Special Report: Drones
Issue: April 1, 2016

Special Report: Drones

Last summer we spoke with Holger Voss, VFX supervisor at Cinesite, about the visual effects work his studio completed for the opening sequence of the then soon-to-be-released disaster film San Andreas. The scene called for the Cinesite team to create a cliff, which didn’t actually exist, alongside a road where a car and driver would tumble over the edge as the first tremors of an earthquake began. According to Voss, the production team used a crane to capture footage of a real cliff on which Cinesite based the CG version, but he commented that a drone, equipped with a camera, would have been “very beneficial,” as it would have been able to reach areas the crane just couldn’t, giving the VFX team more comprehensive data to work with to complete the scene.

The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in film, TV, commercials, and all other areas of media is hard to miss and growing at a steady pace — in front of the camera as well as behind it. For instance, CBS recently aired an episode of its series Scorpion (below, right) that featured a storyline around weaponized, drug-delivering drones. But behind the scenes, they are infiltrating production and post projects at increasing levels. 

Director Gil Green is using drones, recently capturing footage for Pitbull’s Fun music video with a UAV from manufacturer Freefly, while CBS’s The Amazing Race, along with a number of other reality TV shows, relies on drones to offer aerial or other unique views of its cast. ABC’s Good Morning America sent DJI drones on a mission to capture rare and hard-to-get footage of an Icelandic sinkhole and into an erupting volcano for several live broadcasts. And major studio film productions, such as Disney’s Into the Woods, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and, more recently, the James Bond blockbuster Spectre, all relied on Intuitive Aerial’s UAVs.

Sam Nicholson, ASC, CEO and founder of VFX house Stargate Studios, says, “We’re working with [camera manufacturers] Sony, Arri, and Canon, and with [UAV manufacturer] DJI, to use drones as a matter-of-fact tool for shooting and mapping.”
For an early episode of last season’s Heroes Reborn series captured in Iceland, production crews relied on drones for dramatic, overhead shots. 

“We used DJI’s Inspire 1 (below) professional drone, which was impressive,” says Elan Dassani, owner and president of Stargate Studios. “It’s powerful enough to fly in very high winds atop a glacier and be stable. It has its own 4K camera with a three-axis gimbal, so it’s rock steady for butter-smooth shots. And it fits in one piece of checked luggage. We captured huge, epic aerials, which are so crazy looking that viewers will think they are VFX.” 

“What really brought [drones] to everyone’s attention, even on the cinematic side of things — the professional use — unfortunately, has been the hobbyists and the misuse of the technology,” says Robert C. Rodriguez, founder of the Society of Aerial Cinematography (www.thesoac.com). “It’s been over the past year and a half when everyone else started hearing about them — with the FAA involvement and everything. But, for years, drones have been on-set. And they’ve been used and self-regulated successfully, but because the technology is there and the affordability of the drones is there, they’re now in the limelight due to good and bad publicity.”

Rodriguez, who has been working in the industry for more than 15 years and whose full-time gig is director of technical operations and editorial services at LA’s Technicolor, says he established the society because he found that “there was a huge need for people to understand the right way to [work with drones] and there were way too many people with input whenever anything aerial came up that was drone-related. Those questions kept coming to me, and I kept getting in the middle of it. I realized that with the lack of information, no one person had all the answers, and I knew I personally didn’t, so I started putting workshops together. I got the pros in every relevant field and asked them to do presentations and get their questions answered in one live forum. Basically, I created a place to come to and not depend on hearsay, but to get it from the horse’s mouth, from all the relevant departments.” 


Another lift to the drone market, and a move that simply screams, “we’re taking this seriously,” was the National Association of Broadcasters’ decision to partner with Mannie Francis and the Drone Media Group (www.dronemedi agroup.com) to officially add the Aerial Robotic and Drone Pavilion to its annual NAB show in Las Vegas last year (www.nabshow.com/attend/drone-technology-nab-show), complete with educational sessions and an enclosed “flying cage.”

“I think [its success] surprised us to some degree,” says Chris Brown, executive VP of conventions and business operations, NAB. “We were actually almost coming in a little late in terms of how there was a buzz already around drones, so we weren’t sure that we hit it with the right timing. But I think the Pavilion was extremely successful. If you were at the show, you certainly saw that we had GoPro right at the front of the hall and DJI with a big presence. And we had four or five other major drone companies taking their own space, separate from the Pavilion. It all sort of just came together with perfect timing last year.”

According to Brown, NAB launched the Pavilion (right) because it was, in part, “trying to stay ahead of those trends. I think we saw that buzz building — that real interest and focus building around drones in terms of the great potential and possibilities it would represent for the feature-film side of the equation, but certainly for the broadcast and news gathering application as well. There was a really strong surge in interest that we saw, and knew, one way or another, that we had to be able to highlight that at the show.”

At the same time, Brown says NAB was also speaking with exhibitors involved with drone-related solutions in one way or another that expressed interest in doing more at the show. 

According to Brown, this year’s Pavilion, which has sold out, promises to be bigger and more prominent, grabbing a key spot in Central Hall. What’s more, manufacturers throughout the show floor all seem to be talking drones. This includes countless companies manufacturing drones for both consumer and professional use, as well as companies making peripheral products such as transmitters, batteries, and more, while camera manufacturers — ranging from the more obvious GoPro to the higher-end professional Canon, Sony, Black-magic Design, Arri, and Red — are all getting hooked up to fly. (More about cameras and other drone-related solutions in upcoming issues.)

B&H (www.bhphotovideo.com), one of the industry’s largest resellers, is exhibiting in the drone Pavilion as well. Christian Domecq, senior pro-user marketing rep for the company, says his store has seen a steady increase in sales on an “almost weekly” basis. “The number of new brands that we’re picking up and the amount of sales that we’re seeing — we’re definitely getting a want from the crowd, if you will. To be fair, probably more on the consumer side than pro, but not that the pros aren’t embracing it wholeheartedly.” 

Domecq points out there are production companies out there that do nothing but aerial work, so there are companies “making their bread and butter with this,” he says. “[They’re] probably not doing any favors to the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, but you know, what a drone can do, maybe a helicopter can’t, and maybe what a helicopter can do, a drone can’t. One of those things is carrying multiple shooters in the air for an hour — a drone can’t do that. But a drone can get under a canopy of a tree, and a helicopter can’t.”

Intuitive Aerial's Aerigon, left

Specifically addressing the post market, Domecq agrees that drones offer someone such as a VFX supervisor a lot of options to do 3D mapping of the environment. “It’s a really neat and exciting tool to have in the toolbox. But because of the FAA restrictions on who can make money with their UAVs, it’s probably not as widespread in terms of everyone having a drone in their production closet. It’s not happening yet. Everyone has, say, a Red Epic camera, but not everyone is going to have a $23,000 drone.”


Between consumer, prosumer and professional applications, there are, as one would expect, numerous UAVs to choose from. Many come equipped with their own cameras, while in other instances, users can choose which camera they want to use and send it up for flight. At B&H, Domecq says the store carries its own fair share of drones — both consumer and pro-fes-sional — from leading manufacturers such as DJI (www.dji.com), xFold (www.xfoldrig.com), Freefly (www.freeflysys tems.com) and others. 

“When most people think of drones, they’re thinking of the white model [Phantom] from DJI,” Domecq says. “DJI, they’re sort of the Kleenex [ubiquitous manufacturer] of drones, if you will — everyone has a DJI. And it was really the first one on the scene that was mass-produced. DJI makes a number of different models — the S1000 or S900, basically the same thing but different sizes, and they can hold a Canon 5D Mark III on the gimbal [for camera stabilization] with the battery and decent — size lens, and keep it in the air for 13 minutes or so at a time. Those are available at a wide assortment of price points. You don’t have to spend $20,000 to get one of these things; you can spend $7K or so and have a really nice system that will give you professional results on that style of camera.

“Now, if you’re shooting Game of Thrones and you’re doing a stereoscopic, Red Epic, dual-mounted shoot, for that level of production we carry a company called xFold, and they make these seriously-huge aircraft,” Domecq continues.

With a variety of models, xFold rigs range from the xFold Dragon and xFold Cinema to the xFold Travel and xFold Spy. Certainly on the higher end, a fully-loaded xFold Dragon kit, ready to fly, comes in at around $27,000, featuring a turnkey, dual-operator drone with radios, batteries and travel cases. It’s the company’s largest rig, designed for heavy payloads.

According to Domecq, also one of the “better brands known in the industry is Freefly — they make phenomenal stuff.” Domecq says the Freefly aircraft has what it calls a Mōvi, the company’s camera gimbal system, which can be under or on top of the drone, “so a user can choose two different, distinct viewpoints if they want.”

Freefly’s systems have been used on a range of projects, from feature films and documentaries to sports and live broadcast, including Mad Max: Fury Road and The Wolf of Wall Street. According to Tabb Firchau, president and co-founder of Freefly, “Drones allow filmmakers to put cameras in very interesting positions and create shots the world has never seen before. One can combine elements of a handheld shot, with a jib shot, with elements of a full-size aerial shot. This is what excites me most about flying/filming, being able to say ‘yes’ and create the director’s vision.”

Currently, Freefly (left) offers its Alta cinema drone, which carries such cameras as the Alexa Mini or Red Dragon (Weapon), and boasts a series of features. For instance, it folds down into a custom Pelican case in under five minutes, it mounts Mōvi gimbals on the top or bottom of the aircraft, and offers a Synapse flight controller, giving pilots “precise” control.

DJI, headquartered in Shenzhen, China, offers a range of makes and models at varying price points, though most in the industry are familiar with the company’s Phantom and Inspire lines. “I think if you ask most people to draw what a drone looks like, they’ll most likely draw one of the Phantoms because that copter format is what people are thinking about,” says Adam Najberg, global director of communications for DJI. 

There are four models in the Phantom line, including the Phantom 3 Professional camera at the top end. “Here, you have to bear in mind that this drone is 1.2 kilograms in weight, so it’s not particularly heavy and it’s got a 4K camera on it,” Najberg says. “You can fly this thing out five or six kilometers, and you’re still able to receive a 720p video signal while it’s recording it, so it’s pretty astounding what a $1,259 drone can do. If you move up from the Phantom, you’re now talking about somewhere in the $3K to $6K range, depending on what kind of camera you have on the drone. I’m talking about the Inspire 1 line of drones. So there’s the Inspire 1, and the Inspire 1 Pro. It’s incredible. It’s definitely not a toy — it’s a professional tool.”

Intuitive Aerial, a Swedish--based manufacturer of the pro cinema drone Aerigon, opened a new Los Angeles office in 2015 that is headed up by its VP Eric Bergez.

“When we opened our LA office, we thought everyone was going to love the Aerigon,” Bergez says. “Helicopter Film Services in the UK had just finished Avengers: Age of Ultron. Around 80 percent of the aerials were shot with the Aerigon. We have Dubai Film flying our aircraft. We feel like Hollywood is ready, and broadcasters are ready, for the Aerigon. It has this beautiful construction — a carbon-fiber exoskeleton, and all the components are inside. You can fly it in extreme cold and in extreme heat, and we feel our gimbal technology is as good as anything else.”

The company, just like DJI, also has several makes and models, but, according to Bergez, “the Aerigon is the Ferrari of unmanned aerial systems.”

The Aerigon (below, right) is a six-armed professional cinema drone built for use with Hollywood-standard cameras and lenses. With a manufacturer-approved payload capacity of 35 pounds, the Aerigon is able to carry more than 20 pounds of camera equipment, along with the gimbal, even in hot climates and at high altitudes. 

The Aerigon Gimbal, which Bergez referred to earlier, is a proprietary advanced stabilization system that works with heavy cameras, including professional zoom lenses and full FIZ (Focus, Iris, Zoom) controls.

“Professional cinema drones are a powerful new tool for modern cinematography,” adds Bergez. “Hollywood is already embracing the new technology.” 

As for where the industry is heading, Firchau adds, “I think it’s still early days for drones adding value to the media/entertainment market. As their intelligence and autonomy improve, they will be able to empower filmmakers to put cameras almost anywhere and do complex moves repeatedly and precisely. Many filmmakers dream up shots in a very similar style to what drones can create — floating through a space with complete pointing and positioning freedom. Increased autonomy, intelligence and situational awareness will drive incredible value and expand shot capabilities tremendously in the next three to five years.”

For more on Drones, follow our continuing coverage in Post and CGW magazines.