In Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond says, “Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Now there is one more element to that mix: drones. And that close-up can pull back, rise up into the air, and in one continuous shot show you all of Beverly Hills as if you’re looking down from heaven. Drones’ potential has not been lost on Hollywood.
At Interdrone, the International Drone Conference in Las Vegas, Sept. 9-11, a group of technologists and filmmakers discussed the impact of drones on cinematography, safety on sets, and what the future may hold during the panel “Trends in Aerial Cinematography.”
The panel was led by Romeo Durscher, Director of Education for drone manufacturer DJI, and consisted of Robert C. Rodriguez, founder of The Society of Aerial Cinematography and a 20-year veteran of post-production; Michael Chambliss, a cinematographer whose credits include work on Traffic, Perfect Storm, The Italian Job, and Pushing Daisies; John Reid, Senior Editor at RobotDrone Magazine; and Jeff Foster, author, a trainer and producer of traditional and digital imagery for 25 years.
The Drone Revolution
Durscher led off by asking the panel just how significant the introduction of drone photography has been.
Foster said that everybody wants it, but people are just not sure how to proceed. Rodriguez pointed to the fact that the cost of entry has gone way down, which has added to the boom.
Reid said, “You can’t help but notice the explosion in use that has taken place. It’s appealing to everybody.”
Chambliss went further: “It’s an explosive technology with far-reaching implications for technique and production. The complete lack of a regulatory environment is an advantage because it allows us to be able to shape the future for the industry. We are building the tools and building the regulations.”
The “lack” of regulation he referred to is because most motion picture studios work under an FAA Section 333 exemption, a placeholder until final regulations for drone usage can be created.
Durscher asked how drones were influencing productions.
Reid said, “What you can get soaring from five feet to 400 feet is amazing. What you can take in one shot was just not possible with traditional gear. The downside is that people are forgetting that the footage you take with the drone has to match the look of [your] main camera. You want it to add to the story, not distract.”
Chambliss tried to put the new technology in perspective. “This technology is being used all the way from pilots to major motion pictures,” he said. “What we have is a new vernacular in cinematography. In the 1950s cameras weighed 100 pounds and that seriously restricted what you could do. In the ’60s cameras became lightweight and it enabled films like Easy Rider. In the ’70s we got steady cams and it was all, ‘Gee whiz, I can run with the camera.’ But then the steady cams developed into their own visual language. Drone tech is like the steady cam. It’s a new way of thinking about shots.”
Durscher wanted to know what most impressed the panelists.
Foster said, “I cover the prosumer world, and in that world it is amazing the quality you can get with something that carries a GoPro. You can get different lenses for the GoPro and shoot in 4K.”
Reid said he was most impressed by miniaturization. “The independent filmmaker can now get what it took Hollywood to get with cranes and helicopters. Very inexpensive pieces are being created that are top quality.”
Chambliss focused on cost. “The impact of smaller crews is amazing,” he said. “You can now get sweeping wide shots that in a traditional environment would have taken eight to 10 days and 25 people, and do it all during the magic hour.” (The magic hour, sometimes called the golden hour, is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset when the daylight is softer.)
Durscher inquired if there were safety concerns with drones.
Rodriguez began by quoting Spiderman. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” he said. “It’s no different from a crane swinging a heavy weight around the set. You have to treat a drone like a blind lawnmower.”
Rodriguez also said that there were issues with actors. “It’s either ‘cute’ and ‘cool’ or it’s the devil and they run and hide in the trailers and won’t come out until it’s landed. There are a lot of gray areas, of course. What’s important is respect for people, education, and getting everybody on the same page with regard to the technology.”
Foster was very concerned about safety. “I’ve been vocal about this issue because I don’t think section 333 is the answer. The NTSB didn’t know what to do, so they pushed it off onto the FAA and they’ve been taking years to get anywhere. To abide by all the rules in Section 333 is almost ludicrous with all the paperwork you have to do. As long as I’m a hobbyist, I’m OK, but as soon as I charge someone money for a shot, then it’s a big deal.”
Rodriguez agreed, saying the problem with Section 333 is that it is open to interpretation. “It’s not rock solid,” he said. “There is way too much confusion.”
Chambliss put the onus for safety back on the industry. “How do we know people are qualified?” he asked. “There are different types of shots. Taking a drone shot of an empty golf course is way different from taking a drone shot of a family swimming pool with actors, and then having a helicopter enter the scene and a stunt man jump out into the pool. That’s a whole different set-up. We need to give people a path for advancement so they can start with the simple shots, then move up to the more complex, demanding work.”
Durscher next asked the panel to peer into their crystal balls.
Rodriguez was hopeful that batteries would get even lighter and last longer. But he was also concerned with the human element. “I’d like to see the negative aspect of drones go away,” he said. “We don’t want drones to put anyone out of work. They are meant to complement what we do.”
Foster was concerned with drone internals. He said, “I’d like to see collision avoidance systems that really work and have that extra level of technology which will get us down to sub-centimeter tracking and locking.”
Chambliss said he would like to see the FCC give the industry its own chunk of bandwidth. “Other areas I’d like to see progress in,” he said, “[are] more advanced stabilization so we can work with longer lenses, more advanced automation so we can just map the contours of an area and have the drone shoot it, and data capture so we can take images back to create virtual sets on top of them.”
Reid had the disadvantage of going last. “What they said,” he quipped. Then he added, “What has happened recently with battery weight, 4K, instantaneous downlinks – all this is amazing to me. The way it’s advanced, I’m thinking I’m going to have a flying car in four years.”
The grand prize winner for the Interdrone Film Festival, Jordan From the Air by Scott Sporleder, is posted below. Winners in special categories included, for Storytelling, Heaven by Daniel Feighery; Action Sports, Cinedrones are Awesome by Daniell Ashby; Reel, Showreel 2014 by Mike Gisselere; and, Natural Wonders, Beautiful Scotland by John Duncan.