Game of Drones: Airborne Cameras are a Boon to Cinematographers, But Rife with Risks
By Suz Curtis
For filmmakers, drone cameras are a tool with potential to shape the work—or even define it—with breathtaking footage from surprising physical locations. But drone operators face material and legal risks, and the learning curve to proficient operation is steep.
Jay Ward Brown, a former public affairs programming producer at PBS, is an attorney with the Washington, DC law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP. His practice is devoted to media and entertainment clients, and he happens to own a drone. He explains that operating the machine is harder than it looks, and getting it right requires practice.
Understand the Tool
“The first time we launched the drone, we crashed it,” Brown admits. “We did something stupid with the controls. We’ve now practiced and are pretty good, but having a person who has experience flying the device is definitely a way to reduce risk. And that takes a little bit of planning. Either hire someone who has the experience, or have someone on your crew take the time to go off somewhere where they can’t do any harm, and practice.”
Brown is quick to point out that some insurance policies don’t cover drones. “I always tell people about flying drones, for fun or commercial purposes, ‘Make sure your insurance covers the use of the drone.’ And that is a big issue because many types of insurance policies exclude coverage of aircraft. But is a drone an aircraft? At least under most insurance policy definitions, it is an aircraft because it travels through the air. If you have an aircraft exclusion that includes drones, you may have no coverage for any damage done by the drone if the equipment fails.”
Filmmaker Mark Devries has incorporated drone use into his investigative documentary work. His follow-up short to Specieism: The Movie was shot entirely on drones, and he echoes Brown’s advice.
Devries purchased a different model, and the results were “night and day once I got the right kind of drone.” He prepared his drone shoots using satellite images and maps to measure drone trajectories and strategize about launch points. “Drones can be used for location scouting as well,” Devries adds, “especially with drone systems that allow you to look live at what it is the drone is seeing so you can sit with the cinematographer or your team to determine in real time what different potential filming locations would look like.”
Hire the Pros
Many filmmakers opt to hire an aerial cinematography company that specializes in drones for specific shots, or to collaborate on projects.
Matt Feige is vice president and executive producer at Drone Dudes, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in remote control aerial cinematography. “Usually we’re added as a third-party ancillary to help fill out the shot list,” he explains. “You have to be careful with who you hire. You don’t want a novice on set with a drone. Because drones are ubiquitous and getting cheaper and cheaper, a lot of people are entering the drone airspace and a lot should be better trained. Number one, watch out for beginners and novices who don’t know the rules. Educate yourself and make sure you’re courteous while sharing the airspace.”
JJ Trinidad is a drone and camera operator with Los Angeles’ Skyecam, which provides aerial drone video and photography services. He offers similar advice. “The drone is doing 90 percent of the flying, and the operator tells it where to go,” he notes. “A lot of inexperienced operators can’t recognize a problem as it’s happening. Some of the components are malfunctioning or failing in the air. It’s dangerous for someone who doesn’t know how to react to an emergency while the drone is in the air. Don’t make a decision based on cost when hiring a third party, or else you might ultimately sacrifice safety.”
Observe Upward Rights
Jay Ward Brown stresses a matter he refers to as “upward rights,” saying, “People tend to think of drones as different when they’re not touching the ground, but people’s privacy and safety rights extend upward. Although we haven’t settled legally the boundaries of what I’ll call ‘upward rights,’ people do have some privacy rights and certainly some expectations in terms of personal safety when you send an object over them.”
“Because the drones are small, lightweight, relatively easy to fly and fly reasonably well, we forget sometimes that we are sending a hard object up into the air,” he continues. “And if we’re over someone else’s land, not only might we observe something that might otherwise be private, it can fall down and hurt people when it does. So having a flight plan and a carefully planned shoot with the drone, is just as important as it is when you’re working with a dolly, and you’ve got to plan the dolly in the street somewhere to get the shot that you want. You have to comply with local regulations. This is a piece of equipment that can do harm if something goes wrong.”
Mitigate the Risks
Knowing the risks is one thing. Addressing them head-on is another. Brown points out two reasons to be diligent about insurance coverage when using these machines: “If it physically crashes, you want to be covered for any property or personal damage your drone does, and secondly, for any legal claims that come out of it because someone says you trespassed, or because they claim you violated their right to privacy in some fashion.”
But physically crashing the drone is part of the learning process. “Safety is the number-one thing,” Trinidad explains. “These drones do crash. Even the best pilots will crash. If you’re not crashing, you’re not flying enough.”
On a shoot in Alaska, Trinidad learned the value of proper planning when filming in remote locations, which drone photography often calls for. “Going to Alaska, you’re limited with equipment you can bring, if something breaks down,” he says. “You have to look at the weather conditions. Make sure you’re prepared and covered with extra parts.” He adds that it’s important to bring a back-up drone in case of machine failure.
Feel the Flight
Devries experienced first-hand the significant impact a drone can have on his work, which entails investigating the environmental impacts of factory farms.
“For my first documentary, Specieism: The Movie, I filmed the phenomenon of pig farms from an airplane,” he recalls. “I got in an airplane, sat next to the pilot in one of those four-person planes, and held the camera, pointed it out the window. The footage was certainly interesting and telling in the context of the story, but being able to go from being several thousand feet up in a shaky airplane to being less than a few hundred feet up with a very clear and steady shot, using a drone really made all the difference. When I went back and filmed the second time for the second follow-up documentary using the drone, the size and scale of these facilities came into view in a way that I don’t think could be achieved by any other means.”
The use of drones allows the filmmaker to explore space horizontally, which Devries explains is one of the most significant ways the drone can illuminate a film’s location. “The drone not just allows us to film closer up but also—often less noted at the outset from a filmmaking perspective, because you’re moving through space horizontally—you are able to put the size and scale and also the location of what you’re filming into context,” as opposed to a series of establishing shots. Devries continues, “You’re moving through space, you’re passing in real time. As you move through space, it creates context that simply shooting from far away can’t create.”
Feige offers that drones, though usually used outdoors in the air, can be designed to achieve similarly innovative results from the ground. Specifically, Drone Dudes use a device called the “Rover Drone,” a remote-controlled four-wheel camera.
“We just finished a documentary for PBS based on the work of a famous modern architect,” Feige explains. “And we did a lot of architectural footage. Some of the shots, especially from the rover drone, are some of the most amazing footage we got. It’s endless dollying. You’re basically on rails, but the rails go wherever you want. You don’t ever have to lay dolly track.”
For Feige, it’s more than a means to an end; it’s a passion. “It’s the most exciting technology there is, and it’s in the hands of all of us.”
Suz Curtis graduated from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television in June 2015 with an MFA in Screenwriting. She's worked with Ladylike Films on the documentaries Somewhere Between, Code Black and PBS' Makers. Her adaptation of Death from Winesburg, Ohio will be distributed online as a short film, produced by James Franco with Rabbit Bandini Productions. She lives in Los Angeles.