Pro Tips, Trends

Aerial Alternatives: What to Do When You Can’t Drone


I’m writing this from a café in Amsterdam, where drones are now effectively banned in the city limits. Before 2015, you could pretty much travel anywhere and fly without issue. But as the world becomes increasingly leery of the threats drones pose, it’s also getting increasingly difficult to show up somewhere and expect to launch one without weird stuff happening.

Just yesterday, some locals were telling me about the hefty fines police are levying against hobbyists who go to a local park to take to the skies (this from the city that’s also banned electric skateboards), but I haven’t been able to find corroborating information online.

Manhattan Aerial View of the Skyline, Hudson River by slicedbread

At home in the United States, now that the FAA’s Part 107 is set to roll out, things seem to be looking up — but that hasn’t stopped municipalities from passing their own anti-drone laws, and agencies like the National Park Service from banning them entirely.

Related Post Drone Safety and Regulations: The Shifting State of Aerial Affairs

We’re seeing the same pattern emerge globally, where even though drones aren’t necessarily regulated at a federal level, they’re banned from some of the most drone-able landmarks. So, where does that leave you, the enterprising filmmaker traipsing around the world to get excellent footage and photographic gold? Let’s find out.

Drones give us the ability to get incredibly cinematic panoramas and replicate high-end production moves that would otherwise be impossible. They do this by creating incredibly stable footage that moves through space in an interesting way, from vantage points we can’t otherwise access. Fortunately, we’ve got lots of options for recreating the vistas our drones are going to miss.

Aerial of cityscape in Santa Barbara, California by gavingarrison

Tools of the Trade

Let’s start cheap and work our way up. Ever see that YouTube video about the kids in Arizona who attached a GoPro to a balloon? Well, apparently there are balloon gimbals. You’re going to sacrifice a lot of control, but if you absolutely need a shot from a high vantage point, this could be a viable option. You could also use a long stick, which sounds ridiculous, but these exist. They’re like boom poles, for cameras!

If you’re after large vistas, look for the highest points around you — whether they’re skyscrapers or mountain ridges — to look down on your subject area from. I’ve taken shots from mountain passes that overlook valleys, cliffs, and parking garages that are indistinguishable from drone shots. There are also things like roofs, ladders, cherry pickers, and forklifts that will help get you higher (gondola, anybody?), but I highly recommend not employing anything that’s going to pose a safety risk for you and your crew – it just isn’t worth it.

Panning Riser Shot of a Factory Warehouse by ImageGeneration

This is one of the great ironies of drones, in my opinion – save for the people doing idiotic things like flying their drones at 747s, drones can actually help create much safer situations in filmmaking than traditional approaches have allowed. I once got stuck on a rusty forklift (untethered) and jacked up 60 feet into the air with a 15 pound broadcast camera to get a shot; in retrospect, it was a totally unnecessary risk on the producer’s part that could have easily been substituted with a drone.

Using a handheld gimbal, like DJI’s Osmo, you can (almost) readily recreate the same type of motion you get with a drone. Unless you’re walking with it, in which case, you can’t. Today’s gimbals suffer from what some people call a “swimming” motion that’s induced when walking. Some workarounds for this may appear in your environment – for example using a car, escalator, moving sidewalk, or hoverboard to carry you and your camera along your desired route can help circumvent the walking bounce. Other, more expensive solutions to the swimming motion exist, like EasyRig’s gimbal adapter, and DJI’s Z-Axis fix, but neither are a sure shot.

TV Camera Crane by romansu

The next step up in our drone-replacement solutions would be evergreen Hollywood staple the Steadicam rig, which is an excellent option for getting great moving shots. If you’re used to the ease and economy of a drone, however you may find the expense of a pro Steadicam operator or the complexity of doing it on your own a little daunting. I don’t recommend trying to figure it out for yourself, as professionals spend years and tens of thousands of dollars learning how to become proficient operators; the odds that you’re going to produce the same result with a few hours of practice are extremely low.

Steadicam Shot of Skyline and Cranes by donavanwhyte

You can also use a dolly, crane, or combination of both to replicate some of the movement you might have hoped to achieve with your drone. The film-product market is ripe with all sorts of solutions to dollies and cranes — including remote-controlled heads, which will give you the most drone-like controls, as you can pan and tilt the camera remotely. The tools you use here can of course vary widely in price, but with an advanced motion-control system, you could probably blow most drone moves out of the water — albeit at great, great expense.

Cameraman Shoots with Crane by Cameraman_Kiev

If tying cheap cameras to balloons isn’t your thing, you can always hire a professional pilot with their own helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. While I’m thinking about it, if you were really well-planned, you could film out of the window of a commercial airliner — though this seems silly. As an absolute last resort, you could try the age-old practice of throwing your camera, but your mileage may vary. I’ve heard a few directors of photography allege that they’ve gotten great shots throwing camera rigs; I don’t advise it.

Beat the System

Assuming you can’t hire a licensed drone professional — in the US, for example, that would be someone who currently has a Part 333 exemption — you can try to overcome the legal problem yourself. Depending on the type of filmmaker you are, you may or may not have experience pulling a film permit. For the average indie filmmaker, this can be one of the single most obnoxious (and expensive) steps in filmmaking. In addition to the bureaucratic hoops that most film offices require you to jump through, getting permission for aerial operations will likely require seeking permission from some sort of additional authority, depending on your location — which could add weeks or months to your pursuit. When all else fails, simply asking whichever authority has banned drone use in your particular location for permission may be the way to go. If you’ve got time on your hands, go out of your way to lobby whoever’s in charge of the rules to help regain some rights for remote pilots!

Fly Indoors

No one controls indoor airspace (because it’s not technically “airspace”) but the owner of the building! Yee-haw!

Flying indoors. Fun for the whole family!
Flying indoors. Fun for the whole family!
Buy It

Pond5 offers an amazing library of aerial shots, and chances are they’ll include just what you’re looking for – even in 4K! This solution is probably the best-suited and most economical, because you’re likely to be able to get what you need, if not something very similar – and you don’t even have to leave the house!

Aerial of Mountain and Landscape in Santa Barbara, California by gavingarrison

Explore thousands of additional drone aerial shots in the full Pond5 collection:

Aerial Drone Footage
Gavin Garrison recently returned from shooting six-months’ worth of drone footage on the high seas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). Gavin received his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California; he is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison and check out his new IG @dronefortwo.