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Drones Are Just Another Tool For Filmmakers

Currently in the U.S. there are over 150,000 FAA Part 107 licensed drone operators. The largest portion of these individuals are engaged in the very broad film/photo segment of the industry. The many subsets of this group range from insurance agents using drones to document damage claims, to real estate agents, to high-end video production companies and Hollywood aerial cinematographers.

The Right Tool For The Job

It is easy for the average person to think that one drone/operator is pretty much like the next but, in reality, this couldn’t be more incorrect and here is why. Technically speaking drones are unmanned aerial systems, comprised of hardware, software and bioware (the pilot/crew). The cost and complexity of the system is most often determined by the intended end use. The local realtor, for example, gets great results flying solo using a small $500 drone that takes 12 megapixel photos and 1080p video of listings. In contrast, a Hollywood drone crew will employ a pilot, dedicated camera operator, focus puller, equipment tech(s) and one or more visual safety observers. This team will often fly drone systems costing north of $100K using 8K cameras and cinema glass that match the quality of those filming on the ground.

Another misconception is, since most drones are GPS stabilized, flying skills aren’t really a requirement. If the type of flying is straight up and down, for example, this might be true. However, to get dynamic, compound movements using longer lenses like those shown in big budget feature films, flying skills are most assuredly mandatory.

What Really Is A Drone Aerial Cinematographer?

While it is certainly possible for a realtor (or anyone else) to also be a very talented videographer for example (most are not), he/she is typically not really equipped to be a professional aerial cinematographer in the truest sense. Most only use drones to get the typical wide shots of homes on a given property being listed as that is the end goal. The most basic definition of cinematography is this – “the art or science of motion-picture photography.” Upon further examination, the drone aerial cinematographer uses a variety of gear to make creative choices regarding how the final aerial images will help tell a story by:

a) Selecting the best drone/camera option to fit the production’s “look”. Such as selecting a smaller drone for tight, indoor flying or a much larger one to get a certain lens flare during a lovely sunrise shot. Or selecting the best drone camera format/resolution to match other cameras used in the production.

b) Makes choices regarding camera settings and lens options to give a certain desired “feel” to the images. This may include under or over-cranking the frame rate, using longer lenses to “compress” the foreground to background or having a very shallow depth-of-field to force focus/emphasis on a tight shot of talent.

c) Films during the optimum time of day and at specific angles in order to capture the most favorable lighting to fit the vision for a given shot.

d) Determines how and where the points of interest will enter, exit or be arranged within the frame. This is most often when a pilot’s flying skill comes into play as managing the speed and position of the drone during the shot is critically important. For example, considerable skill and full team coordination is required to keep a moving subject in frame using a 100mm lens on a drone that is also in motion.

e) Being a professional drone aerial cinematographer also typically requires significant investment in gear. Multiple drones, cameras, lens kits, filters, follow-focus units, monitors and enough batteries for a long day of shooting are all usually needed.

Single or Dual Operator?

The main point to be made here is anyone looking to hire drone services, of any kind, really needs to understand (in at least a general sense), what overall system requirements will most likely yield the most favorable end results. Consider too that there a many, many levels of gear and operating skills in between our two previous examples, each designed and intended to fit the specific need at hand (and project budget). Without going too deep into the weeds on this topic, we group (and cost out accordingly) projects based on the need for either single or dual operators.

In general, for drone aerial photography applications, a single operator arrangement is preferred. One exception to this is when the flight area is high risk for collision or has other hazards. In these cases, for safety reasons, it is best to have the drone pilot 100% focused on flying the drone and on situational awareness. The single operator arrangement is also often fine for videography, provided the shots are basic movements and well wide of collision hazards. I can tell you with absolute certainty, the dual operator arrangement is safer in situations when flying in close proximity to objects is required. The quality of camera movement that can be achieved using an experienced dual operator arrangement is far superior to a single operator. This is why ALL Hollywood drone shots are captured by a pilot/camera operator team.

The Dual Operator Advantage

With the previous thoughts in mind, here is a list of the top questions to ask yourself in order to determine if a professional drone aerial cinema services “team” is a better fit for your production than a single operator:

  1. Are the shots required technically demanding? Do they require tracking people, vehicles or moving objects with precision?
  2. Can the shots be captured by a single operator without putting the cast/crew/setting at undue risk?
  3. Will there only be one brief interval/opportunity for the activity or event to be filmed? (one shot deal)
  4. Is it important that the drone/camera movements be smooth, flowing and consistent without unwanted jerky, erratic motions?
  5. Is the production fine with the same basic shots that everyone else uses or is something more cinematic/attention grabbing important?
  6. Does the production quality desired require a crew that are not only drone experts but camera/video production experts as well?
  7. Do you have the need or desire to direct the shots in real time during filming?
  8. Do you really want to keep doing takes over and over again in front of your client due to the singe operator not getting the shot?
  9. Do you want the project performed by a team of full-time professionals or is cheap and easy good enough?

In Conclusion

In it’s purest form, Drone Aerial Cinematography is about constructing aerial images that help best tell a story. Nothing more or less. Often it is used to convey a sense of place. Other times the drone perspective is used to get a dynamic or unique angle on the action. If safety and quality are primary requirements for a production, then an experienced drone cinematography team is recommended in order to get high quality results. But at the same time, don’t be shocked if the rates charged by a well equipped drone aerial cinema team are several times more that that quoted by a solo drone operator flying a DJI Mavic Pro.

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