EDITOR’S NOTE: The following blog originally ran in March of this year. We’ve republishing it here, with minor edits to the original text. Enjoy!
For many, the word “drone” often conjures images of an ominous future dystopia with skies darkened by the constant hum and buzz of tiny flying devices. Of course, new technologies are really just tools. To a hammer every problem looks like a nail. And to an independent filmmaker, every drone looks like an efficient means to instantaneously increase one’s production value, capturing a variety of astounding aerial shots previously unthinkable on an indie film budget.
On Tuesday, March 20, a room full of curious would-be drone enthusiasts gathered at Film Independent’s Wilshire Blvd. offices for a free Members-only primer on the ins-and-outs of drone cinematography—courtesy of Team Dirty Drone founder Sarah Phillips, a cinematographer and FAA Part 107-licensed drone operator. Film Independent’s Lex McNaughton produced the event.
Phillips showed the clip that first piqued her curiosity about the emerging world of drone photography: a 2016 Good Morning America segment wherein Diane Sawyer’s camera team uses a custom octocopter carrying a DSLR to recreate Julie Andrews’ mountaintop twirl-a-thon from The Sound of Music. In interview clips, Andrews recalled how during the film’s filming in the 1964, the effect was produced via helicopter—so powerful, it actually repeatedly knocked Andrews to the ground after each take.
But now, thanks to drones, such sights are within reach to even the most budget-conscious film projects. But even so, it’s still not quite as simple as it seems.
So. What do you need to know before heading to the skies? Here are 10 important things to remember for easy, legal and above all safe drone flying:
Drone laws are constantly in flux. “They’re constantly changing,” Phillips sighed. The big takeaway: if the footage will be used commercially (directly or indirectly), drones must be piloted by an FAA certified operator, the Part 107 certification class for sUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems) being the most common. Both because you’ll need someone who knows what they’re doing and because most professional drone pilots (like Phillips) carry their own insurance.
Understand the airspace. It’s critical to know where it’s okay to fly. And more importantly, where it isn’t. Most consumer drones populate “Class G” airspace at a flight elevation of 400 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and below. Critical no-fly zones include specific areas in major cities, airports, Washington D.C. and Disneyland, as well as National Parks and nuclear plants. Individual municipalities also frequently have their own drone restrictions. Remember, the FAA controls the airspace, and the local government controls the ground you take off from.
Keep your eyes on the goddamn thing. To pilot a drone legally requires something called VLOS—a “visual line of sight.” Simply put, you must be able to see your drone with the naked eye at all times. Monitoring remotely via onboard camera doesn’t count. If you’re trying to capture an extended tracking shot following a vehicle, the drone operator must be able to maintain watch from a designated vista point or follow vehicle (but only in a vehicle if in a sparsely populated locale). Likewise, there’s no flying at night unless you have a night waiver from the FAA.
More stuff to watch out for. In addition to permanent no-fly zones, there’s such a thing as NOTAMs—“notice to airmen”—which are temporary no-fly zones you’ll need to research ahead of shooting. And for crowd shots, it’s prohibited to fly your drone over non-participating individuals. This is less a likeness/release issue than a simply a safety issue. Or as Phillips puts it, “a murder issue.”
Speaking of things being dangerous. Do not try to catch your drone by hand! Drones are built to take off and land by remote control. Phillips cited a recent news story from Hawaii, about a drone operator who literally lost a finger attempting to grab his airborne drone by hand. So don’t even try.
Types of drones. Phillips shared a detailed chart of scalable drone models— from the inexpensive DJI MAVIC Pro Platinum, all the way to the more complex—and expensive—Inspire 2 and beyond. For indie film productions, Phillips touted the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Phillips had hers on hand to show off, describing it as the best version of a single-operator built-in camera drone. More expensive drones require multiple operators and frequently don’t have a built-in camera, requiring additional gimbal work and stabilization.
Types of shots. Playing a few video examples, Phillips walked attendees through some of the more practical uses of drone photography as related to cinema: overhead shots pointed directly at the ground, fly-by establishing shots, following shots (particularly for traveling cars), lateral tracking shots, gentle rising shots to follow action and more.
Something cool to try. The Phantom 4 Pro has a geo-positioned point-of-interest feature for creating dramatic, sweeping shots that arc around a central manually entered coordinate. This means they’re able to smoothly circle a fixed GPS point. So if you want those cool Michael Bay hero moments but don’t necessarily have Transformers money, this is something neat to try.
Think like an artist, not a gearhead. Drone photography is a heavily tech and hardware-focused endeavor, and it’s easily to get lost in the weeds of restrictions and equipment. But as a filmmaker, you should always be thinking how drones can assist in telling your story visually. One helpful tip Phillips shared is to think in terms of action words using this template: while ______ , the drone ______ to reveal ______ . For example: while rising, the drone tilts up to reveal a cityscape in the distance. She also encouraged filmmakers to see drone operators as specialist camera operators, like underwater ops or Steadicam ops. To that end, filmmakers should try to find drone operators who operate as a cinematographer with the ability to fly the camera, and less a drone pilot with the ability to capture video.
See? It’s just that simple. Now get out there and get your wings! Or propellers, I guess.
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You can learn more about Phillips on her website, teamdirtydrone.com, or email her with questions at email@example.com