How To Pull Off an Entire Short as One Continuous Drone Shot
When your entire short is one continuous drone shot, planning is essential.
Filming always requires planning and preparation. But when you're trying something as ambitious as creating a dialogue-driven short filmed entirely from a drone in one continuous take, things get a lot more complicated. At the End of the Cul-de-Sac is set in a quiet neighborhood—you guessed it—at the end of a cul-de-sac where a man is having what appears to be an emotional breakdown. Neighbors gather to watch, comment, and pass judgment while the drone glides through the scene, watching the action unfold from an omniscient perspective.
Watch the film below, selected this month as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere, and then read our conversation with director Paul Trillo to find just how they pulled it off. What became clear was that meticulous planning and perfect execution were necessary for this to work and—even with that—there were some daunting post-production challenges to work through.
"I was looking at the tool as less of a replacement for a helicopter and more of a way of placing the camera wherever you wish."
No Film School: This was a very ambitious shoot. What inspired you (no pun intended) to shoot this as one continuous drone shot?
Paul Trillo: My friend and collaborator, Brian Streem, who owns the drone company Aerobo, came to me with the simple proposition of doing something that hadn't been done before. Drones have allowed filmmakers and hobbyists to capture seemingly expensive aerial shots for little money. However, I was looking at the tool as less of a replacement for a helicopter and more of a way of placing the camera wherever you wish. You can move from point A to point B without having a giant discussion with the DP, camera operator, grip and electric department. It’s like a cutting the strings of a puppet, you don’t have to worry about a jib arm, rigging a wire cam or laying dolly track. I wanted to treat it more as a Steadicam that could fly at key moments. This freedom also allows you to look in all directions without having to worry about catching the crew.
Trillo: So basically I wanted to take advantage of these opportunities the drone allows for. The biggest limitation was recording audio, which is why you don’t see many drone shots with sync audio. That to me was the most exciting part of the challenge was doing something that was dialogue based. From these guidelines I landed on the idea of doing something that felt like a one-act play, that was being observed from this omniscient, moral observer.
NFS: How did you plan/choreograph the shots and the flight path of the drone? Did you set a pre-determined flight path and block the actors around that, or did you direct them and then fly the drone based on their positions?
Trillo: The location determined a lot of how the whole scene unravels. Finding the perfect location that fit the script, had no power lines, and a community of people that were willing to let us pull off such a stunt was critical. Once we had that locked, I took a bunch of photos and sort of walked through the scene with the producers.
I then took a Google Earth image of our location and brought it into Cinema 4D. I went through each beat of the script and freely moved the camera into different positions for those moments. The animatic was very liberating, it felt like a fantasy shot being able to have the camera jump from A to B to C to D without worrying about traditional limitations. However, it did feel like a complete fantasy and I had no idea how the operator would actually pull it off.
"I took a Google Earth image of our location and brought it into Cinema 4D. I went through each beat of the script and freely moved the camera into different positions for those moments."
I had some crude 3D models of people that I positioned so I could get a sense of the blocking. It was critical to do this work in advance because the drone needed to be a safe distance away from the actors at all times. I needed to figure out the best place for the action that still gave the camera the freedom to rove around the obstacles. I timed this whole thing to computer-generated dialogue so I could get the approximate timing of how long we needed to hold on each moment.
Trillo: Then, we rehearsed and rehearsed according to the blocking of the animatic, which sort of became our bible moving forward. Our drone pilot, Mike Ferguson, had to memorize each story moment and position of the camera just as the actors had to memorize their lines. I think it was a bit surreal for the actors since none of them were accustomed to recreating the movements and timing according to a computer-generated version of their character.
NFS: Since the Inspire 1 doesn’t record sound, can you talk about how you managed to sync the dialogue? How did you work around the drone noise?
Trillo: No one wants to mess sync sound with drones for good reason. Recording sound was another complication that further propelled me to want to pull this off. I saw an opportunity to do something new. Most drone shots are dialogue-free for obvious reasons; even the smallest drone makes an incredibly irritating and irregular buzz.
To do this, each actor had to be lav’d up and recorded to a separate audio channel. However, the irregularity of the drone’s propellers and the varying distance from the actors makes this nearly impossible to EQ out of the dialogue track for every line. This was more or less used as a guide track that would be replaced later. Since this was a shoestring budget I couldn’t afford to spend a half a day with each actor re-doing their lines in an ADR studio. So after the sunset (at the shockingly early time of 4:34pm) when we couldn’t fly any longer, we immediately ran through the entire script with a hand held camera in long takes. The actors did an amazing job of recreating their performance down to their intonation. Having the actors do this while the script was still fresh on their minds and in the actual environment helped align the dialogue to the performance they gave with the drone. For the Julien and Susan characters who have significantly more dialogue, we brought them into Harbor Sound months later and had them re-do lines that we not salvageable from our shoot day. I work with the amazing ADR specialists Bobby Johanson and Mike Rivera at Harbor who had great techniques for getting the actors lines to match up with the lips of their original performance.
NFS: In your behind-the-scenes images, it looks like you had both a pilot and a camera operator. Can you describe the process of working as a two-person team? For our readers who only have experience flying solo, what advice can you offer for making the move to a pilot/camera operator team?
Trillo: Aerobo was incredibly thorough in doing everything in the safest way possible without compromising the vision. Brian from Aerobo was committed to doing something in the language of cinema and not aerial shots. This means the camera operator is just as important as the drone pilot.
The drone pilot and camera operator, while they are tied together, have different skill sets. I know there are a lot of amateur drone operators out there, but ideally your pilot has a pilot’s license and has an understanding of flight protocol. The drone pilot should only be concerned with keeping their eyes on the drone itself and making sure the drone is safe. The more the drone pilot is looking at a monitor and not at the drone, the longer they are putting up their blinders. You don’t drive a car by looking through a 35mm or 50mm viewfinder. You’re constantly checking your blindspots and looking for potential obstacles and risks. While the pilot should have a sense for cinematography and pacing, this is ultimately up for the director and DP to set those guidelines. The pilot should only be concerned with executing the job as safely as possible.
"The camera operator should not have to worry about the safety of the drone; they should be focused on the safety of the shot."
The camera operator should not have to worry about the safety of the drone; they should be focused on the safety of the shot. It’s their job to make sure the camera’s motions are smooth and paced accordingly. The camera operator does not necessarily need experience with drones, they only need to understand the principals of operating. They need to have good instincts in tracking the actor or action in a fluid manner. The camera op and pilot need to have a good level of communication, even a shorthand, so that the operator can guide the drone to the right places. I’d always recommend hiring a team over one person with their drone.
NFS: You mentioned in your email that post production was really challenging. Can you take us through that process and describe what some of the most difficult challenges were?
Trillo: Although this was one shot, there was a lot more post than I was expecting—about the same amount of time and work as if we shot it traditional with multiple takes.
Also I mentioned earlier, the ADR process with a bit arduous. It needed to be precise so that there was no signs of disconnect in the actor’s two performances. Once we had everything recorded, there was a good deal of work that went into sound mixing and editing (handled by Plush in NYC). The dialogue, words, syllables had to be sliced into bits to fit the lip sync. There was also some opportunity to tweak the story, take out a couple lines of dialogue and add some new lines in. The mix was ultimately finished in 5.1 so that the roving, 360-degree feel of the environment could really be felt.
Because this was one take, we didn’t have many choices in the “edit.” In fact, the shot we ended up going with was supposed to be our rehearsal take but it ended up being the best take we shot. However, even that rehearsal take wasn’t perfect. There were flubbed lines and some technical malfunctions. When Julien [*SPOILER*] pees his pants, we had a squib that was supposed to be activated from his belt. The squib failed, but since the actors were already halfway through take we just kept rolling. I figured this was our rehearsal take and that we wouldn’t end up using it. I was wrong. It was our best take and we had to use it or we had no film. The other problem with this shot was that the camera cut and created a new clip toward the end of the shot, and there were about 12 missing frames between the two video files. The only way to salvage the film was some invisible visual effects that brought that pee stain back and recreated 12 missing frames of footage.
'At the End of the Cul-de-Sac' is a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere from April 5. See this month's upcoming premieres below.
Vimeo Staff Pick Premieres: April Lineup
April 12th: Escape from Park City, dir. John Wilson
Synopsis: Escape From Park City chronicles the 2017 Sundance Film Festival that included a blizzard, Russian hacks, the Women’s March and more in John Wilson’s signature documentary approach that is riddled with subtle humor throughout.
About the Filmmaker: John Wilson worked as a private investigator in Boston for a year right after graduating from film school in 2008. Inspired by his previous occupation, he started shooting in a style that he calls “documentary memoir,” capturing lo-fi quotidian images of people and places mediated by his distinct narration style.
April 19th: Johnny Physical Lives, dir. Joshua Neuman
Synopsis: Johnny Physical Lives is the story of the secret world of two brothers making a rock ‘n’ roll documentary as one goes through treatment for leukemia. When younger brother Jonathan passes away in the midst of the production, older brother Joshua must finish the project on his own. A first time filmmaker, Joshua Neuman weaves footage of his brother Jonathan in and out of the hospital during treatment with an interview of Jonathan shot by famed documentarian Albert Maysles and live animation to “physically” bring to life Jonathan’s inner world, showing how he experienced cancer through the eyes of a rock star: the hospital became a seedy hotel, chemotherapy, the scandalous addiction fueling his music, and nurses, groupies at his beckon call.
About the Filmmaker: Joshua Neuman is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and the older brother of Jonathan Neuman. He grew up in Paramus, New Jersey, went to college at Brown University, and after a year of touring with his own band, Floorwalker. He received a Master’s Degree from the Harvard Divinity School, where he studied under Cornel West. He taught courses in the Philosophy of Religion for five years at New York University before joining the founding editors of the satirical Jewish culture magazine, Heeb. Los Angeles Weekly called Neuman “one-part philosopher, one-part Beastie Boy” and Marc Maron called his The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies (co-authored with David Deutsch, published by St. Martin’s Press, and optioned by Plant Films) the “smartest silly book ever written.” He has appeared on The Travel Channel, BBC Radio, VH1, The Sundance Channel, A&E Biography, Court TV, National Public Radio, and Extra and his speaking engagements have taken him around the globe. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2010, he has written jokes for The Friar’s Club Roast of Quentin Tarantino, edited the international fashion magazine Flaunt, and served as the head of content for two-time Webby Award honoree, GOOD. He was a producer of the ESPN Films “30 for 30” about ex-Los Angeles Laker A.C. Green and is the host of the Los Angeles Rams podcast, “The Greatest Show on Grass.”
April 26th: Hot Seat, dir. Anna Kerrigan
Synopsis: Teenaged Andrea uses a male stripper to gain the respect and admiration of cool girl Daphne. “Hot Seat,” which is based on a true story, explores coming-of-age sexuality and the complexities of relationships between teen girls.
About the Filmmaker: Anna Kerrigan is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker with a background in independent film, digital storytelling, and theater. She also directed “The Chances,” a digital series written by and starring two deaf actors, which will also premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Her Gotham-nominated digital series “The Impossibilities” (2015), a Vimeo Staff Picked comedy that she wrote and directed, follows the interwoven storylines of a magician and a daffy lesbian yogi. She was selected for the 2016 Fox Global Directors Initiative for episodic directing, is a Film Independent and Sundance Fellow and is developing a feature and high concept television show with Stephanie Langhoff and the Duplass Brothers. An accomplished playwright as well, she’s developed her theater projects with productions and development at Second Stage, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ensemble Studio Theater, Naked Angels and SPACE at Ryder Farm. Kerrigan graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Drama, then lived and worked in New York City for ten years.