Drones in Filmmaking: The best drones for the job, key obstacles and using them to capture the action
If you’re an aspiring or experienced filmmaker, or you’re merely interested in how drones can capture the most amazing aerial footage, you’re not alone. From high-budget film crews to amateur vloggers, many of our Coptrz Academy students are investing time and money into drone cinematography each year. And with good reason. Some of the latest innovations you see on the big screen have come from people using drones in filmmaking.
And we’re not talking about aerial shots of Coronation Street, or the fly-in to the Great British Bake Off tent. We’re talking about the Marvel Universe, Bond and Harry Potter. With the technology and opportunities growing year on year, the future is bright for the use of drones in filmmaking.
This week, we caught up with drone pilot Richard Steele, who was lucky enough to film the new 007 film, ‘No Time To Die’. In this case, he really does have a Licence To Fly…
Richard said: “I first started flying RC helicopters as a hobby in 2012, which then lead onto micro drones when they became popular. I started with a tiny drone for in the house then moving onto DJI phantom series with the old go pro gimbals. I then decided to get my drone qualifications and became commercial in 2014, but still continuing my career as a self employed carpenter. From there I did all kinds of jobs: estate agent images, videos and imaging for websites and Facebook pages etc.
“I progressed onto larger drones buying a DJI S1000 which is one of the old heavy lift systems, I was subcontracted to do some of the Robson Green tales from Northumberland series, an Emmerdale episode, then a number of short films, finally being put in contact with the chap who owns the super heavy lift aircraft you see below, which is called a “Shotover U1”.
“The first few jobs I did with this were the series “Vera”, “Midsummer Murders”, “Brassic” and a few others before finally getting the chance to film Bond 25 up in Scotland for the same company. That was filmed in 2019, since then I’ve done more of my own filming jobs for websites etc, and finally hung the tools up and finished being a tradesman and now I’ve ended up working full time in the wind turbine inspection industry fly “Alta 8 and Alta 6” for an American company called SkySpecs.
“The drone used for Bond was as I mentioned called a “U1 manufactured by Shotover” I can’t remember the specific camera but it was a mag film camera rather than digital. All bond films are recorded using magazine cameras not digital. Take-off weight of that drone for Bond was 42kg with a flight time of 5 minutes so getting the drone into position and getting the shot with perfect timing was critical.
“My tip to anyone getting into cinematography is to do a few freelance projects for free, that seems to be the only way to get into it and that way you can make your first show reel. Once people see the sort of shots and videos you can produce and you market it well via social media etc you may get noticed and picked up for certain jobs. Getting your name about is key in this industry and try and think outside the box and put a twist on what you do so your videos stand out from the rest.”
We had to ask Richard if got the chance to meet Mr Bond himself, he said: “No unfortunately not! I was filming with the stunt teams and they were using body doubles for the actors and actresses but it was still an amazing opportunity and a great one to have on my CV.”
If you’re interested in starting a drone business, or getting into show business with drones, then we have a range of training courses and drone packages to get you started.
Find out how some of our other Coptrz Academy alumni are getting on in show business.
How drones are used in big-budget films
While stunning aerial shots captured by drones is nothing new, a new French dramatic film Les Misérables gives drones a starring role in the action. From the opening motorcycle chase in Skyfall to the Long Island pool party in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, drones have been creating an immersive cinematic experience for viewers for several years now. Drones have allowed cinematographers to capture a whole new world perspective while incurring only a fraction of the cost of traditional aerial filming. They are currently used in most of the biggest blockbusters such as Harry Potter, Mission Impossible, and Captain America, and it is clear that drones are no longer a novel part of filmmaking, but an integral part of the production.
CEO of Dubai-based Sky Vision, a UAE business well-known for creating aerial videography and photography, Rashad Al Safar said:
“Drones and filmmaking go hand in hand nowadays,”
“Every establishing shot is filmed using a drone, where you see the location before you get a close-up so that the audience feels that they are part of the narrative. It sucks them into the story. Drones are useful in creating that effect.”
Filmmakers more than ever rely on drone technology to create footage that would otherwise be impossible. Rashad Al Safar says his combined passion for drones and filmmaking is what led him to found his company, Sky Vision. He described how in 2014 before he began Sky Vision, the technology was just starting. Along with his brother, he built his own drones to assist with the production and to shoot scenes in a certain way. He continued:
“I prefer creative cinematics, especially car shoots. I love tracking cars at close range with a drone flying over them. Earlier, helicopters were required to shoot such angles, but now drones have rendered them obsolete because they are so cost-effective.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that it costs as little as $5,000 a day to operate a filming drone, as opposed to $25,000 for a helicopter. However, drones have almost entirely eradicated the need to use helicopters in film making. Thanks to the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of drones, helicopters now seem like a relic of the past.
“You cannot fly a helicopter through two buildings, but you can do that with a drone. There are so many instances when you require an aerial shot. In such cases, when we want a single uncut shot, somebody grabs the drone as it’s coming down, carries it through into the house, for instance, or follows the subject. That’s when drones get creative,”
Time magazine estimated in that 2018 that the daily cost of using a drone for filmmaking was somewhere between $4,500 and $13,000. However, using a helicopter costs around $20,000 to $40,000. Furthermore, filmmakers and even YouTube vloggers are now making the most of drones to capture the best footage. But is this widespread use of drones creating a uniform style of cinematography? Will viewers continue to be wowed by drone footage?
One filmmaker is showing us that drones could perhaps have a more significant part to play in the future of cinema.
A drone in a leading role?
In Ladj Ly’s latest gritty French drama, Les Misérables drones not only capture footage but play a starring role and a crucial part in the story. Les Misérables. The film is not yet another adaptation of the classic musical, but a dark tale of troubled lived in the banlieue of Montfermeil. The tale is of three police officers, including one who smashes the phone of a teenager after she films him harassing her friend. Later that day, another victim suffers at the hands of the police officers. However, in this incidence, there are no witnesses or phone recordings – only a drone hovering above, having seen everything.
The pilot of the drone is a teenager who has been using the drone to spy on women, and he never intended to witness a crime. The police are determined to get their hands on the memory card of the drone before anyone else can discover their crimes.
As a result, the drone plays an integral role in the plot and action of the film. The primary influence for the film was a cult classic, La Haine. As a result, we can expect gritty, street chaos, coupled with the serene aerial shots provided by drone footage. The pairing creates a unique style of the film. Furthermore, the role of the drone in Ly’s film paints drones in a new light.
Traditionally in cinema, drones have played a sinister role, for example, in Black Mirror and the noir film Under the Silver Lake, drones have been portrayed as agents of voyeurism or menace. While the teenagers peeping Tom intentions are hardly flattering, the film overall places the drone in an important moral position.
In the current age, where many crimes would have gone unpunished or unseen without video footage, the drone is given the position as an instrument of justice. We have previously discussed that one of the most significant barriers to widespread drone use is public mistrust of drones. Perhaps the roles that drones play in film and TV have more to blame for this than we have been led to believe.
Is it time for drones to stop playing the villain in films to change public perspective?
It could be the case that if drones begin to play a more positive role in film and TV, the public will become more accepting of widespread drone use. For example, how about a medical drama where drones deliver crucial medical supplies? Or even an adventure film where some explorers trapped in the arctic are discovered by an aerial photography drone saving their lives? We will leave the plot and scriptwriting to the professionals, but we are excited by the prospect of drones playing a leading role in more and more blockbuster films and TV series.
Similarly, artists have used drones to question the role of drones in warfare and government surveillance. Photographer, geographer and writer has depicted drones as a dark speck on the horizon, a commentary on how drones are an omnipotent and even sinister presence in our world.
Matthew Biro, a professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan, said:
“If you think about traditional art and Renaissance perspective, the ideal viewer was on the ground with a stable horizon line,”
“And the drone takes us off that. It takes us out of our body in a certain way, kind of giving us an overlaid perspective.”
What are the technical and practical limitations of using drones in filmmaking?
While drones play an essential cinematic and commercial role in filmmaking, they do have their limits. Al Safar explained how typically within a film, drones are just like any other tool for making the film, such as a light or tripod. Drones can be brought in for anything from half a day for up to 10 days to capture the right shots. However, it is still expensive to hire all of the equipment necessary to capture drone footage. With many freelancers and companies carrying out drone work, it can be challenging to do commercially.
The battery life of drones is also a problem, which often means filmmakers require multiple drones and batteries and have to switch out the equipment frequently. This is perhaps an area for development and innovation. Al Safar continued:
“We once had to live broadcast an endurance race where horses run for 100km a day in the desert. It had to go live on TV and with a nearly 10-hour shoot every day with drones it would have been convenient to have a battery that could live up to the challenge.”
Drone use can also be limited by weather, and filmmakers widely agree that drones could benefit from an improved capacity for heavy winds and none of them like using drones when it is raining. Rain obstructs the video quality and also puts the drones in harm’s way. Al Safar describes how crashing a drone can be a painful blow:
“We’ve crashed drones while filming. Sometimes, we were not insured and crashed expensive drones. It’s a financial setback for the company.”
What are the best drones for filmmaking?
When it comes to filmmaking, many drones are capable of creating the footage you need. Some drones are small and very reasonably priced, while others are more advanced if you are looking to make an investment.
“For projects that require a heavy lifter drone to support a RED Digital camera or the ARRI Alexa Mini, the DJI Matrice 600 Pro or the Freefly ALTA along with a DJI Ronin MX or the Freefly MoVI Pro Gimbal are used,”
Epic Drone, captures footage using the DJI Inspire 2, M600 Pro, as well as custom-built heavy lifting drones. Shafi Saidu, Head of Drone Operations at Epic Drone, says that the DJI Inspire 2 drone is probably the most popular drone used by filmmakers.
Sky Vision primarily uses DJI drones also, however smaller drones such as the Phantom and the Inspire 2 with X7 camera are an integral part of the filmmaker’s toolkit. Al Safar stated that they would sometimes carry out indoor shoots using the DJI Inspire 2 drone. They have also done work for the Ferrari World theme park, where smaller drones were required and for these shoots they the Phantom or a Mavic.”
Using the DJI Inspire 2 in Cinematography
We have already covered how the DJI Inspire 2 has revolutionised cinematography for filmmakers. The drone model has improved technical capabilities, safety features and camera capabilities. You can read more about the Inspire 2 for cinematography here.
The DJI Inspire 2 or Phantom?
We have previously covered the similarities and differences in the DJI Inspire 2 and the Phantom; you can read about the two drone models here.
As we have seen, the possibilities for using drones in filmmaking are endless – from the somewhat ‘traditional’ aerial videography that we have almost become used to, to having drones play a ‘character’ in the plot of a film.
We are excited to see what comes next for drones in filmmaking, but also how drone designers and engineers will develop drones to overcome the challenges highlighted by filmmakers using drones in their projects. As those in film continue to push the boundaries of what they wish to capture, so to will drones develop in line with the requirements of the industry.
Commercial Drone Use in the UK – Aerial Photography, Videography and more
If you’re looking to utilise drones in your business or film making project, chat to our team about how we can help you. We’ve helped many businesses realise their full potential using drone technology, across a wide variety of sectors including defence, hospitals and medical supplies, events business, photography and the wedding sector, radio and television, sports, tourism, real estate and many many more.
When you contact us, we will listen to the scope and requirements of your project, and then make recommendations on the best drones for you. We also offer drone training, making us a one-stop solution for starting to use drones in your business. You can find out more about our UK leading Drone Academy here.
We have launched an incredible Drone Photography Package, the No.1 in the UK – find out more here.