Aerial cinematography is hardly new. In fact, directors and filmmakers have utilized helicopters for years, whether for in-project shots or simply for planning purposes. For the feature film The Walk, a camera attached to the front of a helicopter provided the visual effects team with reference footage of how light changes within the city and how traffic moves, as well as the perspective of what it felt like to be high-wire artist Philippe Petit as he made his famous walk between the Twin Towers, 110 stories above the ground.
Using a helicopter, however, is often an expensive measure, making it inaccessible to those working on projects with lower budgets — mainly those outside the realm of higher-end features. Alternatively, users have employed wire systems or hard-mounted systems such as cranes for shots that are limited in height. However, that equipment is cumbersome to set up and transport. In just the past few years, though, filmmakers have discovered a new, cheaper alternative to capturing aerial shots: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
As drones buzzed onto the hobbyist scene, they already were making an impact in the professional realm, including media and entertainment. And, no wonder: They are lightweight, nimble and easily maneuverable, and can be used in tight spaces where alternatives are not feasible. And, they are relatively inexpensive to rent: A camera-equipped UAV (also called unmanned aerial system, or UAS) and crew can cost a fraction of what a helicopter shoot runs. And, it takes little time to set up a scene shot from a UAV.
Nevertheless, flying a UAV for this purpose is not for amateurs. Getting the right shots still requires an experienced pilot and the right equipment. To be as responsive as possible, the UAV needs to be lightweight yet strong enough to carry the necessary cameras. Which camera is ideal? It all depends on the needs of the filmmaker and project. (An upcoming part of this series will focus on cameras used with UAVs.)
The use of UAVs, or drones as they are commonly called in the public sector, has been getting plenty of media attention, generating both positive and negative publicity. Indeed, there have been news stories of drones interfering with commercial flights and public events. Late last year, a camera-carrying drone nearly crashed into skier Marcel Hirscher during his World Cup run in Italy, missing him by inches. In fact, there have been similar incidents, and accidents, reported around the world and throughout the US, mostly involving amateur pilots and local and regional events.
In contrast, there have been positive drone headlines, too. Last year, Good Morning America (GMA) sent a pair of Inspire 1 quadcopters from DJI with attached GoPro cameras — piloted by DJI’s Eric Cheng and Skynamic’s Ferdinand Wolf — into the heart of Iceland’s most active volcano, capturing the amazing view of Bardarbunga Volcano from just 380 feet above the boiling surface.
The drone systems had to endure wide-ranging weather conditions, from freezing cold and high winds to burning temperatures inside the volcano. But the results were well worth the effort. The footage showed the lava bubbling inside the crater and erupting into fire. The scene was broadcast live using the Inspire 1’s built-in Lightbridge wireless HD transmission system, marking one of the rare times that drone footage had been streamed live on television.
At the start of the year, GMA flipped the experience from fire to ice, again enlisting the services of DJI to explore an Icelandic glacier sinkhole. Using a pair of Inspire 1 Pro platforms, DJI maneuvered into the depths of the glacier, delivering never-before-seen images to millions of viewers. The onboard camera captured a team as they expertly descended thousands of feet into the icy caverns of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, switching between the two camera angles to show the depth of the crevasse.
Stepping up its game, GMA followed up the Icelandic experience with a drone-filmed safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, enabling viewers to watch the annual Great Migration in that region. Employing a DJI Inspire 1 Pro Raw and Phantom 4, GMA was able to traverse the open savannah to capture the animals in their natural habitat, seemingly unfazed by the slight buzzing overhead. This time, the drone carried IM360’s 360-degree virtual camera; as a result, viewers could immerse themselves in the VR experience during the live broadcast by using Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR head-mounted displays.
Director Gil Green first used UAVs, as he prefers to call them, approximately three and a half years ago for an international project. “The local production company bid the job out for shooting aerials of cars driving along a really windy road in Monte Carlo,” he says. “Due to the budget and us having to get low shots, using drones as opposed to a helicopter made sense.”
Since then, Green has used UAVs for a handful of projects in the US — including two music videos for the same artist. “One was a really good experience, and the other involved lots of the obstacles that can occur with UAVs,” he notes.
For the Pitbull video Fun, Green, along with co-producers 305 Films (Green’s Miami company) and Artists and Derelicts (Los Angeles), had to capture the look and feel of 1980s Miami during a one-day shoot. This included footage of Pitbull and his partner-in-crime Chris Brown in a speedboat, a segment that had to be filmed in just an hour.
“We were able to pull off some amazing shots with ease,” says Green.
In this instance, the group used a DJI Inspire with a 4K camera attached. Had they used a helicopter, the price would have been nearly 10 times that of the UAV, contends Green, while the setup time would have been longer and the communication more challenging during the shoot. “From that standpoint, it just made sense to go with the UAV. Plus, I wanted to get some really close shots,” he adds.
In fact, the UAV worked so well that Green did not have to use the support production boat (with elevated extensions for the cameraman) he had brought with him that day. “After I saw how close I could get with the drone, I didn’t need it to get the other shots I had planned,” he says. Also, the UAV offered a more stable platform from which to film than the support boat.
“It was an awesome tool, and we didn’t have any issues. That day it benefitted the workflow — everything was on schedule, and it gave me better shots than I had anticipated,” Green says.
In all, approximately 30 seconds of the UAV footage was used in the video.
The second Pitbull music video — this one a collaboration with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) — did not go as smoothly. As part of a promotion, the music video was filmed on an NCL ship, with Pitbull at the front in the midst of a big celebration. To show just how large the ship was, Green had planned aerial shots overhead, around the ship, and behind it.
“I wanted to film aerial shots of Pitbull, but we could not bring heavy equipment, like a technocrane, onto the ship. That would have been the traditional way to do this, to get 30 feet above the artist,” explains Green. “The UAV can go high and low, and has the ability to go underneath and around the ship — amazing aerial moves that are not good for a track system. A UAV can move anywhere, and a good pilot can get pretty close to the subject.”
On the day of the shoot, however, the winds were particularly strong, making it too difficult — and dangerous — to fly the UAV. “They never died down, so I was never able to get any type of aerial shot,” says Green. As a result, he had to incorporate some aerial footage that Norwegian had from a previous commercial helicopter shoot. Pitbull was not in them, though.
Recently, Green also used a UAV from Inflight Solutions to film behind the scenes at an art event in Miami. “It’s hard to believe that we were able to get these production-quality shots for a behind the scenes,” he says. “UAVs are so inexpensive today that even up-and-coming filmmakers will have a drone in their package that offers this type of quality. I’m starting to see these shots in wedding videos, too. They are no longer just for big-budget films, all because of drones.”
More recently, Green used a UAV for Spotify, featuring DJ Khaled, as he inspires people throughout the city to work out. A camera-mounted drone filmed him running on the beach and down a pier. “We had a tight window, maybe 16 minutes, to get the shots. They put the drone in the air and got the shots. It was amazing,” Green says.
For some time now, filmmakers have used UAVs for special shots, mostly, however, outside the US where laws governing UAVs are less stringent. For instance, Director Neill Blomkamp used them for his movie Chappie (2015), to obtain footage as well as to serve as a reference point for actors during filming in South Africa. They have also been used for scenes shot in Hong Kong (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Istanbul (Skyfall) and others.
Jeremy Braben, an experienced aerial cinematographer at Helicopter Film Services (London), has been hired to fly UAVs for a number of film productions, including Spectre, Into the Woods and Avengers: Age of Ultron — for which he used Intuitive Aerial’s Aerigon UAV. “We got into using them about two years ago,” says Braben, whose company has extensive experience filming with helicopters. “That was at the insistence of a number of studios that wanted to work with a UAS but wasn’t allowed to under the studio system, but could do so with a recognized helicopter aerial film operator.”
Like others, Braben points out that UAVs can go places that a conventional helicopter cannot, and because they have the ability to move in different directions, they can replace wire systems or other hard-mounted systems like cranes. However, he notes that they cannot replace these alternatives completely because there are things that a UAV simply cannot do. “But, they are another tool for the filmmaker to use as another way of completing shots,” he adds.
For Spectre, Braben helped capture a shot in central London that provided a point of view during a simple approach to a building, with Trafalgar Square in the background. “The director wanted to put the shot into the geographical location, and this was the only way to do it. Otherwise, it would have been a building just anywhere,” he explains. And, “we couldn’t have gotten low enough with a conventional helicopter.”
Braben’s foray into using drones came during Avengers: Age of Ultron. For that project, he used the Aerigon for numerous shots — both live action and VFX plates.
“On many occasions, we had extensive use of helicopters and UASs on the same day. There were instances when we did the first half of a shot with a helicopter, with a takeover to the drone,” says Braben. “It worked very well. We used that principle on a number of movies, such as Captain America: Civil War.”
A shot from Into the Woods started out with a crane reaching through the treetops, and followed the actors through the woods. Then, Helicopter Film Services took over the shot through the trees to the forest canopy. The company also recently acquired shots for Now You See Me: Second Act, with an interesting outside/inside shot in a large casino with various actors.
Braben has used UAVs to film in the UK and China. However, there are still regulations in place there, too. “The biggest challenge we face is where the filmmakers want us to fly and film, because there are still regulation challenges and restrictions,” he says.
Because of the reasonable price of using a UAV versus a helicopter, many from outside the realm of high-end feature films are benefitting from this new tool. In fact, Braben says he has seen an uptick in lower-budget productions using aerial photography from these systems. This includes television series, commercials and more.
One of the more compelling commercials using footage captured from a UAV is The Art of Patron: VR Experience, a longer-form advertisement that takes viewers on a VR journey to witness Patron’s handcrafted tequila-making process, all from the point of view of a bumblebee. The spot, which is available online and used at Patron-sponsored events, combines live footage, nearly all of which was captured from a UAV, along with CGI, and presented in stereo (see "Generating A Buzz," page 12).
The use of a UAV for aerial photography, both here and in other projects, goes far beyond the “cool” factor. It enables a director to get a novel point of view or move into a scene in a dramatic way. “Steadicam was revolutionary in that regard. Today, the drone is becoming one of the most useful tools of VR filmmaking. You have the ability to get really high angles, but you also can push the depth more than what would naturally be there in a captured moment like that, through 3D conversion,” says Matt Akey, executive vice president at Legend VR, which teamed with Firstborn to create the project.
With these advantages, however, comes more work for directors, who now have to consider everything that is happening around them, not just in front of them, when shooting with UAVs. But the results can be amazing, as viewers of the Patron experience can attest. “The UAVs had to maintain a steady sense of motion [that was] both comfortable to the viewer yet also provide a bird’s-eye point of view as we fly through the factory,” says Akey. “This gives viewers the ability to watch what is happening in one area, and if they watch it again, they can see something else happening in another corner of the warehouse and bottling room. They will have a different experience every time they watch it.”
JUST THE START
The use of UAVs to capture footage is increasing, so much so that it’s difficult to tell which project — film, commercial, music video, television series or what have you — is using the tool. Without question, the devices are gaining acceptance as a vital tool in a filmmaker’s tool kit.
A UAV from Aerial Mob captured scenes for recent episodes of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, Supergirl, The Leftovers and more, as well as for commercials for Nike and Tesla. Aside from Into the Woods, Skyfall, Chappie, there are a growing number of films in theaters containing shots from UAVs, including The Wolf of Wall Street. For that movie, a drone from Freefly, with an attached Canon C500, captured the Hampton pool party scene, starting from the coast and moving in for a closer aerial shot.
While the use of unmanned aircraft systems are not ubiquitous, they are gaining in popularity as the industry continues to reap the advantages they offer — cost and agility among the top. As Green points out, a person can rent a UAV system for 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a helicopter, and all the equipment can fit into a person’s hand. And, the devices offer the chance to capture some never-before-achieved shots — a filmmaker’s dream.
Currently, the UAVs used by filmmakers are limited in payload and do not fly for long periods of time (many for just several minutes). Also, they are limited in the distance they can fly, speed and altitude. “There are compromises to be made,” says Braben. And while UAVs may not be the ideal solution for all types of situations, they do provide those who know what they are doing with amazing results.
While some countries offer more relaxed regulations, there remains strict rules in the US: closed sets, no night shoots, use below 400 feet — and more. Indeed, there are safety concerns, particularly since they are so new. “They are in their infancy. Once they become more commonplace, people will become more comfortable using them. People are just learning what they can do with them. They are experimenting now,” says Braben.
Also, weigh your options, Green suggests, and determine whether a UAV is the best choice in a particular situation. “Eight years or so ago we did a music video for R Kelly and Rick Ross, and used a helicopter to shoot them in a so-called cigarette boat. We used a helicopter, and if we did that today, we would still use a helicopter because a drone couldn’t have kept up with the boat,” he says.
There is still a lot to learn. Braben believes the entire industry should be educated on how to work with the devices on-set. “They are considered a nuisance, a safety hazard, and seen as a piece of peripheral equipment. However, they should be treated with the same respect and reverence as a helicopter,” he says. “They are flying aircraft, and there are constraints, just as there are with helicopters. The aerial crew, whether flying a UAV or a helicopter, should have their decisions respected. On some sets, the UAVs are dismissed as this toy, but there is an education process happening, which will bring it the respect it should have.”
There’s no doubt that filmmakers will increasingly turn to UAVs to get unique shots. “They have already revolutionized filmmaking as a tool that gives professionals the ability to film their craft in a way that used to come at a great cost. As a tool, it certainly does open up a new world of filmmaking,” Green says.
Now, the sky is literally the limit when it comes to getting great shots for a project.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Post's sister publication, Computer Graphics World.