Drone technology is helping filmmakers push creative boundaries right and left.
Filmmakers are always looking for ways to create unique, engaging shots to creatively tell their stories. As Philip Bloom and Ty Evans told it at the New York Drone Film Festival this week in New York, drones have been making great strides in this area, allowing filmmakers to pull off seemingly expensive and complicated shots quickly and cheaply.
Fortunately, technology is constantly evolving to help integrate drones with high-quality results so that filmmakers don't have to go through the hassle, learning curve, and expense of building aerial platforms—something that was the norm just five years ago.
"Once I saw those possibilities, Iit changed everything." —Phillip Bloom
But while drone technology is opening up lots of new possibilities and lending filmmakers all kinds of new creative freedoms, Bloom and Evans both described drones as tools that must be used in service of your film; they should never dictate your shots. In essence, drone technology should liberate you to create the shots you imagine while remaining as simple and unobtrusive as possible. In addition to describing the myriad ways that drones can aid your creative process, Bloom and Evans also offered insight into how pre-visualization is affected by drone technology.
Below are our takeaways from the New York Drone Festival panel.
Treat drones as problem-solving tools
Like dollies, cranes, and Steadicams, drones are just another tool available to filmmakers. Like any tool, they have strengths and weaknesses, but they can be deployed to achieve shots that would be otherwise impossible or prohibitive. Even if you're looking to create a simple dolly or crane shot, deploying a drone to get that shot instead of a dolly or a crane can save you loads of time and can help keep your production moving.
Answering a question about how the advent of drones impacted their creative process, Bloom said, "For me, it took a while. I got my first [drone] three years ago and crashed it. So I didn't really see many possibilities at that point. Then I realized that I needed to practice way out in the desert to get control, and then I started thinking not just about aerials, but about impossible dolly shots and crane shots that would take incredible rigs....Once I started to see those possibilities, I think it changed everything. Drones are literally the most exciting technology in a long time. It's the most fun you can have."
For Bloom, a filmmaker who frequently finds himself in remote locales, lugging dolly track and cranes is logistically prohibitive. But with a drone that's quick to deploy, he's able to create cinematic movements that rival those produced by legacy gear in a fraction of the time.
"I started filmmaking in the early '90s," said Evans, "and I was, obviously, doing skateboarding films. I abused my body throughout the course of making those films and I ended up having ankle problems and had to get three ankle surgeries. None of them worked. My ankle was a pretty big thorn in my side....I was pretty depressed because I had all these ideas of shots that I wanted to do, and I was just starting to get into Steadicam work—this was way before Movi and handheld gimbals—and when I would put on the Steadicam, it was super painful. I couldn't do the shots that I wanted to do."
"Once the Movi was announced and brushless gimbals came in, it pretty much changed everything." —Ty Evans
"Right around that same time, I started seeing some drone stuff," Evans remembered, "but at the time, it was only single-blade helicopters with super rudimentary gimbals. I went to the place [that sold the helicopters] and said, 'I wanna fly this thing next to a skateboarder,' and they said, 'Bro, you're gonna cut your buddy's head off.'"
Both filmmakers described their foray into using drones to shoot their projects as having been born from a need to realize their shots quickly and efficiently. They didn't get into drones just for the sake of flying.
Drone technology is liberating
"Once the Movi was announced and brushless gimbals came in, it pretty much changed everything," said Evans, "and if you think about it, those started from drones, right? And then everyone was like, 'Hey, let's grab these gimbals on the ground."
"I remember my buddy had one of those Zenmuses for one of those little Sony NEX cameras," Evans continued, "and we were holding the drone on the ground and we were like, 'Woah, look at this! You can use these on the ground!' I didn't even know about the Movi at that point, and once that got announced, we started seeing that we could use these gimbals on the ground. I realized I could do this stuff now, even with my ankle injury."
"Most things can only be seen from the air." —Phillip Bloom
Speed and image quality are drastically improving
"The camera cycle for a Canon 5D is four to five years before they release a new one, and in that time, drones have gone from crappy things with terrible cameras and no gimbals to having one you can keep in a small bag. It's nuts. While the craft needs to be really reliable, you need the image to be really good...the Phantom 4 Pro has an incredible image sensor in a $1,500 drone with long battery life. The integrated cameras are becoming so good that it makes it easier to get the shots more quickly. For me, it's all about speed. I need to set up the drone fast to get the shots because I'm not a full-time drone operator."
"Everything that I shoot is driven by the story, not by the technology," Bloom continued. "You don't want to affect what's happening, especially if you have talent waiting, you have interviewees that you're working with. I did a science fiction film in November out in the middle of nowhere with all handheld shooting, but then I felt that we need a nice big establishing [shot] at this moment in the film. I thought, 'You know what? I have my Mavic with me.' Pulled it out, set it up, got the shot, and within four minutes, it was packed away. It added so much to the film."
While drones themselves are getting more reliable, easier to deploy, and are coming equipped with cameras on them that allow you to get really great images, the technology behind those advances is also having a great impact on filmmaking—especially for indies.
Should you pre-viz with drones?
The two panelists had differing views about how pre-visualization works when using drones. Evans said, "I think pre-viz is super important—figuring out what you're going to do and doing it safely. But I also try to work with dedicated people that operate the drones. I operate from that mindstate of, 'I'm gonna grab this and figure it out how to do that,' but with the drones, it's definitely a lot harder to do that. I like leaving the drone stuff to the drone guys. I feel safer that way."
Bloom disagreed. "When you're making documentaries, you don't do location scouting—at least not for the stuff that I do," he said. "You turn up there and you've got five locations in a day. You don't have time to go there. One of my favorite shots was on a South Pacific Island, where one of the main characters was climbing up a volcano. The shots were cool, but it was only once I backed off and spun around that I saw this perfect diagonal line dividing the frame. It was complete silhouette on the climber. There's no way I could pre-viz those."
There is no right or wrong approach. If you're not comfortable flying a drone, hire a drone operator so you can focus on directing and producing. If you love the challenge of flying, as does Bloom, use it to your advantage when problem-solving in the field.
Whatever your feelings are about drones and drone technology, it's important, as always, not to let your gear get in your way. If you can harness the flexibility of drones to help you bring your vision to life, that's great, but don't try to force a drone shot or sequence simply because you have a drone to use.