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How to tell a story with drones: tips from pilot to producer
- Steven Flynn
- 05 May 17
If I had been talking about drones for visual storytelling a few short years ago, I would have set out by listing the most recent blockbusters using this innovative technology.
Now drone acquired aerial footage is the rule, not the exception. Most of Hollywood’s blockbusters incorporate aerial footage and scenes shot with drones. Some films have even been made using only drones!
The Circle (2016) was shot entirely with an Inspire 2 and the X5S camera, directed by Sheldon Schwartz and filmed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda. As Schwartz said, ‘What’s unique about this shoot is that we’re using new technology to push the limits of camera language and storytelling’.
However, just because you can use drones, doesn’t always mean you should. Unless drones serve your narrative in some way, overuse can be a distraction.
Used badly, drones can mess with your suspension of disbelief and completely take you out of the moment. A bit like a bad edit or music that fights with the visual - you’re not quite sure why, but you know something is amiss.
That said, there are plenty of advantages to using drones on set.
They can be used for more than an establishing shot and can replace tracks, cranes and jibs – saving not only set up time, but money. I once used a drone to fly up the side of a stone tower, not because the director wanted an aerial, but because the ground was too soft to bring in a crane!
One thing is certain, once you get into a situation that requires compound moves in the air to cover co-ordinated action on the ground, a lot of attention needs to be given to the process. That’s why the drone should be treated like any specialty tool on set.
So here are 10 tips on how to tell your story with drone footage and how to get the best return on your investment.
Sheldon Schwartz's The Circle, shot entirely with drones
1. Ready for your close up
Drones are really great for close work and the guys at Skynamic do it really well.
When you lift a drone to 400 feet above ground level, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere, yes you can see a lot, but you really can’t sense movement.
At height we’ve been in plenty of situations where the drone is flying full speed (50mph) and the image has little or no energy in it. In fact, the farther away a drone is from other objects, the faster it has to move to get any sense of energy at all.
So drones are best used when close to other objects. That parallax is what gives you the dynamic shot you’re looking for.
2. It’s not about size... or is it?
Look for a chance to use a longer lens. The smaller drones come with wide fixed lenses, but if you can upgrade to something that can fly a longer lens like an 85mm… you will be amazed at the difference.
The longer lenses will give you less bending on the image, but more importantly you will get a different sense of movement between foreground and background objects. Additionally, you’ll have the chance to use focus to drive the focal point of the frame.
The size of the drone and what it can carry depends on your budget!
The cinematic scope of an Alexa Mini on a Heavy - lift drone can be transformative in the right setting, but even a drone as compact as a DJI Mavic Pro and not much larger than a cell phone - at least a 1980s cell phone - with its fixed lens, can produce some great looks in the right hands.
If your production intends to use a larger camera with a prime lens on the drone, decide in advance who is responsible for the camera and for setting the focus. Is it your Director of Photography or is it the drone crew?
I was on a Hollywood set once where the DP overruled us and changed our setting from infinity (because he could) and the shot, which had a lot of co-ordinated action, was out of focus. It was checked on a small monitor after the flight and looked OK, but as soon as it was blown up on a bigger screen, it was deemed unusable.
Don’t get hung up on focus or caught trying to make focus controllers work when your wide traveling shot will work on infinity anyway.
4. Easy on the seasoning
Don’t overuse the spice! Look for the moments that really serve your story.
Drones are great for the shot that you could never otherwise get, or for seamless continuous motion that Orson Welles would be proud of, such as the opening sequence to A Touch of Evil.
OK Go! did a phenomenal job with their video ‘I won’t let you down’, winner of the X-Factor category at the 2015 New York City Drone Film Festival.
The best drone shot is one you don’t recognize as a ‘drone’ shot - because it’s so well placed in your story that you don’t notice it being there — but you’d miss something if it wasn’t it’s a bit like the perfect cut of music that way.
5. Open your mind
Producers, please don’t go into your drone work with a rigid idea of what you want. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Drones have a way of surprising you, so let them.
I often advise my clients to approach the flights like they’re listening to jazz. Allow the drone to go up and show you things you didn’t expect.
Be open to new angles. I’ve had producers and directors try and force the drone into giving them the aerial shot they had in their mind’s eye. But for one reason or another - wrong lens, windy day, not high enough, not enough time to choreograph - it didn’t exist!
They spent so much time trying to get one angle exactly right that they missed the amazing shot they could have had while the drone was on its way to the ‘perfect’ position...for the fifth time.
6. Less is more
How important is it to have your entire cast and crew on set for drone operations?
Having upwards of 30 people watching a flight can be unnerving and their collective intake of breath when the drone lurches is always delightful.
However, for best performance as well as safety, consider using your drone as a second unit with minimal crew, or even autonomous shooting with a shot list if it is simply general views and wide shots with no co-ordinated action.
A body double for actors if action is necessary is useful. From a height, it’s hard to distinguish features.
This allows the drone crew the flexibility to utilize optimum weather windows while the camera crew get on with their schedule.
7. Here comes the sun... again!
Weather is a headache for all drone operators. Even bright sunshine can create a flat image or create exposure problems when dealing with contrast, and shadows, which can be stunning from an aerial perspective, can also be a headache.
Wind is another one. Some rigs do better in windy conditions than others but all have a pretty low tolerance. Anything gusting above 20-30mph makes it difficult to fly. What seems a perfectly calm day to a camera crew shooting on the ground may not be suitable for aerial operations at 100ft or 400ft.
Putting the operator under pressure to continue against his or her better judgment is counterproductive and could even prove dangerous. If it’s possible to have a plan B, then think of it in advance of the shoot day.
8. Make sure you're covered
Most drone operators carry their own cameras for insurance purposes. If you intend to use your production camera or a third party rental, make sure your production insurance covers that camera for aerial work.
Often this is just a phone call, a bump in the rate for the day, information exchanged between insurance companies and parties indemnified, etc. It can take a day to sort out, so factor that in.
Skynamic are a great inspiration for drone use
9. Be safe
Any drone pilot worth their salt is constantly thinking, ‘This is about to fall out of the sky’.
Drones (for the most part) have many components and plenty of opportunity for those components to fail resulting in the drone falling straight down with no warning. Many of the ‘off the shelf drones’ have motors rated for 80 to 100 flight hours before they need to be serviced..
As a producer, whenever you are choosing to use a drone - make it a priority to follow the pilot’s safety requests. I once had an A.D. let a taxi pull up right beside me while I was flying a $100,000 rig!
The distraction caused me to take my eye off the drone momentarily. That split second lapse in concentration could have caused an accident. You never want to put the drone pilot in a position where they lose their focus when the drone is in the air.
Similarly, let the pilot run through their checklists and listen to their concerns — the munitions guy wouldn’t be an afterthought. Oh, and look around for the safest place to land in an emergency. I rolled an Alexa Mini into a bed of ferns once after a compass malfunction. A soft landing for both parties!
If you think safety is expensive, try paying for an accident!
10. Quiet on set!
Often a drone operator is flying upwards of 50k to 100k worth of gear, 200 feet off the ground. The radio controllers have many functions and are sensitive to the touch. In one ear he or she is listening to their onboard telemetry and battery life read outs. In the other ear they are listening to their camera (gimbal) operator asking for flight adjustments.
It can be intense. So when your drone operator asks for quiet, please give it to them.
Drones have their limitations and getting the most out of them on your set means understanding those limitations.
These tips will help you tell a story with drone footage, safely and in the best collaborative working environment. They come from my experience of flying drones commercially for the last five years after nearly 30 years in media production as a director of photography, producer, director and editor.
Drones are a great tool in film making and they allow directors to push the envelope while keeping producers happy with their ever shrinking budgets.
That said, the fundamental craft of storytelling hasn’t changed. If the script is terrible, a few well placed aerials aren’t going to save it. At the end of the day, drones are simply another tool to tell the story - they just happen to be a great tool!
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