Drone flying over Hollywood/

Role of Drones In Film-Making: The Complete Guide

You may have seen some impossible shots in recent movies and wondered how they are possible with dolly tracks, helicopters, or other fancy filming equipment, but they were shot using drones. 

That’s right, drones a recent invention, but they have become instrumental in most industries, including film making.

Drones are suitable for film making since they can reach areas where a camera operator or a helicopter can’t go. They are also cheaper to use. A drone can cost at least $10,000 per day while a helicopter costs at least $30,000. Drones also take less time to set up compared to other filming rigs.

CREDIT: TIME

Please keep reading to find out more about drones’ role and how you can take some cinematic shots with them.

How are Drones Helpful in Making Films?

Drones have continuously continued to prove how useful they can be. Compared to traditional filming, where they had to set up filming equipment, the drone is relatively easy to set up. 

Just mount the camera, and you’re ready to fly. You’ll have a shorter filming time, saving more time for editing and marketing the films.

An excellent example of this application is in the film Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Men Tell No Tales. 

The Cinematographer, Paul Cameron, stated that it took them a few seconds to set up the drone, and the filming cost $300,000 per day. They would have spent more using helicopters.

Besides being cheaper and easier to set up, drone filming has made it possible to take complex shots. Conventional cameras often film the person of interest and leaving out most of the surroundings. 

Drones can capture the person of interest and the surroundings, ensuring the view is part of the narrative.

Remember the chase in James Bonds movie Skyfall. The filmmakers used drones to follow the actor as he pursued the villain on the rooftops. Flying-Cam 3.0 Sarah was used in this film.

Such a thrilling experience may have been hard to achieve with rails and camera jibs.

Drones are also useful in filming large landscapes, creating a narrative, and creating a film context.

A good example is in Jumanji. They used drones to film the vast jungles that the actors were supposedly in. The same case applies to Jurassic World. Usually, you would need a helicopter for this. 

CREDIT: The SuperarogatoryGuy
Flying-Cam 3.0 Sarah was used for Skyfall movie.
Flying-Cam 3.0 SARAH

When were Drones First Used in Film?

Drones aren’t the only flying device that has been used for filming. Cameras in flying platforms have been in use since World War 1.

The first movie to use planes in filming was Wings in 1927. It involved a dogfight where the cameramen flew alongside the stuntmen. 

It was dangerous and led to some casualties, but it opened up the floodgates for film and flight and a genre for action movies.

Later, a customized helicopter was designed to carry a camera. Over the years, helicopters have been useful in shooting several blockbuster movies. But drones have made aerial shots even more accessible to smaller films. 

Skyfall came in 2012, and it was one of the first movies where they shot some of the scenes with a drone. For instance, the scene we mentioned earlier of James Bond chasing after the villain on Istanbul’s rooftops. 

Star Trek: Into Darkness and Oblivion are other movies that took advantage of drones.

Drones were allowed for filming in the United States in 2014 when the FAA eased their regulations. That’s why most drone shots before 2014 took place overseas. 

Currently, every drone pilot needs to acquire a part 107 Private Pilot certificate, which isn’t so hard to get. And an insurance cover for the drone and any liabilities that may result from it.

To know about How To Become A Drone Pilot. Click Here.

What Kind of Drones Are Used In Film Making?

The major innovation that makes drone filming possible is the gimbal. This device stabilizes the camera and cancels the vibrations of the drone. Any high-end drone is suitable for film making. 

As long as it supports a gimbal, it can carry a larger payload (an extra camera) and has considerable battery life. Drone filming isn’t just about flying the drone. You also need to have cinematography skills. This way, you’ll know the best shot to take at a given time.

A drone with a camera shooting.
Drone with a gimbal carrying a camera to shoot

How To Shoot Cinematic Drone Footage?

To take professional drone footage, you need the right drone, a high-quality 3-axis gimbal, and the right editing software. Earlier on, most drones weren’t fit from filming.

They often crashed, and their accessories weren’t always available. Companies like DJI have released several high-quality drones that are fit for filming. And as I’ve already mentioned, you need filming skills.

Drone filming has three stages;

  • Pre-production – This is the planning stage where you gather all the necessary materials for the shoot.
  • Production – This is the actual filming stage.
  • Post-production – This is the final stage where you edit the footage, compile, and get ready to release the film.

Now let’s look at these stages and how the various devices are applicable in each.

Pre-production:

Preparation is essential for any filming activity. If you get it wrong, your whole filming project may probably fail. So, what should you do at this stage?

Get your Story “straight:

At this point, you have to decide the theme or the message behind your film. Whether it’s a movie or a recording for an event, the theme determines the shots you’ll be taking, lighting, and several other factors.

Reconnaissance:

You need to find the areas that are fit for your film and visit them in person. It’s best if you brought your drone to test different ways of filming. If you can’t get to the area, use Google Maps.

Google Maps allows you to switch to a “satellite view,” which is an aerial view of the site. You should also make sure the maps are up to date.

Have a shot list:

When doing the reconnaissance, make a shot list of all the shots you’re going to take. Doing this saves you a lot of time during the filming day since you’ll be moving from one shot to another.

Permission:

Different areas have varying regulations for drones. These rules may include the altitudes of flying, flying close to public transport and other public areas, insurances, licenses, passing close to no-fly zones. 

Make sure you check everything before you go filming.

Get the right drone:

It would be best if you got a high-quality drone – a drone with a high-quality camera or the ability to support a third-party camera, flight modes, and the availability of aftermarket accessories. 

Drone batteries don’t last very long, but certainly, some drones will last longer than others. Safety features such as obstacle avoidance, return-to-home, and GPS are other features you should look out for.

A film crew  with a drone pilot and his drone.
Film Crew and Drone Pilot with this drone

Production stage:

The action begins at this stage. Flying a drone is very straightforward, so below are some tips to make sure you make high-quality drone shots.

Capture images in 2-axis:

To get those breathtaking shots in major movies, you need to put the 2-axis camera movement to good use. It allows you to turn the camera when the drone is in flight.

2- axis camera movement to turn the camera during shooting.
2-axis camera movement

Capture images in the twilight:

Also known as the golden hour, twilight is at least one hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. 

The sun lets out a golden brown color that allows you to take some fascinating shots without making several camera adjustments. 

The time for twilight may differ with regions, so make sure you’re aware of your area.

Check the weather conditions:

Gimbals are useful stabilizers, but they are no match for strong gusts of wind. Besides, wind can also cause your drone to fly away. Besides the wind, flying your drone in the rain can cause damage to some of its parts. 

You should always check the weather a day before to make sure it will be safe to fly your drone. Avoid filming on a gray and overcast day unless you want to include that “feel” in your film. Always make sure there’s enough light when filming.  

Camera settings:

Ensure you have the correct camera settings before taking off. For instance, ensure the ISO setting is low. It may need a longer shutter speed, but the images will be less grainy. For slow-motion shots, make sure you have a High Frame Rate (HFR).

Rule of the third:

The rule of the third is very common among photographers. It involves dividing the photograph into thirds. 

You accomplish this using the grid mode. Then, ensure the object of interest lies within the grid lines or at the point where these lines meet. This method produces some of the best-looking images. 

5 Drone shots every Film Maker Should know:

You may have seen them in movies, documentaries, and YouTube videos and wondered how exactly you could these achieve shots. Sit tight as we show some of the common ones and how to do them.

Bird’s eye:

It’s fair to say that man has always been fascinated by viewing the world from a bird’s eye. That’s why even Leonardo da Vinci included several sketches of birds in flight in his book, Codex of The Flight of Birds. 

He was not only mesmerized by how a man could fly. But also by what he could see from up there.

You can achieve this shot by tilting the camera to face downwards towards the ground. From there, you can choose to track the subject, move to a higher altitude, or hover above the point of interest.

CREDIT: Fandor

Flying backward:

Every drone pilot should master how to fly backward. This mode prevents the props, or their shadows, from appearing in the footage.

Reveal:

When you have an exciting object to reveal to your viewers, you can always pull the revel shot. You’ll need the backward flying skills to pull away from the object until it comes into the frame. You can also manipulate the gimbal to reveal the item. 

Circle/orbit:

Most drones come with intelligent flight modes, including orbit, 360 degrees turns, and flips. 

The orbit is very useful for film making since the drone revolves around the object of interest while keeping it in the frame. 

The good thing about flight modes is that you can just deploy them with the click of a button, and you don’t have to control the drone. 

Tracking Shot:

This is the shot that made the Skyfall movie famous. It involves following a moving target from behind or at different angles.

The filmmakers followed James Bond, creating a rush of adrenaline even when they hadn’t watched the whole movie. 

These shots were only possible using dolly tracks, which are expensive and take time to set up.

Low Altitude:

Most drone shots take place at a higher altitude. But you can fly at a very low altitude to create a sense of speed and give the viewer a closer look at the landscape.

Plain Straight:

It is the most straightforward and most commonly used shot. It’s where you just fly straight while filming the landscape. Unless you want to make some complex shots, you’ll find yourself flying plain straight in most cases.

Post-production:

After taking all of your shots, you need to take some time to edit them and compile them. Windows Movie Maker is great for DIY projects, but you have to invest in more robust software for professional films.

Adobe Premier Pro is one of the best, and it has all the features you’ll need.

Avid Media Composer is the Industry Standard and mostly used by professionals. I use it too.

Other software includes are,

  • Final Cut Pro
  • Sony Vegas

One of the issues you’ll need to correct is the lighting. When you shoot at different times of the day, the shots may have different lighting scales. So start by making sure it’s uniform throughout the film. 

You should also add music and sound effects to the film. Music helps the viewers understand and react to the scenes. 

Sound effects matching the scenario can also help the viewer to associate the scene with an actual place. Some of the sites you can get royalty-free music include;

  • YouTube Audio Library
  • Free Music Archive
  • SoundCloud
  • BenSound.com
Avid Media Composer by Avid is the industry standard for editing fims.
Avid Media Composure Software

Promoting your film:

There’s a massive market for all types of films, including those shot with drones. So, you can start promoting your films on social media, YouTube, and Vimeo. 

YouTube is a great platform that allows you to earn independently of their ads program and you can also join Film Festivals and showcase your drone flying and film making skills.

Examples of some movies and some cool shots from drones:

Below are some of the top 5 movies that were filmed using drones.

Spectre:

I have already mentioned one of James Bond’s movies, Skyfall, which initiated drones’ use in film making. This shot was done by Fly-cam, who went ahead to win the Scientific and Engineering Oscar Award in 2014.

The filmmakers of Skyfall went on to use drones in other James Bond movies, including Spectre. They did the escape from a fire scene and several other shots with a drone. This time Helicopter Film Services were responsible for the filming.

CREDIT: Movieclips

Jurassic World:

The scenes where we see the Pterosaurs chasing at people as they scatter were also taken using a drone. 

The filmmakers make the viewers see through the animal’s eyes and “get in” on the action. Team5 was the company behind this creativity. 

They also took part in filming Taken 3, The Purge, and many more. 

There is a cool toy drone for kids called Jurassic World Pterano-Drone from Mattel.

CREDIT: TTMP Toy Reviews

The Wolf of Wall Street:

Freefly Cinema is the company behind the bird’s-eye view of the pool party in The Wolf of Wall Street.  They were also involved in The Last Stand and Over.

The November Man:

This movie took drone technology to the next level. Drones were part of the plot, and they were also instrumental in the filming.

CREDIT: USA Today

Expendables 3:

Expendables 3 had some scenes that gave action movies fans goose-bumps. The tanks, helicopters, moving trains, explosions, and of course, bringing together the best actors. 

The surprising fact is that drones filmed some of the shots. It would have been challenging to use helicopters or other conventional filming equipment.

Tips and Tricks:

Drones are a great addition to film making, but they shouldn’t replace other film making principles. Below are some of the ways to make drone footage more cinematic.

Film at the right time of the day:

Even the most powerful film making drones still don’t have the best sensors. So, you need to film at the time when there’s proper lighting. As mentioned earlier, this is immediately after sunrise and before sunset. 

Use ND filters:

ND filters function like sunglasses, where they filter the light getting to the sensors. They enable you to achieve longer shutter speeds, wider apertures, and a more cinematic look on your films.

Move Slowly:

If you want your viewers to “absorb” every moment of your film, don’t rush your drone. This is more important if you’re flying close to the subject. But for low altitude landscape shots, you can fly at higher speed since that will create its own thrilling effect.

Color grade and color match

As I mentioned earlier, you need to color correct your footage to make sure it’s uniform. In cases where you used ground cameras and drone cameras, make sure you color correct the footage from both cameras to look the same.

Use the scopes to determine the differences between these cameras and how to correct them on the footage. Waveform will help you correct the exposure, while the vector scope will help you correct the color.

Zoom:

Zooming in is one of the ways of drawing in the viewer into the narrative. It doesn’t have to be a major zoom, just a slight adjustment. 

You can also try zooming out as you fly towards the subject. All of these are cinematic visual effects that a human eye can’t accomplish.

Add Cinema Crop Bars:

These crop bars are a very creative way of adding a cinematic look to your footage. You can either download a PNG and add it to the film or change the sequence settings to an anamorphic crop.

CREDIT: Parker Walbeck

Best Drones for Film Makers: Top 5:

Here are some of the best drones you can use for film making.

DJI Mavic Pro Series Drones:

You could never go wrong with the DJI Mavic Pro or the DJI Mavic 2 Pro drones. The DJI Mavic Pro was first released in 2016, and it was one of the first drones that were easily portable.

This thanks to the portable design. So, what’s in it for filmmakers? It has a 3-axis gimbal, and it can take 4K images while traveling at 40mph. 

It was also the first drone to feature OcuSync, a system that allows you to transmit high-quality HD videos at a long-range.

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro came later in 2018. It came with a better 1-inch camera sensor, multi-directional obstacle-avoidance systems, and OcuSync 2.0 to transmit 1080p videos. 

It produces higher quality footage than the DJI Mavic Pro, but that doesn’t mean that the DJI Mavic Pro is obsolete. You can start with the Mavic Pro and move up to the Mavic 2 series when you have the budget for it.

DJI Mavic Pro flying high and shooting.
DJI MAVIC PRO

GoPro Karma:

GoPro makes some of the best cameras in the industry. They went ahead and built a drone to use with their cameras. The GoPro Karma was released around the same time as the DJI Mavic Pro.

Even though the Karma lacks the obstacle-avoidance and tracking features, it carries the GoPro Hero 5 camera, which is better than those on DJI Mavic and DJI Phantom drones. But the camera is sold separately.

This camera achieves 12MP photos, 4k videos, and it’s even waterproof. Better yet, the camera can be removed and used as a standalone camera and you can also switch with better cameras. 

The drone also comes with a 3-axis that helps stabilize the camera. The gimbal can also be detached and used as a handheld stabilizer as you take videos from the ground.

Go Pro Karma drone with Go Pro Hero 4 Camera.
Go Pro Karma with Go Pro Hero 4

Halo Drone Pro:

The Halo Drone Pro was ranked as the best drone in 2018, and it still stands out in 2020. It comes with a foldable design for portability and a 4K camera. 

The camera has a default recording speed of 50Mbps H.265/HEVC. We did mention that you need to record at high frame rates for slow-motion videos. 

This drone can achieve that. It has a steep learning curve, though, but that’s what you’ll expect from a professional drone. 

The Sony IMX 377 Sensor is one of the best in the industry. Like the GoPro camera, this drone’s camera can be removed and used as a standalone tool. 

You can also create a pre-programmed flight to accomplish moves that you wouldn’t when flying it in real-time.

An image of Halo Drone Pro
Halo Drone Pro

DJI Inspire 2:

DJI has made its mark in the drone making industry. That’s why their name pops up in most drone reviews. 

The DJI Inspire 2 is a premium drone that costs $2999. This sounds costly, but the features make it worth every penny. It comes with the Zenmuse X5 camera, which records 4K and 5.2K images at 30fps. 

It also has 360 degrees gimbal. It uses two batteries, achieving at least 27 minutes of flight time. And it also has obstacle-avoidance systems for the safety of the drone.

DJI INSPIRE 2 during shoot.
DJI INSPIRE 2 during shoot

Yuneec Typhoon H:

The Yuneec Typhoon H has a unique design, but it functions like most professional filming drones. It uses six propeller arms instead of 4. These arms are foldable, so you don’t have to worry about portability and storage.

It has landing gears that fold when the drone flies. In other drones, the legs aren’t foldable, and you have to turn the drone to record at a 360 degrees angle.

The foldable gears create a wider recording span. And since the camera can also rotate at 360 degrees, you don’t have to turn the entire drone. It records 4K videos at 30 fps, 12MP photos, full-HD streaming, and 2x digital zoom.

Yuneec Typhoon Drone
YUNEEC Typhoon Limited Edition Drone

What Are Autonomous Drones?

Autonomous drones are intelligent drones designed to mimic a human’s mind in making decisions. Some drones have autonomous features like tracking, orbit, or obstacle avoidance, but they aren’t necessarily autonomous drones.

Autonomous drones are designed to “think” about when and where to fly to without any human input. So, there’s no controller, and the pilot often doesn’t have any control over the drone’s functionality.

Autonomous drones are achieved by “training” using an Artificial Intelligence method known as deep reinforced learning. 

They can always be trained to adjust the frame based on the subject’s position, make several camera sweeps for a dramatic effect, and even orbit around the subject when necessary.

Skydio R1 Drone is the world’s first fully autonomous consumer drone.

SKYDIO R1 is the world's first fully autonomous drone.
SKYDIO R1- World’s First Autonomous Drone

Their role in film making:

Autonomous drones can be trained to “think” like the director. They’re trained to always keep the actors/subjects in frame and take the shots in a more cinematic way. The drone should accomplish these tasks while avoiding obstacles.

Final Thoughts:

The future looks bright for drones in the filming industry. According to BI Intelligence, drone sales may soar to $12 Billion by 2021. Due to their affordability, ease of access, and ease of use, more films are using drones.

The use of Autonomous drones is also set to revolutionize the industry since the drones will accomplish some tasks as the filmmakers focus on other aspects of the films.

NEW YORK CITY Drone Film Festival is a cool place to be if you want to experience some great footage shot by drones. It’s the world’s first drone film festival.

HAPPY FLYING!

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