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Drones – How will it affect the Future in the way we look at Cinematography

Drones – how will it affect the Future in the way we look at Cinematography

Drones, once only used by the military as surveillance devices, have truly revolutionized the world of filmmaking and cinematography. The possibilities are endless because it is a mere beginning which has shown us glimpses of what the future can offer. Going into the depths of the technology, and the way it is shaping up clears one thing – it’s not just the crane shots that will be replaced by drones or aerial shots where they are needed. There’s a lot more to the world of drones in cinematography, and its applications range from documentaries, research, cinema, weddings, among some major cinematic uses.

Some Early Films shot using Drone

  • Earlier Films

Some of the earlier films shot using drone technology are The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), several Harry Potter movies, the Kite Runner (2007), among others. There has been a consistent upswing in this century about the use of a technology that can make it more flexible and fluent to shoot action and fight sequences, and also put together some brilliant subjective shots.

  • Skyfall

One of the first 333 FAA Exemptions for closed-set filming using Drones came as a result of this film. The amazing opening bike-chase scene was shot using fly-cam technology that also won a Scientific & Engineering Award at the Oscars (2014). It was shot in Istanbul. USA didn’t allow use of drones for filming because of FAA. Like Skyfall, even Harry Potter, and other films shot earlier using drone had sequences shot outside of the USA considerably limiting the impact the technology could have had.

  • The Wolf of Wall Street

The legend Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street employed Freely Cinema – a US based drone Cinematography Company to catch bird’s-eye view of the pool parties of the film. Canon C5000 with a Convergent Design Gemini for 4K recording was attached to a Freefly drone to capture some of the most breathtaking footage seen in a film. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand and 21 and Over were some other films which employed Freefly Cinema.

  • The Expendables 3

Another fast paced film shot in the pre-exemptions era, it had some of the scenes shot in Bulgaria using drone technology. A total of 33 scenes involved use of drones in filming aerial footage. Picture this – the opening scene of the film has a moving train, and a low-flying helicopter dropping and picking people up from train, bullets are flying, explosions are happening, soldiers are involved – all in all making it an extremely difficult shot for filming using traditional camera equipment. That’s where the drone cinematography by ZM Interactive came in handy to give them a truly cinematic feel without compromising on the quality of footage. Homefront and Sparks (both 2013) also involved aerial cinematography by ZM Interactive.

  • Chappie

South African director Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, coming after the much-acclaimed District 9, had intensive usage of drone technology. One of the character’s point of view footage, a robot’s, was shot using the drone technology. Drone Crew of South Africa was employed for filming with John Gore being the main drone operator. Consider this shot, with Gore talked about in an interview – where a robot chases a human, and flies out of the window at full speed. It was an impossible shot with helicopter, and cable camera would have not given it the requisite feel. Drone made the scene possible, and gave it an amazing organic feel that was otherwise impossible. Drones were used for Point-of-view shots of robots. Robots would be added in post, and hence this just cut the production troubles a lot.

  • Spectre

Another James Bond film to make use of the aerial filming of drone is Spectre. A UK based helicopter and drone based company – HFS or Helicopter Filming Services, founded by Jeremy Barben, provided the aerial filming for this movie. A 6K Red Dragon and Zeiss Master Prime Lens were mounted over the drone, and the Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema and crew operators Becky Lee and Derek Desmond were equally involved as the HFS in the making. Special permissions were needed as some shots involved shooting at night in the heart of the London, which is restricted.

  • Jurassic World

Team 5 Aerial System Rentals is a team that helped shoot the aerial footage from the perspective slightly lower than what helicopter would have provided in the film. It was shot in Hawai, with a Red Dragon camera. SHOTOVER K1 system with FUJINON’s 19-90mm Cabrio lens provided the sharpness and the range that the makers needed.

The Reasons of Using Drone Cinematography in Large budget Films

Some of the major reasons that filmmakers have geared up for shooting the big-budgeted films using drone instead of the traditional helicopter and cables etc are:

  • The greater flexibility of movements provided by the drones makes helicopter and cable movements more mechanical.
  • The more intuitive feel that it provides makes it much more real as compared to the other methods.
  • It cuts out the problem of minimum height required in the traditional helicopter filming.
  • It churns out more engaging and organic movements.
  • For films involving CGI character, it gives a reference point for actors to act if the character is to be added in CGI. It was one of the challenges for an actor, and much work and effort is cut down using this technology.
  • The greater control and faster turnaround time means that the productivity is greatly enhanced in the usage of the drone technology.
  • Some of the earlier impossible shots are now possible because the size of the equipment is much smaller and hence it can create some unique point-of-view shots involving both movement and emotions.
  • Some of the places where the availability of the helicopters and cable setups wasn’t easy and involved much of the production budget can now breathe easy, because drone technology comes in various sizes, and also can cut down production costs, including cost of travel.

Use of Drones for Indie Filmmakers

The revolution point for India Filmmakers was definitely the digital filmmaking. DSLR’s and Professional Camcorders cut down the cost of filmmaking by an immense amount, and the overall ease of filmmaking began to soar. It led to a rise of indie filmmakers from various parts of the world, and suddenly, content was again the king. No more was it important for filmmakers to have huge budgets to be able to shoot a film they wanted.

The second revolution, arguably, came in the form of the smaller drones that are affordable and easy to use, and help unleash the creativity of these Indie Filmmakers. Some of the biggest filmmakers of tomorrow are making Indie films today. That’s how they grow, that’s how Christopher Nolan began, making films on weekends on a cheap Super 16 black and white. After all, it’s the content that is paramount.

Many of the manufacturers of drones have employed a specific segment of drones for small-time filmmakers. The cost is much more affordable, and the usage is easy. Companies like DJI are involved in making very small drones, which have their limitations, but can get the shots that Indie filmmakers of the past couldn’t. Especially in current age, with the permissions procedure being clearly defined in most of the countries, the filmmakers are going out there and unleashing their creativity using some basic drone equipment, simply by the dint of quality storytelling.

Time Cash, a filmmaker from Bend, Oregon, is one of the many Indie filmmakers whose work was revolutionized by these mini drones. He says.

“It’s been exactly one year since I got the chopper. I use DJI’s Inspire 1 along with my iPad Air as the monitor and controls. I wasn’t impressed with drones until I saw what the Inspire 1 could do. The main things for me were: controlling the camera settings in the air (i.e., shutter, aperture, and ISO), as well as being able to control the gimbal and do tilts in flight, all from one controller. It also used a camera that wasn’t fisheye and shot native 4K at 24 frames. Bonus, as all my work is in 4K at 24 fps.”

His advice, which is a real concern for serious filmmakers around the world is

“Don’t crash it into people and ruin it for the rest of us!”

Sadly, there have been accidents reported all around the world. The technology requires some safety control and understanding, which the filmmakers must employ.

Use of Drones for Documentary and Journalism

One of the major challenges of shooting documentaries lay in preserving the real feel of the people and the places involved. A small drone effortlessly captures some of the most candid movements, without disturbing the lives of anyone. Obviously, permissions are needed. But more and more documentary filmmakers are feeling at ease using this technology. They do their interviewing normally, going into the places and interacting with people. But that tends to make them conscious. Drones get the footage without really disturbing anything, if handled properly.

Use of Drones for Wedding Cinematography

Wedding cinematographers around the world have geared up for the revolution too, making the weddings work way better for the couples and giving them the cinematic feel of the films. The production values look much higher, and in the hands of someone who understands cinematography, can be a boon of the biggest form. Already, cinematographers around the world have cashed in on the opportunity to make their wedding shoots larger than life.


It is beyond doubt that drones will eventually be used more often in all the spheres of cinematography. Causes of caution come in the form of not getting carried away, whether you are filming a big-budget film or an India film. Also, it requires some understanding, and the filmmaking has to be the central plot in everything you create.

References: Tim Cash Interview



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