octocopter, typically used for DSLRs like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, though the Panasonic GH4, with its smaller form factor, lighter weight, and ability to shoot 4K and slo-mo, has become a popular choice. Finally, you have the larger, heavy-lift octocopters in a flat-8 or X8 configuration that support higher-end digital cinema cameras like the RED EPIC and, most recently, the ALEXA Mini."
THE AGE OF THE DRONE?
Drones continue to grow in popularity. Taking a look at some of today’s biggest TV shows and films reveals that producers, directors and cinematographers have quickly made drones an incredibly popular tool in production, perhaps even to the point of overuse. It remains to be seen if drones are merely a fad or if they will continue to be an essential tool in production.
Regardless of the outcome, as drones increase in features and quality while decreasing in size and price, visual innovators will continue to push the envelope by placing cameras in interesting and never-before-seen locations, hopefully defining a new visual aesthetic.
3D Robotics introduces a smart drone right out of the box
|One of the most exciting new personal drones in the marketplace is the Solo from 3D Robotics. Armed with a GoPro HERO camera, the all-in-one drone has impressive computing power, with two integrated Linux computers—one on the drone and one in the controller—giving you control over your GoPro’s controls, as well as wireless streaming to your mobile device or through your controller’s HDMI port for live HD broadcasts.
One of the coolest features on the Solo is its computer-assisted Smart Shot technology, which lets you set up a complex shot (Orbit, Cable Cam, Follow and Selfie), tap "play" on the app, and Solo will execute the shot like a professional "cinema" pilot.
3D Robotics worked with GoPro in creating an advanced gimbal that gives you full control of your HERO camera. You can start and stop recording while your drone is in flight, as well as shoot stills and change field of view, frames per second, exposure and more. The 3-axis gimbal can stabilize the camera to within 0.1º of pointing accuracy and even charge your camera so the battery won’t run out of juice midflight.
"Solo is a breakthrough in intelligent flight," says 3D Robotics CEO and former Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson. "It’s not just smarter so it can do more; it’s smarter so you have to do less. We’ve turned the Hollywood toolkit into software, and allowed everyone to experience epic video, both behind and in front of the camera."
Solo can be purchased at over 2,000 retail locations, and pricing starts at $999. (The Solo gimbal is sold separately for $399.) Learn more at 3drobotics.com.