Editor’s note: This is a post we originally wrote for DRONELIFE. Check out the original post here.
Drones were introduced into filmmaking as cheaper and safer alternatives for some helicopter shots. They could pull off (1) high-and-wide shots, so long as they weren’t too high, (2) sweeping shots, so long as they weren’t out of pilot’s sight, and not much else.
But in the past 5 years, drone technology has improved, and so has the imagination of the filmmakers who are using them.
Better camera gimbals, more durable hardware, and more sophisticated software has enabled cinematographers to push the limits of aerial cinematography. We’re seeing cameras fly full-speed towards cars and sweep up seconds before collision. We’re seeing cameras launch from the ground and circle around protagonists until they expose gorgeous backdrops. And we’re seeing cameras soar above treelines, only to dip through tree tops to expose a clandestine meeting between characters.
The drone is becoming a camera platform in its own right. And before long, drones will become part of any filmmakers’ toolbelt.
Better Camera Gimbals Bring Us Back To Earth
If you look at this video and this video, you’ll see the shakiness of the frame when the drone is close to its subject. This trembling is imperceptible when the camera is 500 feet in the air, but up-close, it’s quite clear that the camera platform is unstable.
Both videos were taken five years ago. The first was executed by a custom-built heavylift, and the second was taken by an off-the-shelf DJI Phantom drone. Neither of these drones had gimbals that could make up for the shakiness produced by the wind and the rotors of the drone. While the footage was good enough for web content, no serious filmmaker would allow for this sort of trembling frame in their film.
Today, however, off-the-shelf drones have considerably more sophisticated gimbal systems that stabilize big and small cameras alike. 3-axis drone gimbals stabilize along the yaw, pitch, and roll– and they’re available in all shapes in sizes. The sophisticated Movi Pro can be fastened to a heavylift drone to stabilize an Arri Alexa, and the X5s camera can be stabilized by the Inspire 2 gimbal system.
The shakiness and jitters are a problem of the past. Now, as long as the camera is moving, it’s moving along a smooth path. The following shots wouldn’t have been possible just four years ago:
Now that flying cameras can be used at all altitudes, filmmakers can use a drone for more than just a novelty item for aerial shots. They can be used capturing shots otherwise captured on land-based equipment, replacing jibs, dollies, and even, in many cases, even cranes and remote arm systems.
More Durable Hardware Lets You Get Closer to The Action
Early experiences with drones have turned some filmmakers off of them forever. The early systems– often built in pilot’s garages– were incredibly easy to crash, and incredibly expensive to fix. There were no off-the-shelf parts, so some pieces had to be borrowed from other industries and others had to be manufactured using cheap, readily available materials.
As a result, early drone companies had a lot of disgruntled customers. On a film set, where every minute can cost a hundred dollars, one bad experience could have been enough to set back the entire drone industry.
Today’s off-the-shelf drones, however, are nothing like their predecessors. Now manufacturers such as DJI are building drones to withstand inclement weather, heat, cold, and crashes— with off-the-shelf parts available for reasonable prices.
This means filmmakers can go, quite literally, where no filmmaker has gone before.
They can film cars falling out of a skyscraper:
They can capture fights on top of moving trains:
A large part of working on a movie set is just lugging equipment around as quickly as possible. This means loading and unloading cases, tossing equipment in and out of vans, and throwing a $100,000 pile of hardware in the dirt. Anything that is considered a “filmmaker’s tool,” needs to be durable enough to be tossed, dropped, and exposed to the harshest conditions.
Leading drone manufacturer, DJI, which owns over 70% market share has launched a shift upstream, to focus on enterprise use-cases. Since then, their drones’ performance has become more dependable and the hardware, more durable.
Filmmakers can throw a Mavic in the trunk of their car, right next to their backup camera and lens kit, and not have to think twice.
Better Software Gives More Filmmakers Control
When the FAA allowed for commercial drone flight in September of 2014, filmmakers were not the first in line for drone parts. Commercial pilots and engineers were. Today, there’s an entire sub-industry of drone pilots, who provide services exclusively to the film and entertainment world.
Initially, filmmakers weren’t interested in drones because they were simply too difficult to fly. And today, we’re still seeing the remnants of that time. The drone industry is distinct from the filmmaking industry, providing aerial film and photos to a number of other verticals, including agriculture, industrial inspection, and mapping. Very few serious filmmakers have invested in their own drone equipment.
But the software behind some of the most sophisticated drones is making drone flight considerably more accessible.
Today’s drones aren’t motors controlled by joysticks, the way remote-control helicopters once were. They have “smart” features that make the thing much harder to crash:
- Vision Positioning System (VPS) which keeps a drone steady, even if your hands are off the controls (or if its a windy day).
- Obstacle avoidance sensors which will keep you from flying a drone into the side of a building.
And each new DJI drone model that’s designed for aerial film and photo is equipped with new and simpler ways to fly the drone. The latest Spark can be controlled with a joystick, your iPhone, or your even your hands (“like a bloody Jeti”, according to one reviewer).
Drones have become increasingly sophisticated, lowering the barrier to entry for filmmakers and content creators interested in aerial film.
Film Equipment for The Renaissance Filmmaker
The filmmaking industry was once fragmented, with people sticking to one specialty throughout their careers. You’re either an editor, a VFX specialist, or a director of photography. Today’s filmmakers and content creators are able to tap into a number of different specialties.
All sorts of cinematic tools– from editing software to cameras– are being built with usability in mind, democratizing filmmaking. Today’s creators can wear several hats, but also have a deeper conversation about the project as a whole with their collaborators. We’ve never been better equipped to create art.
The drone is following suit. DJI drones are just like the DSLR camera, which can make anyone a photographer. Just like Adobe Premiere Pro, which can make anyone an editor. Technology is augmenting what tools creatives can implement to fulfill their creative vision. And the drone is no different.