How Drone Cinematography Works

A Drone's-Eye View
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].