5 Ways Hiring a Drone Operator Can Save You Time and Money

Save Time & Money by Hiring a Drone Operator
Save Time & Money by Hiring a Drone OperatorCredit: Randall Esulto
Drone operators can do more than you think.

Filmmakers instinctively think of drones being used to get high, wide, establishing shots or as cameras that can be positioned in places traditional equipment cannot. But a knowledgeable and skilled drone operator knows how to go beyond the obvious and use their drone to do a lot more than capture high establishing shots. As such, there are many ways that hiring a professional drone operator for your next production can help you save time and money. Here are five of them. 

1. Use a drone for dolly & jib shots

Drones can move right, left, forward and backward in a straight line all while carrying cameras stabilized by 3-axis gimbals. They can produce smooth, consistent moving shots that mimic the movements of legacy filmmaking equipment. This saves you money in two ways. First, you don't have to rent a dolly, track, and pay a crew to set it up, operate it, and tear it down. Secondly, you'll stretch the value of your drone operator's day rate by having them capture some of the traditional shots as well as the obvious drone shots.

You might think that because your shot list doesn't contain high altitude aerials, your production doesn't "need" a drone op. But, if you're planning to get a bunch of dolly and jib shots, you might be surprised how much time and money you can save by enlisting an experienced drone operator to get those shots for you. As a bonus, you might even get the high-altitude shots you didn't think you could afford.

2. Use a drone as a Steadicam

DJI illustrated this concept when it released the Inspire 2. Your drone operator can hand-hold and walk the drone just as you would a hand-held gimbal or Steadicam in order to do walk & talk shots or any other ground-based gimbal shots on your list. While it seems that everyone has handheld gimbals these days, drones can do all the work of a handheld gimbal and then some. By developing a relationship with a local drone operator, you might be able to fill the "Steadicam operator" position on your team while getting a drone operator to boot. 

Credit: DJI
3. Vehicle chase shots

Today's drone operators know how to use the advanced technology and sensors in professional UAVs to create complex shots like chasing cars and motorcycles through winding country roads and parking garages. You no longer need to rent a vehicle mount and risk one of your main terrestrial cameras since your drone operator might be able to get you the same shot for a lot less money and in a lot less time. 

Top-Down View of the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ
Top-Down views from drones allow you to view your shoot location from a vantage point that makes pre-production planning easier.Credit: Randall Esulto

4. Let the drone help with pre-production

It's obvious to think of how a drone might be used during filming, but what about before the shoot begins? Would getting a bird's eye view of your shoot location help you visualize, block, and plan your shots better? Could that help avoid wasting time and money resetting or re-shooting on the day? Even if you already have your entire crew on board, it might be a worthwhile investment to hire a drone op for a day to film/photograph your intended shoot location throughout the day in order to get insight about lighting and environmental conditions that may play into your blocking. 

New Bridge Crossing December, 2017
Julio Macat suggests using a camera placed in a location that can tell your entire story from that one vantage point. Taking this advice, use the drone as a catch-all by having your drone operator position the drone so that it can capture all of your action in a single take. This way, you will always have a fall back in case you can't get your shot from any of your other cameras and will save time, money, by avoiding reshoots. Credit: Randall Esulto

5. Use a drone as a catch-all angle

When we covered the last Sight, Sound, and Story event, Julio Macat (DP Home Alone) talked about the importance of using what he and the crew called a "bonus cam" as a catch-all angle. He placed the "bonus cam" in a position that would allow them to tell the entire story of that particular scene from a single vantage point. Macat explained that he did this in order to have the confidence of knowing that even if they got nothing usable from any of the other three cameras they had on set, they would be able to use the "bonus cam" footage. Interestingly enough, he said that it was the "bonus cam" footage that frequently got chosen over the other angles in the final cut. 

Since your drone operator can easily position the drone virtually anywhere in 3D space, they could become your production's "bonus cam" ensuring that you never miss a shot and save yourself the time money and aggravation involved with reshooting scenes.

Can you think of any other ways a drone op might save time and money for your productions? Let us know in the comments.     

Featured image and embedded video by Randall Esulto of BerCo Aerial.

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Your Comment


"1. Use a drone for dolly & jib shots!
If you like the sound of humming propellers in your shot. Go ahead.

"2. Use a drone as a Steadicam"
There is an important word on set: safety
Hire a Steadicam operator, use a dolly or reframe the shot.

"3. Vehicle chase shots"
There is an important word on set: safety
Rent the proper vehicles or reframe the shot.

"4. Let the drone help with pre-production"
Google maps is your friend.

"5. Use a drone as a catch-all angle"
That is called a master shot, but I have not seen any one from the air. Maybe because it makes no sense. But on set, we use a crane for such things.
No humming propellers.

Drones are overused these days. As well as gimbals. They do not give production value anymore. Rather the opposite.

January 9, 2018 at 12:27PM, Edited January 9, 12:28PM

Steadicam Operator/Owner

1) Sure you might not want to use a drone if the scene involves dialogue (though it's been done successfully). But if it's a jib shot where in-camera audio isn't important (music video, commercial, action scene with no dialogue, etc) I agree. "Go ahead" the drone is faster to deploy and isn't limited by the length of the jib arm.

2) This is unsafe because? Have the drone op carry the drone while a second camera op controls the gimbal (like you would a Ronin or a Movi). Oh wait...did you think the props have to be spinning for the camera to work? No, they don't. The camera and gimble can function without the props running.

3) "Safety" again. So...this is unsafe why? Seems to me that if you have one vehicle and one drone on the road vs two vehicles there would be less "risk" to human life using the drone. Maybe I'm missing something?

4) Yeah Google Maps is awesome but Google maps doesn't show the changing light throughout the day does it? A drone op could take stills at intervals to provide a real look at the real-world lighting conditions throughout the day and do it in-season (a summertime Google Earth image doesn't provide the same value if you're shooting in the dead of winter)

5) Sure, if you can afford a crane. But since this article is written for filmmakers on a budget, it was assumed that cranes would be more expensive.

I mean I get it. I'm a drone op and you're a Steadicam operator and some pushback about the drone doing "your" job is understandable. Are drones and gimbals "over used" quite possibly. But it's not the gear, it's the method. Using tools in new ways never goes out of style and this article is trying to suggest some creative uses for a (now) commonplace tool.

Just out of curiosity, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how gimbals (but not Steadicams) detract from the value of a production.

January 9, 2018 at 7:19PM, Edited January 9, 7:20PM

Randall Esulto
Licensed sUAS Pilot, Photographer, Creative Professional

Interesting, I thought this was going to focus on how a drone op can save you money vs. doing it yourself. As someone that shoots and fly's, I get a lot of directors asking me with the cost of drones so low why they dont do it themselves. There's lots of reasons, insurance, certification, and of course, knowledge, but it seems to be a common amateur move to think the cost of hiring a drone op is better differed to buying the equipment and doing it yourself.

I will say the drone is capable of doing some very sophisticated moves that would normally be handled by someone with a Ronin or MoVI rig (I can her MoVI ops saying it's an amateur move to hire a drone op to do their job;) but really if you are tight on budget and need to get creative, there are certain shots that can be amazing, like going through a home then out a window to an aerial. Thing to consider here is size, which a stabilized drone trumps a full MoVI rig.

January 9, 2018 at 4:08PM

Roberto Serrini
Director • Editor

Yeah I mean I guess it's a question of who is doing the filming? If you as the filmmaker are licensed and comfortable enough flying the drone and filming with it then it's almost a no-brainer to buy a drone and use it yourself. But if you're not, and you'll end up wasting a bunch of time by not getting the drone shots right and then having to wait around while batteries charge, etc it's probably most efficient to hire a drone operator who can potentially help you capture other shots (like your Steadicam shots, dolly/jib shots, etc). If you're hiring a drone op for the day who is knowledgable enough to be able to help you capture other kinds of shots (besides the obvious aerials) you're getting more bang for your buck. Plus if you can hire one drone op to do the job of "drone op" and "jib op" there's a cost savings there.

January 9, 2018 at 7:28PM

Randall Esulto
Licensed sUAS Pilot, Photographer, Creative Professional