How Drone Cinematography Works

A drone is a way safer bet for catching mesmerizing images of the bubbling Bardarbunga volcano system.
A drone is a way safer bet for catching mesmerizing images of the bubbling Bardarbunga volcano system.

Against a black night, glowing red-orange, molten lava pours down the sides of a volcano in the remote wastelands of northern Iceland. The camera operator swoops closer and closer. You can almost feel the heat pouring through the screen as the lava bubbles and spews. You begin to worry about whoever's holding the camera and whoever's flying the helicopter. You've seen the set-up: a chopper zooming overhead, cinematographer hanging out the side, risking life and limb for the perfect shot. What if that volcano stops bubbling and begins to blow?

You can stop worrying; the operator is a safe distance away, holding a joystick and looking at the monitor on his cellphone. The camera is a GoPro attached to an off-the-shelf drone called a quadcopter. It's a good thing too, because when Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for drone maker DJI, steers his drone back, he finds that the face of his camera has melted off [source: Lam].


To get this shot, Cheng had to drive 15 hours outside of Reykjavik to within 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) of the volcano's main caldera before deploying his toy. Even then, he was having trouble getting the right shot. A policeman who accompanied him said that if he went any closer, he'd be proceeding at his own risk. Cheng decided to take the chance. He hiked close enough to send his drone in for a series of extraordinary shots that would be impossible for a human holding a camera to achieve. Even better, he recorded the footage wirelessly as it was shot — so even if the camera was destroyed, he'd still have the results.

It's easy to see why the film world is getting excited about drone shots. They're safer, cheaper, and easier, and that's why it seems likely that the spectacle of a cinematographer dangling from a copter may soon go the way of silent film.

Joseph Kennedy was piloting an early-model drone when it exploded over Suffolk, England, in 1944.
Joseph Kennedy was piloting an early-model drone when it exploded over Suffolk, England, in 1944.

England, 1944: U.S. Navy pilot Joseph Kennedy guides his plane toward the continent on a mission to bomb a Nazi research facility. The plan is that once he reaches a predetermined altitude, he'll abandon the plane and parachute to safety. A "mothership" will then take over control of the aircraft, piloting it by remote radio-control until it crashes into its target and explodes. Tragically, Kennedy's plane explodes prematurely in mid-air over Suffolk before it even crosses the channel. Kennedy dies in the explosion, some 16 years before his younger brother becomes president of the United States [source: Sifton].

The quasi-drone Kennedy was piloting was part of the military's long evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Intriguingly, not only was he flying a proto-UAV, but the Nazi research facility it was aiming for was dedicated to building the older cousin of the UAV, the rocket. After the war, the U.S. recruited Nazi rocket scientists to help develop American missile technology. Thanks in part to America's success with rockets, UAV research slowed down until the Vietnam War. But because of miniaturization of the necessary technologies, together with concerns about pilot safety, military use of drones began to increase rapidly in the 1960s [source: Sifton]. Now, nearly 1 in every 3 planes used by the U.S. Air Force is a drone [source: Ackerman].

The miniaturization and proliferation of digital technology is the key element that has made the 21st century explosion in drone use possible. According to Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and cofounder of 3D Robotics, civilian use of small drones essentially took off when hobbyists realized they could use smartphone technology to control small UAVs. What started as a do-it-yourself geek-fest has rapidly turned into a growth industry as everybody from climate scientists to search-and-rescue professionals to parcel delivery companies realized how useful a drone can be.

Just how popular is this hobby? Anderson says that as of 2012, his customers alone were flying more drones than the entire U.S. military [source: Anderson].

Order your own drone, slap a camera on a mount and head out into the great beyond to make your movie.
Order your own drone, slap a camera on a mount and head out into the great beyond to make your movie.
marekuliasz/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

A breathtaking panoramic view of a lush green valley turns into a traveling shot as the camera swoops down between mountain ranges and coasts through the valley, following the course of a river until it reaches the sea. We're familiar with these views from nature and travel documentaries or the opening shots of epic feature films. Once upon a time they signaled high-production values and a budget big enough to pay for renting a helicopter and hiring both a first-rate pilot and an experienced, fearless cinematographer. Now, that same sweeping vista can be captured by a lone traveler with a drone and camera purchased from a department store.

In other words, that could be you hiking up some impressive summit, unpacking your UAV and guiding it through canyons and fjords, past waterfalls and wildlife. And that also means that we're about to be overwhelmed by incredible travel and nature cinematography as more and more filmmakers take advantage of this increasingly inexpensive technology.

National Geographic has used both drones and robots to capture extraordinary close-up shots of Serengeti lions that would've been impossible to safely film in person. Because lions hunt at night, the filmmakers floodlit areas with infrared light and used drones to record aerial views while the robots documented events on the ground [source: Toor].

Hollywood is already onboard. Films like "Skyfall," "The Hunger Games" and "Iron Man 3" have made extensive use of drones to film high-voltage action sequences more quickly and cheaply than ever before [source: Johnson]. A camera mounted on a crane can go up only so high before it reaches its limit. And a helicopter can come down only a certain distance before it begins to interfere with the shooting. As long as its battery lasts, the drone-mounted camera has no limits to its reach or range. Drone shots can include everything from extreme close-ups to panoramic vistas filmed from hundreds of feet up.

Unlike the long-range Predator drones used by the military, drone cinematography depends on small quadcopters or octocopters — with four or eight propellers, respectively. The range of options open to the cinematographer is vast, and, for pros, the equipment is often custom-made. For the aspiring drone filmmaker, the New York Film Academy recommends the Pocket Drone or the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Quadcopter, which comes with an attached high-definition camera. The cinematographer can control these devices with a virtual joystick on a smartphone [source: Zurko].

National Geographic photographer Kike Calvo uses the DJI Phantom, for instance, but he pilots the craft with a device called a Futaba Control Radio that offers increased range and less disruption from other radio frequencies. Calvo also uses carbon-fiber propellers, anti-gravity motors and something called a "first-person view system." This is a small camera on the nose of the drone that relays images to a monitor so he can pilot it as though he were actually onboard [source: Calvo].

Whether you're a hobbyist or a professional cinematographer, you have to follow the FAA's rules when it comes to piloting your drone-camera combo.
Whether you're a hobbyist or a professional cinematographer, you have to follow the FAA's rules when it comes to piloting your drone-camera combo.
marekuliasz/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

When productions like "Skyfall" have used drones, they were shooting in countries where it was legal to do so. In the U.S., it was illegal until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruled on drone cinematography in September 2014. Thanks to an application from a group of aerial photography companies, the FAA granted a waiver to six production companies to use UAVs. But even with these waivers, the rules are strict. Only certified pilots can guide the drones, they can't go higher than 400 feet (120 meters), can't film at night and must notify the FAA in advance so local air traffic control can be warned [source: Johnson].

For the hobbyist who wants to record drone footage for non-commercial purposes, the rules are similar. Although you don't need certification, the 400-foot (120-meter) ceiling applies, and if you're within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of an airport you must notify the FAA. The website Know Before You Fly offers clear guidelines and suggests checking with local authorities since the laws and ordinances that govern this kind of activity can vary from region to region. And make sure to do the same if you're planning to film abroad. To get that footage of the volcano in Iceland, for instance, Eric Cheng had to clear a few local bureaucratic hurdles first.

There are other restrictions besides the legal ones. As yet, the battery life for a typical drone isn't very long. In fact, it can be as short as three minutes if the drone is toting a heavy camera [source: Watercutter]. There's also the problem of learning to fly a drone so that it can shoot good footage. It can take quite a bit of practice to be able to control the machine well enough to have it stay focused on what you want to film while keeping the shot steady and smooth. By some accounts, however, a background in gaming is an asset.

If you already have a GoPro camera, you can buy a good drone for $600 or $700 and get started. For a few bones more, some drones now come with cameras attached [source: Popper].

With the right equipment -- like this DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter and GoPro Hero4 camera -- you just might make the next great piece of cinema.
With the right equipment -- like this DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter and GoPro Hero4 camera -- you just might make the next great piece of cinema.
abadonian/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

You know an innovation has moved from trend to full-fledged "thing" in the world of film and video when it gets its own festival. Claiming to be the first of its kind, The New York City Drone Film Festival debuted March 7, 2015. The screening took just two hours as a series of carefully selected shorts took viewers from the towering spires of Mont St. Michel on the coast of France to the turquoise waters of the Galapagos [source: Francescani].

While the bulk of these shorts were, in essence, documentaries, there was also a jaunty fictional short called "Superman with a GoPro." As the title indicates, we get the man of steel's POV as he speeds over cityscapes and landscapes on his mission to return a misplaced camera.

In one particularly haunting work called "The Fallout," a drone camera sails through the ghost town of Chernobyl. While radiation levels have fallen low enough that the nuclear disaster site has in recent years become a destination for tourists, the film has the feel of sci-fi poetry in which a robot camera surveys the ruins of a post-human future.

Speaking of the future, "The Fallout," taken together with the incredible footage of the Icelandic volcano mentioned in the intro, could point to at least one direction for the future of drone cinematography. That's the direction in which humans dare not venture. Hollywood has, so far, used drones as substitutes for helicopters and cranes. That means they take the kinds of shots we've come to expect from big budget films, only more safely and cheaply.

The full potential of drone cinematography has yet to be explored and will truly come of age when we see more unexpected and exciting footage like that taken by Eric Cheng at the Bardarbunga Volcano. Like that volcano, drone cinema will be both disruptive and creative. One way or another, it's certain to have a major influence on the future of film.

Author's Note: How Drone Cinematography Works

Near the end of his article called "How I Accidentally Kickstarted the Domestic Drone Boom," Chris Anderson talks about a product his company is working on — the idea is to make it possible to document your feats of derring-do with a drone. If you want to, say, scale a cliff-face and have the adventure captured for posterity, a drone mounted camera would hover at a pre-programmed distance, filming non-stop. It's not hard to extrapolate from this a future in which people walk around with a personal drone hovering nearby documenting their every move. At last, those who always dreamed of living inside the movies of their lives will get their wish.

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