Drones. UAVs. Octocopters. Call them what you want. They are the new disruptive technology in a lot of applications, but I am specifically going to talk about them as they apply to my industry, as a camera platform for dramatic, narrative, or commercial work. You can see the allure- it lets you get shots that otherwise would be difficult or in some cases impossible via traditional methods. And camera movement is the best way to add production value to your shoot.
And I hate them. I hate them like I hate steadicam. What’s that you say? Hate steadicam? What kind of Luddite or backwards filmmaker are you? Let me explain. I do not hate the steadicam device per se, and I completely agree that steadicam allows for shots that could not be obtained any other way. I might even be convinced to use one some day. Here is what I hate about steadicam. People act like it is the solution to everything and will make everything awesome. A Steadicam is not awesome sauce you get to spread all over your shoot. It has weaknesses, just like any camera platform. Let’s review. A Steadicam can not provide a stable horizon on a static shot,
especially after it has been moving, which is why you use Steadicam in the first place. There are operators that can mitigate this, but it is inherently difficult on this system, yet directors insist on designing shots completely blind to the weaknesses of the platform and Steadicam operators struggle to make the shot work.
Another misconception is that steadicam systems are fast. Tracks don’t need to be laid, it has the freedom of handheld, you can just go. The fact is often quite the opposite. Steadicam can cause the shoot to slow way down. First of all, the whole system of a steadicam requires that the rig be balanced. This means a lens change, an addition of a filter, adding a timecode box, all require time out to balance the rig. If you are dealing with a shoot with only one camera body, to go from tripod to Steadicam can be a very involved process and ties up the camera during that process.
Once you have the camera balanced and on the rig, another thing to keep in mind is that a Steadicam rig with a camera on it is quite heavy. Between the camera, the post, the counterweight, wireless transmitters, arm and vest, it can tax the best operator. This means the operator needs to park it on a stand or docking station when not actually executing the shot. This makes blocking and lighting the shot a bit more difficult as it is best done while the operator is wearing the sled, which you want to keep to a minimum to keep him or her fresh.
Also, as the camera has potentially 360 degree movement, lighting can be a challenge. Nowhere is safe, and lights need to either rig directly in the ceiling if possible, be hidden somehow, or travel with the camera. Again, all this can be done, but none of it in the category of “fast.”
So, lets review: I hate steadicam because people think it is secret sauce to make their shoot better but are completely ignorant of its weaknesses. There is one other thing I don’t like about steadicam, and that occurs even when people understand its weaknesses, and that is the urge to do the “trick shot” which is an exercise in “look what I can do” rather than filmmaking to drive the story. Sometimes you can do a trick shot and it move the story at the same time, and people like me can enjoy both aspects of it. But showing off you know how to use a tool doesn’t mean you have made a great story.
Flying camera platforms may not be Steadicams but they might as well be. They do and will give you shots that otherwise would have been at the very least difficult, or possibly impossible before. And those shots have the potential to be amazing. And just like Steadicams, people will misunderstand and assume that as long as you use a drone the shot will then therefore automatically be amazing. Misunderstanding the tool you are using will result in wasted time, frustrated crew, and mediocre filmmaking, just as it alway has. But with drones there are two new aspects. One, is something that is generally happening with all gear in the industry, something that optimistically is called the “democratization of filmmaking” but on a practical terms means that good working gear can be purchased for prices more approaching a car than a house. There is good and bad with this, but one side effect is there are a lot more players in the market. Generally this shakes out as those who have skill, or have the potential to learn skills adeptly end up on top, as it has always been, but without money being a gatekeeper that it once was, which means the entry level of the market is crowded, like the beginning of a marathon.
Drones, especially seem to fit this category. A few years ago the technology just wasn’t even there to make a working drone at any cost. Now parts and information is out there that a professional rig can be built from parts ordered online at a very reasonable cost. In fact turnkey solutions even exist under $800. Back in the 90’s a Steadicam probably cost upwards of $40,000-60,000, and that didn’t include the camera, just the platform. So, a lot more people are getting into drones than ever were into Steadicam. Drones are so new that there are no “old hands” at it. Everyone is at the start of the marathon and it’s crowded.
The other new aspect to drones as a camera platform is the safety issue. This is what really makes me dislike them. Back in the day, a careless Steadicam operator could possibly hurt themselves, damage their rig and the camera, and possibly the nearest person, be that an assistant or actor, although this was quite rare. I know of no stories of this happening directly, although I always think of the emergency ripcord on the Steadicam vests of guys I would assist for, which when pulled would cause the vest to split open and fall away, allowing the operator to shed the rig in seconds in case of a catastrophic event like falling into a large body of water with 80lbs of gear strapped to them. Again, I never heard of anyone having to exercise that option, but it was there.
Drones, on the other hand often are 20-40 pounds of flying danger, often with eight very high speed sharp rotors being driven by high energy high capacity lightweight batteries, all being controlled by wireless control. Often built from scratch by the operator. Some of them have fail safes, where if wireless control is lost, they will return to original launch site and descend. That’s great, but only if those automated systems are solid. Again, many of these things are being built from scratch, and the code being written or at least tweaked by the builder. If the drone loses flight stability be it from a large gust of wind, operator error, or hardware or software malfunction, you have a potentially lethal falling object that can kill you and others by either just plain blunt trauma 20lbs falling on your head, or cutting you open with its eight high velocity Ginsu knives it uses to fly, or burn you when one of the high capacity batteries rupture and spew a jet of flames and energy. Look on YouTube and you will find several UAV/ drone failures, often triggered by a gust of wind, and possibly complicated by navigational hazards like nearby buildings the drone can hit on its way down so that its structural integrity is compromised well before it hits you. Now imagine that the price of entry is so low, people with only a passing interest get into it. Before you know it the sky is dark with flying lawn mowers being driven by mediocre do it yourselfers, who think they have the secret sauce to awesome filmmaking.
This is an evolving topic, and the good news is that there has been some attempt to regulate them in a way I approve. Up until recently there was a big question mark on whether all kinds of drones were illegal, and where the FAA stood on it. It was like the Wild West. It seemed like before the rules got codified, it was “anything goes” approach which seems very dangerous to me.
Making them illegal seemed untenable. They were so cheap and offered the allure to so many people, enforcement seemed almost impossible. Also if they are illegal, there would be no regulatory control on them. Just this month the FAA has been authorizing individual companies to be certified for flight, excepting them from normally required regulations as long as they fit a certain category of flight, including flying only over a “sterile” environment, i.e. the controlled set. Licenses, permits and special rules are the way to go. And prosecution of those who refuse to play by the rules. Individual drone operators need to apply for “certification” in order to be legal. This is because the technology is cheap, readily available, and dangerous.
Drone camera platforms need to be safe, legal, and somewhat rare. I don’t hate drones, as much as I hate the idea of people flying homemade unregulated rigs over my head because that will somehow make the shot “cool.” By making them sensibly regulated they then will (in most cases) be operated by sensible, trained operators, and only when they are the appropriate tool for the job.
P.S. don’t get me started on Movis or other gimbal handheld systems.