Drones aren't just for establishing shots anymore.
You may not think that a drone is an effective storytelling tool by itself, but the Drone Film Festival and many of its entrants are out to prove differently. The winner of the Narrative category in the most recent L.A. version of the fest, Cardboard Cadet, is a charming example of a film shot almost entirely from the air. In fact, all entries in the festival have to include at least 50% of their shots created by drones.
In this video, Cardboard Cadet's director Chris Castor shares some tips with Drone Film Festival founder Randy Scott Slavin on what helped him successfully execute his vision and tell his fest-winning story. According to Castor, these are five things he kept in mind while making his film that proved successful. As Slavin points out, telling stories in any medium is difficult and many of these tips make great advice for all filmmakers and storytellers—not just those shooting with drones. Check out the video and read our top takeaways below.
1. Set yourself apart
As with any form of storytelling and filmmaking, Castor notes that it's important to find some way to make your presentation stand out from all the other films out there. Try to think of something that hasn't been done before and find a way to accomplish it. Even if you can't 100% do the thing you are striving for, making an attempt at something novel is certainly a step in the right direction and will go a long way toward differentiating your work from everyone else's.
Along these same lines, we'd include "go against the grain" in this point. With drone work, one of the quickest ways to make yourself and your work seem unimaginative is opening up with a high-altitude, wide shot. Those are nothing new and have been accomplished with helicopters, balloons, and even RC helicopters way before drones were a thing. As soon as drones became affordable, a lot of filmmakers went after the "epic" look because drones were cheap. That means that the high, wide establishing shot is already getting played out.
Like you'll find with any new technology, as the barrier to entry (price) lowers, talent and execution remain the differentiators. So, in this interview, Castor is trying to encourage filmmakers to think of ways to be subtle and nuanced with the drone in order to set your work apart. Rather than going for something obvious, try to think of shots that only a drone can pull off.
Rather than going for something obvious, try to think of shots that only a drone can pull off.
2. Play to your strengths
Many of today's drone operators came from doing other types of film and photography work professionally first and, of course, everyone has interests and other areas of expertise outside of droning. By thinking about some of the things you have experience with and how can make them more interesting by introducing a drone to your workflow, you'll help tell stories that you're interested in and have a unique ability to tell. Those two factors will brand your storytelling with your own unique voice and style and will work in conjunction with Castor's first tip to further help set your work apart.
3. Shoot stories with heart
Castor stresses shooting stories that have heart and that can pull the viewer in by connecting with them, building empathy, and using conflict to make us root for the hero and hate the villains. While this tip isn't drone specific, conflict is a building block of all good stories and cannot be overlooked.
4. Use everything you have to your advantage
This fourth tip is nothing new to indie filmmakers to be sure and is a valuable piece of advice whether you're shooting on the ground or in the air. In his interview, Castor makes mention of the fact that his passion projects have always been backed with little or no budget. Learning how to access his resources (both inside and outside the film world) has been invaluable. When working on a project like this, Castor suggests thinking about how you can use the people and equipment that you have immediately available to you in order to tell your story "in the most professional way."
Develop a network of people who can rally around you in order to help you realize your vision.
5. Develop strong relationships
The fifth and last tip piggybacks off of Castor's fourth tip about making the most of what you have, but this fifth piece of advice focuses on developing a network of people who can rally around you in order to help you realize your vision. Because he has consciously nurtured good relationships with the people around him, Castor has been able to rally people to pitch in and volunteer to help him achieve his goals. As with the last one, this tip is one that applies to all filmmakers and not just drone operators.
Check out Chris Castor's film "Cardboard Cadet", winner of the Best Narrative category at the 2017 Los Angeles Drone Film Festival, below.