Drone Cinematography 101: What You Need to Know From the Pros

Before you start flying, get vital information about drone usage and federal regulations from veteran drone pilots and industry professionals.

The emergence of drones has raised the bar for cinematic quality and visual storytelling for indie filmmakers, and with their cost getting lower and lower, more of us can get our hands on them to capture stunning visuals. 

At WeWork Penn Station in New York City, Candy Factory Films hosted a panel detailing the ins and outs of using drones on set. Panelists included Jimmy Olivero of SkyCamUSA, Edward Kostakis of Xizmo Media, Robert Pascale of Pond5 and Jason Ward of Candy Factory. Here are some takeaways from their informative discussion.

1. Drones can be used for more than establishing shots

When we think about drone footage, establishing shots immediately come to mind. Sprawling cities and miles of forest look great, but drone usage is not limited to establishing shots. “We have to use the same techniques cinematographers use to tell their stories,” said Pascale. As we see in these blockbusters, drones can be used for reveals, tracking and other creative shots. In fact, the opening scene of Skyfall was shot using drones. Watch as 007 chases a terrorist across rooftops on a motorbike:

“One of the greatest things about using a drone is the budget.”

2. Drones can save you money

Creators on all levels can agree that budget is always a concern. Not only can drones eliminate other expensive tools such as cranes, jibs, and tracks, but they can make it much easier to capture some of your shots as they don’t take up the same amount of space as some of your more traditional tools. Avoiding traditional cranes and jibs may also save on set up time…and time is money. 

3. Don’t let drones dictate the story

Drones are exciting tools to use on set, but certainly can be overused. Make sure you stay true to your story first, and if a scene can be enhanced by the use of a drone–go for it!

“The drone is a tool. It’s an instrument. Your imagination drives that tool.” 

4. Leave extra prep time

“Drone shooting should be carefully planned,” Olivero advised. Your drone operator needs time to mount, test and shoot with the camera/drone combination 24-48 hours prior to the shoot. This will ensure a smoother shoot on the actual shoot day. 

“The more complicated the camera, the more time you’re going to need to set up,” said Kostakis. While some drones like the Phantom 4 may take only a few minutes to set up, preparing a Red, Arri or some other camera can take up to a full day. Give yourself or your drone operator ample time to properly set up and test the equipment. It will save you time and money in the long run and, ultimately, create a better product.

Harry Potter drone shot
The background in this scene from 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' was shot with a drone.

5. Stay on top of ever-changing regulations

The FAA was not ready for the drone explosion happening in today’s film industry, and therefore laws for drone usage are in constant flux. You currently need a pilot license in order to legally operate a drone. There’s legislation (Part 107) passing in August that will allow those without a pilot license to take a qualifying test that, upon passing, will allow them to legally fly drones for commercial video purposes.

Getting cleared by the FAA doesn’t automatically mean you’re free and clear to fly anywhere you want. It’s highly suggested that you speak to the local precinct in your area for police clearance as the FAA and police department are not in communication with each other. You don’t want to fill out all that paperwork and pass that test only to have your gear taken by local police.

Now that you've got the basics, learn about some of this year's latest drone models here, and Happy Droning!     

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Your Comment


I give up... why everyone calls these QUADS a 'drone' ?
A 'drone' is the one Military use with WINGS and sensors, missiles.

This RC (remote Controlled) TOY is not a 'drone'. Look at the DJI description who makes these QUADS don't call it a 'drone'.

July 6, 2016 at 1:31PM

Producer for 36 years in L.A.

For the same reason that everyone calls those motorized skateboards 'hoverboards'. Attempting to correct everyone this long after it's common terminology isn't going to help and just seems pedantic.

July 6, 2016 at 2:59PM


"Drone" is what it is, and "quad" is its shape. A "drone" can be a "biplane", "monoplane", "quad", "buggy", "submersible".

And since some of the drones have eight blades it is a more correct way to refer to a larger subset of remotely controlled flying cameras than a quad which in case of an eight blade contraption is not correct.

July 6, 2016 at 5:42PM


Not true. Quads and military "drones" are both drones. Anything remotely controlled that's generally performing a purposeful task is a drone. Even a John Deere tractor going up and down a field via gps automation is a drone.

July 9, 2016 at 3:59AM


Is there a recording of that panel somewhere?

July 6, 2016 at 2:29PM, Edited July 6, 2:35PM


All the aerial footage for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was 100% shot with a helicopter. There were no heavy lift drones capable of carrying a film camera in 2002.

July 6, 2016 at 5:03PM, Edited July 6, 5:06PM

Ryan Hamelin
Director/DP/MoVi Operator

Yep, calling BS on that too. Even in 2016 major features mostly do aerials with helicopters.

July 8, 2016 at 10:24AM, Edited July 8, 10:24AM


Naw, Flying Cam has been doing it many years before everyone else. http://www.flying-cam.com

Some of there first versions would have the camera operator control the YAW.


July 8, 2016 at 10:05PM


Wrong. Flying Cam provided the plates for the Harry Potter aerial car sequence and also the dragon's eye view with their miniature r/c helicopter - long before multi-rotor 'drones' arrived.

July 11, 2016 at 5:56AM

Graham HAY
Managing Director, Helicam International Ltd.

Drones certainly add production value. But they do take time and skill to master. Here are some drone tutorials we put together for the film community. Http://learnaerialcinema.com

July 6, 2016 at 7:07PM

Mike Gentilini, Jr.
Drone Pilot | Gimbal Operator | Camera Operator

Really you have really done some research on this article!!!
But all of it not drone!!!

August 2, 2017 at 5:01AM, Edited August 2, 5:01AM


The "law"... it's really difficult in some countries to coop up with, especially for guerilla filmmakers like me ;) who have no budget to get approval and permission.

April 3, 2018 at 11:18PM, Edited April 3, 11:18PM

Sameir Ali
Director of Photography