As a group, filmmakers are usually at the forefront of using new technology. While some have to be dragged, kicking and screaming into a new era—the endless debates about the sanctity of film vs. digital come to mind—most willingly embrace new technology because it will help them achieve their goals in a more efficient and cost effective way. And in some cases, that new technology also makes possible something that was unimaginable just a few years before.
One of the technologies that may change filmmaking—even indie filmmaking—in the next few years is the incorporation of aerial cinematography through the use of drones. Just think of the cost factor alone, in how a drone may eliminate the need (if not the desire) to use a crane or an actual piloted helicopter or other aircraft. A filmmaker may be able to compose shots that would have been prohibitive—or nearly impossible—just a few short years earlier.
Of course, you have to view a drone the way you would any other instrument. Filmmakers would be wise to use them only if it fits their project, lest it becomes the modern equivalent of a fish eye lens: interesting at first, then it enters the overkill stage, and then finally, who cares?
But drones are starting to work their way into everyday conversation in many walks of life. In a recreational sense, they’re more than just radio-controlled toys. They have applications for military, law enforcement, agriculture…the list goes on and on. Of course, there are also negative connotations: more than a few drones have been shot down by an angry neighbor and what happens if your drone flies away due to GPS malfunction or meets its end in some other unforeseen way?
On the eve of the Sundance Film Festival 2015 panel discussion, The Sky’s The Limit: Drone Cinematography and the Future of Filmmaking, Film Slate Magazine caught up with Michael Shabun, Manager of Brand Partnerships at DJI. The panel was held in the Canon Creative Studio,as part of Canon’s partnership with DJI (for a list of all the events held in conjunction with Canon at Sundance this year, click here). Formed in 2006 by Frank Wang and based in Hong Kong, DJI is among the world’s leaders when it comes to drone production and technological advancements in the field.
Things Filmmakers Want to Know
Once you move past cost, filmmakers are largely concerned with how the equipment works, how it works with their equipment, and how it will best enable them to capture the image.
“A lot of them ask about the capabilities of the technology, the type of camera that it holds, how the application can help them capture the right kind of content, so it’s a lot of really technical questions which we love,” Shabun said. “They ask us what type of formats they can get their images in and customize their controllers for one button to reset the camera gimbal or another button to increase the ISO. So there’s always these awesome technical questions that we’re dealing with.”
Filmmakers are much like musicians, or any craftspeople that rely on tools, instruments, or equipment in their respective professions. Some guitarists swear by Gibson, some by Fender, and some will play nothing but a hand crafted instrument from a luthier they have known for 30 years. Filmmakers are the same way. Some will only use Canon, some will only use Arriflex…You get the point.
DJI is the leading company when it comes to producing drones, both for consumer and professional applications. They have an ease of use factor, a low price factor, and a technology factor that puts them ahead of the curve. The Phantom series is almost ubiquitous when it comes to the nascent world of drones.
As quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “The DJI Phantom series is like the Model T,” said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies drone issues and owns three Phantoms. “Back in the day, you could talk about cars, but pretty much every car on the road was one of these Model Ts.”
And while the Inspire and Phantom series are being used in many applications, they are definitely favored by consumers. If you are a director or a cinematographer, and you’re using a larger, more complex camera, you’ll need to consider your needs accordingly.
Said Shabun: “So we make a professional line of products called the Spreading Wings series and obviously it’s a much bigger copter, and it has anywhere from six arms to eight arms for our larger model and those hold the professional grade cameras like the 5D, the DH4, and the Sony A7Xs of the world and even the Black Magic …”
Flying Legally and Flying Safely
Occasionally, the use of drones can make some people uncomfortable. There are privacy questions and legal questions involved. As a filmmaker, you need to be well-versed in these areas before you simply take to the air and start filming. Some of it is just simple etiquette. You wouldn’t think of hiding in the bushes while filming your neighbor, would you? Would you? Good. It’s probably wise not to use your drone to do that either. Since this is a new technology, the FAA is still working on the regulations in regards to drones.
“Well, right now (and I’m sure you know this), it’s the Wild, Wild West with drones,” Shabun said. “So, the FAA is working on a set of laws that are supposed to come out in the next year or so. But right now what the FAA is doing is that they’re issuing a 333 exemption for various film production companies, and I believe there are about nine of them out right now [There are now 15–ed. Click here to see a list of all the 333 exempted companies]. Technically, if you want to be filming aerial for commercial purposes, you’ll either contract one of these companies or operate under their umbrella.”
Part of flying drones or using them for aerial cinematography is knowing your own experience level or that of your team. You don’t want your production to be halted because of some untimely accident.
“So, it’s starting at the Phantom and ending at the Inspire,” Shabun said in reference to the model lines from DJI. “They’re both really out of the box solutions. So you’re flying within ten minutes of taking it out of the box. Now, what we recommend any time you fly there should be a three man team, right. There’s a pilot, there’s a gimbal operator, and there’s a spotter. At DJI we want to make sure that people are using our products safely. So not only do we jam pack them with safety features, but we also make a lot of recommendations on proper fight etiquette, what you should do to make the experience really safe and effective.”
Shabun says that DJI is looking to further help filmmakers with the introduction of the Ronin, a camera stabilization rig. As technology has helped the indie filmmaker close the perception gap as it relates to smaller productions and larger ones, the productions start to look better and better.
“The Ronin has revolutionized the film industry market or is beginning to. It’s our first move into hand held stabilization systems,” Shabun said. “So, it combines our gimbal technology and allows you to mount a camera up to 16 pounds on this hand held rig. So you’re able to walk around with a RED camera without having a giant crane holding it for you. It’s really helping a lot of the smaller cinematographers; it’s helping in a number of other categories. Documentarians who are always on the road, people who don’t have a lot of time.”
What Does This All Mean?
This doesn’t even take into account all of the practical questions it comes to when selecting a drone that suits your needs. Do your research. There are websites or people on social media extolling the virtues of one company vs. another; there are horror stories, and probably twice as many people happy with their drone experience; and there are the people who are convinced that drones will be used by terrorists to invade your hometown.
We’re viewing this in a strictly filmmaking-centric application. Drones have become more affordable the longer they have been around—as with any technology. And as with any technology, in the right hands, filmmakers can accomplish amazing things by using drones or even a handheld stabilization rig like the Ronin. From strictly a cost standpoint, anything that costs a few thousand, or even several thousand thousands, is less expensive that what major productions have to worry about. But will this create another class of indie filmmaker? Something akin to middle class and lower middle class?
It all comes down to what the filmmaker is willing to sacrifice vs. what the production needs. That’s always been the equation, but as more and more things become available to the indie filmmaker—and as they try to keep up with the ever changing needs of what it takes to get their movie seen—there are more things to consider. That’s right, kids. The brave new world is here.