In 2004, before personal action cameras were considered a class of consumer photography products, a little startup called GoPro released its first waterproof disposable-like camera that used a 35mm roll of Kodak film. That 35mm GoPro sold over US$150,000 in the first year, and the company’s focus on affordable consumer-priced action cameras has not only driven its sales figures to double every year since, but, more than ten years on, the devices have also fundamentally changed the way audiences interact with extreme sports. In many ways, the early days of the consumer drone industry are similar to those of the action camera industry.
Apart from the fact that many consumer drones actually use GoPro devices as the included modular camera, the types of footage drones can capture is fundamentally different to anything emerging from first-person action cameras and land-based cinematography. Drones are forging a new frontier of cinematography, and starting to hit a price point that makes them appealing to a broad audience.
In March this year New York hosted the world’s first drone film festival, which accepted entries on the proviso that at least 50% of the footage was shot using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Randy Scott Slavin, the man behind The New York City Drone Film Festival, even said in the lead-up to the event that drones would be an important part of every film set of the future.
The LA-based band OK Go won one of the categories at the festival with a clip that featured the band members riding Honda’s unusual UNI-CUB Segway-like seats, in an intricately choreographed modern dance routine filmed by a multi-rotor drone.
This sat alongside other category winners including drone pilot Daniel Ashbey’s cinedrone showreel of exceptional footage of big wave surfing, professional skiing and mountain bike riding that captured the intensity of each activity while showing off the drone’s freedom to simultaneously explore the beauty of the surrounding environment.
The competition had eight categories, and although each of the winners are outstanding in various ways, the competition had a distinct edginess that emerged from a range of unique new camera angles, giving the clearest indication yet of how big an impact drones will have on the future of film.
The reason drones have not been integral to every Hollywood movie’s aerial shots in the past few years is not because studios are unaware of their potential, but because the US has had a blanket ban on any use of drones for commercial purposes in place since 2011.
In September of last year, however, the Federal Aviation Administration finally got around to giving six exemptions to drone filming companies, and the first films to capitalize on this are only just starting to appear in cinemas and on streaming services.
Some of the films on this list are just hitting cinemas now and others – filmed in countries with less stringent drone laws – have been out for some time, but together they make a pretty strong case for the competency of this still-maturing method for capturing film.
South African director Neill Blomkamp’s debut movie was the critically acclaimed District 9, and while Chappie may have had less positive reviews than Blomkamp’s first film, it contained some interesting firsts of its own.
Out of all the films we touch on that include drones, none have embraced the new tech as holistically as Chappie. Not only were drones used to shoot a number of the scenes in the film, the actors used them as a reference point to look at when interacting with characters that would need to be added in post-production.
In an interview, John Gore, one of the drone operators on the film, talked about a scene in which one of the robot characters runs through a glass window that was filmed using his drone. Traditionally this shot would have been done on a cable camera, but the quadcopter gave the shot a greater sense of speed and organic movement.
The Expendables 3
The opening scene of The Expendables 3 features a low-flying helicopter in which our heroes are pursuing a speeding train. With bullets, guns, explosions and a lot of speed it’s not the easiest sequence to capture on camera, especially if you’re trying to create something distinct from the many other films that have similar scenes.
The drone shots offer an immediacy that would have been difficult to achieve with only fixed shots from the train or the helicopter cabin, as is the Mission Impossible helicopter/train scene. This is probably the most expensive and complicated film scene to use a drone to date, and it’s successful largely because of the angles captured by the drone.
In all, 30 scenes shot using ZM Interactive’s drone made it into the final cut of the film, from hover-shots over exploding buildings and dirt bike jumps to tank chases.
While drones are broadly a new technology in films, there is one company that has been using its custom-designed single-rotor petrol drone for filming since the late 1980s: Flying-Cam, which even won an Academy Award for technical innovation in drone cinematography way back in 1995, and another in 2014.
Flying-Cam’s drones have captured footage for an astounding array of films, from Captain America, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and installments of the Harry Potter and Mission Impossible franchises back to older hits including A Beautiful Mind and The Beach.
The Transformers movie was released in 2014, before the US drone exemptions were in place; however the scenes for which drones were employed were shot in Hong Kong, where the laws regarding drone use are more lenient. Similarly, the opening motorbike chase in Skyfall, which was partly shot by a Flying-Cam drone, occurs in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street hit cinemas at the end of 2013, and filming took place smack-bang in the middle of the FAA’s blanket bans on commercial drone use in the US.
The pool party scene occurs at a Hamptons beach house on Long Island, New York and the initial location shot for this scene was captured by the US based drone cinematography company Freefly. The bird’s-eye shot begins off the coast, and moves in to capture an aerial view of the pool party using a Canon C500 camera mounted on one of the company’s octocopter drones.
Game of Thrones
The hit TV show Game of Thrones has an unusual problem with the camera-carrying quadcopters – it has too many of them. But it’s not so much the number of drones that’s giving HBO headaches, it’s who’s flying them. Game of Thrones is so popular that many of the drones that appear over the set aren’t actually being flown by the camera crew – they’re controlled by private operators attempting to get a sneak peek of what is to come on the show.
Yes, this one isn’t technically a movie – actually it isn’t even a scene from the TV show. But the clip above, which shows the making of a commercial for the show, gives an insight into how the other films in this list were actually shot, and how that translates into the finished product.
Although only 12 companies had commercial drone exemptions in the US at the start of 2015, that number has skyrocketed to over 500 as of July this year.
Netflix has a new series called Narcos, which launches on August 2z8 and includes drone footage shot by Team5 Aerial Systems. And, based on the amount of new companies popping up that specialise in drone cinematography, we expect to see a lot more drone footage in movies and TV shows.