A modern drone being photographed hovering in front of a large and lush mountain range

VIDEO

Touch the sky with drone videography.

Filmmakers have always loved giving audiences a bird’s-eye view of the action. With drones, aerial photography is more accessible than ever.

Learn aerial photo and video basics.

  • Drones allow filmmakers to follow the action from the air.
  • Quadcopters and other remote-controlled aircraft are usually easier to use, cheaper, and more flexible than cranes or helicopters.
  • Drones are aircraft. Operating one requires a license. Obey all relevant laws and regulations.
  • Smaller drones can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes, but they can only carry small cameras. Larger drones carry high-quality cameras, but they have a shorter battery life.    

The cinematic allure of aerial shots.

Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil begins with a famous opening shot: The camera seems to fly over rooftops and down streets as it follows a car. The camera couldn’t actually fly, of course. Touch of Evil’s famous opener was filmed with a crane, and accomplishing the illusion of flight took careful planning. But today’s filmmakers can actually make their cameras fly via the wonder of drone videography.

       

“It’s a lot easier than getting in a helicopter or hiring a whole film crew and doing a jib-and-crane shot,” says Paul Vu, creative director at Here and Now Agency. “A drone allows you to get all these new perspectives. You can fly lower than a helicopter. If you have a crane, the limitation is how long the arm is. But a drone can go up to 400 feet in the air really quickly.”

 

Drone photography is great for establishing shots, any shot that follows action from the air, and shots that give the viewer a bird’s-eye view of the goings-on.    

A photographer in a grassy field removing a bright orange drone from its black bespoke travel case

Drone size, cameras, batteries, and flight time.

The size of a drone limits what kind of camera you can fly into the air, as well as how much battery life and flight time you have to work with. “If you have a smaller drone, then you’re obviously not using a big cinema-grade camera, the kind you use in movie production,” says Vu. “You can certainly fly one of those, but you need more people involved. The average person is looking at a small drone, though, so the image quality isn’t going to be quite as good.”

 

Plan your shots based on flight time and battery power. Drones equipped for the highest-quality cinematography are much larger and heavier. Those heavy-duty, professional drones can stay in the sky for about seven to eight minutes. 

 

However, while pros using the biggest drones get only a few minutes to work, beginners with smaller models get a bit more time in the air. A small drone geared toward first-time aerial videographers will probably have about 30 minutes of flight time. That’s plenty of time to adjust shots, explore angles, and have fun flying around.

 

The bigger the drone, the more you have to plan. Scout elevations and angles with the little guys, deploy the best drones only after your shot is clear and ready, and make sure to work drone shots into your shooting script, just like everything else that you’ll train a lens on.    

How to fly the safe and friendly skies.

Drones might make filmmakers feel free as a bird, but the sky still has rules. Aerial photographers need to register their craft with the relevant authorities and make sure they’re prepared for sudden losses of altitude.

       

Know where you can legally fly.

Drones are aircraft, and in the US that means they’re regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial drone pilots must have a license to fly their machines. 

 

“You can’t fly over airports or certain construction sites,” says Vu. “You can get fined by the FAA. If you’re in a different country you might go to jail.” Before rolling on any aerial video, check that you have all the requisite licenses and that you’re allowed to actually fly where you want to. Nothing slows down a video production like finding out that you can’t, in fact, get footage in the location you planned on.

 

Stay safe and have a plan for crashes.

Drone safety has to do just as much with the practical reality of flight as it does with regulation. According to Vu, crashes are inevitable. “It’s not if you’re going to crash,” he says. “It’s more like when. Be safe, and be sure you get all your data off it. Don’t leave stuff on a drone that shouldn’t be on there.” Make sure you download your drone footage onto a more secure, earthbound storage device after each flight session.

 

Make sure your drone is easy to find if it ever gets lost. Most professional drones also come equipped with beacons or tracking devices to help you find them in the event of a rough landing. 

Famous drone shots.

Drones are becoming the norm in the film industry. These are three high-profile movies that captured footage with a flying camera and a remote pilot.

 

Skyfall

James Bond has always had an affinity for cutting-edge gadgets. In 2012, a gadget worthy of Q’s supply cabinet was behind the camera. Several shots of Skyfall’s opening motorbike chase were filmed with drones, taking the viewer over the rooftops of Istanbul as Bond pursued his quarry.

       

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese is famous for his ambitious shots. In The Wolf of Wall Street, he uses a drone in an establishing shot, one that gradually creeps up on a packed beach party. It’s an establishing shot, but it’s also dynamic and propulsive, making you feel like you’re a part of the festivities even as the filmmaker is simply showing the setting.

 

Jurassic World

The dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies are usually CGI, but the sets are real enough. In Jurassic World, pterosaurs dive-bomb the main thoroughfare of the titular park, and the camera, flying over the panicked crowd on a drone, zooms along, adding to the feeling of speed, flight, and aerial action.     

Making the most of drone shots.

Filmmakers have wanted to put eyes in the sky since the earliest days of movies. Drones help you do what generations of cinematographers dreamed of, but when it comes to high-quality drone photography, you don’t need to overdo it. “The simpler the better,” says Jamie Goodwick, owner and chief flight officer of PORTLANDRONE. The very fact that you’re in the air and seeing things from a lofty vantage point should be enough. Good aerial footage is a stunning visual effect in and of itself.

 

“A lot of good drone footage is just really steady shots,” says Goodwick. “For establishing shots, the slower the better. You can do a lot of storytelling with just a simple rise over a city."



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