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From up-to-the-minute news and sports coverage to on-demand comfort viewing like The Great British Bake Off, drone technology has become as ingrained in our TV repertoire as flat screens and high-definition, you may just never have noticed.
Advances in film and camera technology have been breaking new ground for many years now. From the development of the first portable television cameras – which, perhaps most notably, enabled wildlife filmmakers to venture into their subjects’ natural habitats – to the advent of thermal imaging for night-time filming, each innovation offers fresh perspectives whilst challenging our expectations.
What advantages can drones offer today’s filmmakers?
Quieter, safer and cheaper than manned aircraft and more versatile than cranes, UAVs – or drones –let filmmakers get much closer to the action. And we don’t mean filming birds from a nearby hide; we mean getting up close and personal with a pride of lions or hovering above a live volcano.
Natural history documentaries have been a major beneficiary of the drone revolution. In 2006, the BBC’s Planet Earth was the first of these programmes to be filmed in high definition. A decade later, and film technology offers us even more surprises, from elusive animal behaviours to previously inaccessible remote landscapes. Cue Planet Earth II – brought to us courtesy of ultra-high definition cameras and aerial drones.
Drones are ideal for capturing dramatic landscapes and panoramas, and for showing subjects in their geographical context. The series of drone footage of Apple Park – the new Apple campus in California, which is due to open soon after three years of construction – shows the awesome level of detail afforded by these UAV ‘flyovers’ and the sense of scale they can convey.
Incredible action, indoors and out
More agile than Spiderman, or Orlando Bloom in a swordfight, drones have joined the Hollywood A-list, revolutionising filmmaking and making epic footage even more remarkable. From James Bond to Harry Potter, blockbusters thrive on action – and it’s often just the kind of action that UAVs were made for. Skyfall’s opening motorbike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one notable example.
Equally at home shooting wide, open vistas and negotiating tight indoor spaces, drones can also provide seamless indoor-to-outdoor transitions.
And while you can certainly enjoy superb drone footage at the cinema, it’s also available rather closer to home. As the technology becomes more affordable and more easily available, you don’t need a Hollywood budget to achieve impressive cinematic results.
Live sporting events are another great showcase for drones. In fact, ever since the 1936 Berlin Olympics became the first sporting event to be televised live, the Games have often made broadcasting history. In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics were filmed in colour — two years before the BBC tuned in to colour broadcasting. Twenty years later, the Los Angeles Games saw the debut of high-definition television.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, major broadcasters continued to experiment with drone technology. In rowing, for example, drones provided superior footage – as the perspective of a traditional side-on camera can give a distorted view of the action.
Not just for the pros
But the creative power of UAVs and the new perspectives they offer us are not just for television pros and blockbuster cinematography. Now in its third year, the New York City Drone Film Festival (NYCDFF) is proof that these innovations are now available to amateur filmmakers.
We all know that drones are at their most amazing when they show us something new or give us a new take on the familiar – perhaps showing us a subject we think we know all about, but which can, in fact, be viewed rather differently. Winner of the NYCDFF’s News and Documentary category in 2017 was aerial footage of the Dakota Pipeline, which revealed not only the sheer scale of these protests but also the police’s efforts to prevent the drones from documenting them.
It can be easy to overlook the importance of precision and control in drone cinematography – which is, of course, a science as well as a creative art. Highlighting this beautifully, and with practised ease, the winner of the NYCDFF’s Freestyle category sees a drone fly through an impossibly narrow gap in a bicycle.
Drone equipment: an overview
Whether or not you have aspirations of film festival success, you’ll want to make sure your drone videography equipment matches your ambitions. There are heaps of drones on the market and, as we’ve seen, plenty of interesting possibilities for anyone interested in capturing film or television footage. But before you make your shopping list, here are a few things to consider:
Not a Hollywood restriction on body mass, but a word of warning about the weight of your drone. There are three broad categories of UAV:
Lightweight drones can lift relatively heavy cameras while keeping total aircraft weight under 7kg. This is an advantage in terms of Air Traffic Control permissions; drones over 7kg are subject to stricter regulations.
Medium-lift models can carry heavier cameras that offer better quality footage, but they exceed the 7kg limit.
Heavy-lift drones can help you capture broadcast-quality images, but their total weight will exceed 20kg, meaning they are subject to the strictest regulations. They score highly in the safety stakes because they usually have eight rotors, which means they can fly even if one of the rotors fails.
It goes without saying that you’ll want to maximise flight time and minimise downtime. A little planning goes a long way here, meaning you won’t be wasting time looking for the perfect shot. Keep an eye on your battery levels and always carry spares. Bear in mind too that low temperatures can reduce battery life and flying times.
Slow and smooth
A gimbal is the piece of equipment that’s crucial for smooth video footage that’s free from wobbles and distortions. Think of it as the airborne tripod for your camera. There’s only so much motion that a gimbal can counteract, though, so make sure you accelerate and decelerate slowly to keep your camera steady.
Drones sometimes get a bad press because of safety concerns, so operators should do all they can to fly responsibly.
The rules governing the use of drones are somewhat fluid, so make sure you’re up to date with those that apply to you, including the Data Protection Act and CCTV code of practice.
Note that unmanned aircraft with a camera attached or built-in are classified as unmanned surveillance aircraft, and are subject to stricter rules than drones without cameras.
Anyone using a drone for commercial use is also required to seek permission from the CAA.
Aside from following the relevant regulations, being realistic about what’s involved in a shoot and the number of people needed to achieve it can also boost safety. For example, drones that offer dual operator control allow one person to focus on the camera and another on the flight – creating less room for distraction and mistakes.
Finally, of course, never fly above crowds – it’s not only illegal but also asking for trouble.
Weather and timing
Avoid adverse weather conditions that make it difficult to stabilise and/or control your drone. And even if you can motor on through windy conditions, the footage you get will probably disappoint.
Watch out for rain, mist and fog – especially on colder days, when condensation on the drone can freeze at higher altitudes.
A golden piece of advice
Just like with ground-based cinematography, filming during the golden hours of the day—at sunrise and sunset—will really help your footage stand out, due to the warm, golden quality of the light.
Practice makes perfect
For really good results, there are lots of tricks of the trade you can learn. From camera settings such as shutter speed (you’ll want to go slower than for stills to ensure a certain amount of motion blur for smooth playback) to clever post-production techniques, there’s always plenty of scope for fine-tuning your footage, whatever your equipment and level of expertise.
But for excellent results – or simply to become the best drone videographer you can be – there’s one final ingredient: practice. Because once you’ve got a confident grip on the rules, you can really start pushing the boundaries.
So go on, sign up for a drone training course, and then get out there and experiment!
- Drones offer plenty of advantages over traditional approaches to filmmaking.
- The technology is more affordable and widespread than ever, giving even amateur filmmakers access to its exciting possibilities.
- Drones can be used for filming indoors and out (and move seamlessly between the two).
- Safety is paramount and all drone operators should be aware of the relevant regulations.
- Anyone using a drone for commercial use must seek permission from the CAA.
- The Coptrz film and tv training course explores the many creative possibilities of drones in film and television.
Want to shoot videos like this? Sign up to the COPTRZ Drone Filming Masterclass with world-renowned cinematographer Philip Bloom
This course will open your eyes to the fascinating science and art of aerial drone videography. Philip Bloom is a world-renowned filmmaker with a passion for new technology and a particular soft spot for drones.