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How to Tell Stories with Flying Cameras

Drones enable you to fly a camera— but few filmmakers are on to what that means.

Most filmmakers use drones for those wide-angle, establishing shots that have been used in films for the past three decades. This aerial footage can be breathtaking and is great for orienting the audience for the following scene, but they’re not the only reason to strap wings to your Red Epic.

A drone shouldn’t be thought of just another camera accessory. “Think of it like a Steadicam,” says Aerobo chief pilot Dexter Kennedy. “It’s not a flying camera. It’s a camera— that also can fly. You’re talking about moving a camera anywhere in 3D space, quickly and easily.”

This 3-dimensional maneuverability drastically expands the storytelling possibilities. Even on a budget, you can take advantage of the drone’s dynamic motion, its unique vantage point, and its ability to cover long distance.

Here’s a deep dive into what a drone can really do on set.

Use Dynamic Motion to Build Suspense

In well-executed scenes, there’s a lot that’s left unsaid. The camera plays an integral part in translating what can’t be put into dialogue or action. Normally, however, the camera is limited in how it can be moved— and so, communication with the audience is also limited.

When the camera can fly, however, you’re not limited by your equipment. You don’t have to choose between a jib shot, a crane shot, and a dolly shot— you seamlessly move between one, another, or all three in one fluid motion. This creates the opportunity for a new type of engagement with the audience.

You can use a drone for close-range, long, uninterrupted takes to hold the audience’s attention as the dynamic motion heightens the pressure of the scene. Never cutting, moving from character to character, from action to action, will help build up the tension. A great example of this is in indie director Paul Trillo’s short, “At the End of the Cul-de-Sac:”

The moving in and panning from about 00:00:50 to 00:01:03 could normally be accomplished with a jib. The subsequent movement of the camera from the principal character to the couple might be pulled off with a dolly with a boom (00:01:31), and the high shot (00:01:54) that follows might be pulled off with a crane.

Trillo, however, chose not to cut. Instead, he chose to keep the camera in constant movement. The aerial footage heightens the tension that isn’t being displayed outwardly. Had Trillo chopped up this short film, the audience might lose interest and never get to the surprising and climactic ending to the piece.

Moving the camera more quickly further intensifies pressure felt by the audience. Take a look at this example from our work with Underground:

Here, we start with a movement that might’ve been accomplished with a jib [00:00:00], then a movement that would require a dolly [00:00:08], then with a crane [00:00:18]. But the cinematographer made the decision to not make any cuts as the protagonist finds out the news, runs through the house, and exits through the back door. Each step heightens the pressure, and the audience, just like the character, doesn’t catch a break.

These uncut, dynamic shots have been hitherto limited to on-the-ground shots, accomplished via a Steadicam. They helped pull the audience into the film, experiencing the action alongside the characters. But drones let the director play with the proximity to the ground and actors as they inject kinetic energy into the scene.

Use a Unique Perspective to Limit Understanding

In literature, the narrator is the storyteller. In film, it’s the cameraman. The strategic placement of the camera determines how much the audience learns about any given storyline and at which moments they get to be in on the action.

Typically, a lot of time and manpower has to go into camera placement on a large set (and film crews can get quite inventive with the kind of rigs that they think up). A drone, however, is agile and safe enough to be flown where no cam op or pilot has every flown before— and aerial footage doesn’t have to be 1000 feet in the air. It might be peering from an underground canyon, moving through the treetops, or following a character through tight spaces.

Unique perspectives let filmmakers play with how much or little the audience learns about what’s going on in the story. Take a look at this up-close-and-personal drone shot of Hugh Grant in The Greatest Showman:

Here, the camera circles around Grant like a carousel, making the audience feel as though they’re on stage, right alongside of him. The camera gets closer, showing us just how magnetic this personality is, right in the opening scene.

Compare that to the following shot from Mr. Robot:

Here the audience’s perspective is strictly limited. These mysterious characters’ conversation is not revealed to us, and we don’t learn their significance until later in the episode. This is heightened by the more-distant drone shot that follows:

Filming from a distance, of course, has always been part of filmmaking— but having the capability of playing with lateral and horizontal motion helps expand how you achieve this type of visual narration.

You can experiment with voyeuristic shots that pique the audience’s curiousity as they look onto the action from a unique perspective. You might even hide the drone or have it film through something that semi-obstructs the picture to add to the feeling that what’s happening isn’t meant for outside eyes and ears.

Use Long Distances to Improve Transitions

One distinct component of visual storytelling is transitioning between settings. You need your audience to catch on to where you’ve moved the action, why, and how it fits into the larger picture, spatially and contextually. There are a number of ways to do this: nod to it in dialogue, show a car leaving the driveway, use an establishing shot— but few of these use the transition as a means by which to move the story forward.

The unique ability of drones to track subject for long stretches at a time enables storytellers to turn transitions into journeys. Drones can fly for up to 20 minutes at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. Rather than a filler shot, created for the sake of exposition, you can make better use of movement from place to place.

Take this example from Preacher:

The shot starts on the ground, as the villain steps up to the camera. The camera circles around him and lifts off the ground, exposing his destination: New Orleans. This shot could’ve been a simple establishing shot of the city, but instead, the cinematographer chose to introduce a character and underline the significance of him making his way towards the scene.

In The Space Between Us, the cinematographer makes use of this time in a different way:

He showcases the setting of where the protagonist is headed. In the film, we already know that some of the action takes place near NASA headquarters in D.C., so this backdrop— with its clearly recognizable Mid-West terrain— underscores the magnitude of this character’s journey.

A drone lets you present these transitions in the most cinematic way possible while moving the story forward.

An Unfettered Camera Makes for Lofty Execution

Flying cameras are not just for capturing aerial footage. They give filmmakers the ability to place a camera anywhere in a matter of seconds. This not only expands the possibilities in terms of angles and movements, but it lightens the load in terms of resources.

There’s no building rigs or hauling equipment involved, which opens up the opportunity for experimentation. Not sure if a jib shot will capture the full effect? Try that, a crane shot, and a dolly shot over the course of an hour— and compare the three. String them together, and see how that captures the essence of the scene.

Drones expand what’s possible with visual storytelling and give filmmakers the time and resources for creativity.

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