Last week, Pond5’s director of artist development, Robert Pascale, sat down with Jimmy Olivero of Skycam USA, Eddie Kostakis of Xizmo Media, and Jason Ward of Candy Factory Films in NYC for a panel discussion on drones. Presented by Candy Factory, the sky was the limit for the “Drone Cinematography 101” event, with topics ranging from beginner tips and FAA regulations to the future of drone use. Here are six key takeaways from the talk.
1. Work With a Crew (Safety First!)
If there’s one thing airline pilots and drone pilots can agree on, it’s flying with a co-pilot. Make sure to always fly and shoot with at least one other person there. You can then divvy up the multiple tasks necessary for a drone shoot. “You’re going to need a licensed pilot to operate the drone,” Jimmy from SkyCam says (per FAA regulations). “You’re going to need a camera operator. This guy will operate the 360 camera gimbal, work with the pilot to frame up the shots, and talk with him about positioning the drone where he wants it.” Even an additional person as a watchful eye could be useful. “You might need a safety spotter,” says Olivero, “a third person to actually keep their eye on the drone at all times.”
2. Prepare Your Shoots Ahead of Time
Do tons of prep work before going out and shooting. Pick a scout day with your crew to go out and survey the area. Decide very clearly where you’ll be flying and what conditions your drone will be getting in. If your drone operator is using a certain type of camera, let them know ahead of time. Perhaps even lend them the camera so they can test it out with their gimbal and drone.
Most importantly, make sure in advance where you can and cannot fly. Eddie of Xizmo Media suggests checking with all authorities for the go-ahead. “Whenever we need to go out and shoot in New York City, we contact the local precinct and let them know, ‘Hey, there’s a production going on at the corner of 34th and 10th. We’re going to have a drone flying around between the hours of 2 and 6. They send out an officer, or they just give us the a-okay. Sometimes we have to contact the NYPD Air Unit, which is the helicopter you see flying around the city every day. They come out of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. We get a thumbs-up from them. If you have a thumbs-up from the local precinct and the air unit, you’re in.”
Always ask permission from any governing areas you are shooting in. If you’re shooting in Class B airspace (from the ground to 10,000 feet up), then you’re also under FAA jurisdiction.
3. Get to Know Drone Laws
The FAA’s regulations for drone operating are complicated and always changing. As of June 21, a new section of FAA rules called Part 107 has been introduced to make it easier to get a pilot’s license (a seeming win for drone pilots). “What this does,” Jason from Candy Factory Films says, “is that it allows people to actually go to an FAA testing center, take an exam, and get a UAS pilot’s license, which will allow you to fly the drone commercially.”
Part 107 comes in tandem with the 333 Exemption, which is what allows businesses and lone operators to fly UAV aircraft. The 333 exemption is a logistical nightmare, with drone operators needing to “know what flap setting a 172 Cessna needs to be at on final approach in order to get an Inspire up in the air to take a picture at his daughter’s Sweet 16,” Kostakis jokes.
Part 107 also introduces an ID number to drones, called an N number. Although 107 seems like a victory for drone pilots, there are still a number of hurdles to get through. The panel warns that with Part 107 introduced, the floodgates for new drone enthusiasts has opened. Additionally, the process of getting a license will still be difficult. “The test won’t come out for 3 months,” Ward continues. “There are only 19 testing centers in New York State. There are only 639 of them in the United States. The test is not going to be as easy as you think. You will have to read air nautical maps and learn how to speak weather, and all kinds of things that will be on this test.”
4. Think Creatively and Use Drones to Tell a Story
The panelists recommend looking at how cinematographers have used different techniques to tell a story, and how an aerial shot can do the same. “You really need to understand what you’re trying to capture, and how it could progress your story,” Ward says. “Just like you, as a director, have a relationship with your cinematographer, it’s important for your cinematographer to have a relationship with your drone operator. Your cinematographer has all of these concepts of how your film should look. It’s a conversation for them to flesh out before you really jump in.”
He gives an example of a character in a hypothetical movie who is unhappy. “Imagine they are on a cliff in Maine overlooking the ocean. We can approach them from behind, getting a sense of where they are. We can come around that person; we can look into their face and really understand the pain and anguish; and then we can go back and really see where they are in space. There’s no other way to get that shot without a drone.”
5. Why the Drone Has Become So Popular
Despite the ongoing legal challenges and litigious nightmare of obtaining a license and exemptions, it is becoming easier to become a drone pilot. The new FAA rules, although far from ideal for many drone enthusiasts, will allow more new pilots to enter this booming business. The drone is becoming a regular asset of video and media productions, as it can obtain shots that other aerial methods (like helicopters, cranes, or planes) can’t. “The drone exists at an altitude that these helicopters and planes cannot go,” Olivero says. “We’re talking about angles and views that you will otherwise never see, never get in your life, and the director will have just an amazing amount of shots from those new angles.”
Drone videography is also the cheapest technique for aerial shots. “One of the greatest things about using a drone is the budget,” Pascale says. “Since you’re an independent filmmaker, budget is a concern. With a drone, you could maybe cut out a crane. You can cut out a jib. You can possibly even cut out tracks. All of a sudden, the most important thing — your budget — goes way, way down.”
Plus, using drones is much safer than flying aircraft, as Kostakis recalls a horror story shooting in the desert. “There’s 10 to 12 military guys marching in this reality show, and the FAA told me that it was unsafe. This was before the 333 exemptions, before anything like that. The FAA told me no, it was unsafe to fly a drone. They hired a full-size helicopter. The helicopter pilot was given the same shot list as the drone. He had to fly low-angle, sharp angles. The helicopter crashed, and three people died.”
6. The Sky Is Not the Limit: The Future of Drones
Many other industries are beginning to take note of the possibilities of drones. They can be used for anything from scaling a building for repairs to delivery systems and surveillance. VR is another emerging use, as gimbals can be mounted with multiple cameras to create a 3D experience.
“There are a lot of different companies that are creating these virtual0reality gimbals and cameras to capture a VR experience, because they want you, the user, to get into a more immersive world — a world where you can view the production from all angles,” Olivero says. “We’re putting cameras and gimbals and GoPros onto the drone and creating these amazing aerial virtual-reality experiences for people. That’s going to take off, and that is a part of the future of drones.”
Pascale agrees. “We forget about the drone technology in other industries, private sectors, and public sectors. We’re entertainment, and that’s just one part of drone technology. We’re looking at Amazon possibly in the future delivering books to your home with a drone. We’re looking at the police. We’re looking at the fire departments. We’re looking at the sky being filled with these things going back and forth.”