DRONES& MOVIES Lights, Camera, Drones, Action
Hollywood Embraces Drones (But it’s not as easy as it looks...) by Clark Perry A pop music superstar plummets fearlessly from the roof of the Super Bowl stadium and is then backed by hundreds of tiny aircraft forming light formations in the sky. A macho super-spy rockets through ocean waves on an aquatic motorcycle. In a post-apocalyptic future, the last survivors of mankind stare as a strange craft descends from the skies. Each of these spectacles, designed to wow audiences around the world, are what happens when Hollywood embraces unmanned aircraft systems to create movie magic. Since the advent of film, the entertainment industry has proven itself adept at incorporating new technologies into its creative workflow. Breatkthrough innovations such as sound recording, color film, and the recent transition to digital-based cameras showcase how Hollywood always looks ahead to new technologies. Unmanned aircraft are the latest innovation to hit Tinseltown. Their increasing presence on film sets mirrors the growth and excitement of the consumer drone market. In the 1990s, the rise of digital filmmaking put a plethora of professionalgrade movie-making gear into the hands of consumers. High-definition digital cameras and affordable editing software created a revolution for consumers. Home movies could suddenly and easily become short film spectacles, with titles, music, transitions, and the like. As consumers now rush into the expanding UAS marketplace, so do Hollywood’s storytellers. The possibilities offered by UAS may change the filmmaking landscape for decades to come.
Changing the Landscape Camera-equipped drones didn’t just drop out of the starry sky overnight. For decades, filmmakers used whatever technology was available to procure aerial-based footage. During the 1980s and 1990s, many productions experimented with remote-controlled airplanes, balloons, and helicopters. These were often makeshift solutions that required filmmakers to hone their engineering skills.
APRIL 2017 | Unmanned Systems
Dan Coplan, a cinematographer and camera operator for nearly two decades, recalls learning how to fly a $150 toy helicopter back in the 1990s. “It wasn’t much, but the controls were almost identical to flying the highest-end drones you can fly today,” he says. “I practiced on that and then bumped up to the next level of complexity.” Coplan — whose Sky Bandit Pictures is a company offering drones, Steadicams and stabilized gimbals to industry productions — went from remote-control helicopters to modifying some of the earliest drone models to meet his professional needs. “I had an octocopter and it came without lights. I went out and sourced the best lighting parts for my drone and figured out how to power it,” he recalls. Like many others in Hollywood, Coplan was intrigued by the promise of this new technology. That promise took time to be realized, as the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t allow the use of UAS as camera platforms for commercial TV and film production in the United States. Productions lensing in other countries had mostly free reign to use the technology, but stateside-based productions faced steep penalties if they utilized drones on-set. As the FAA sought to formulate its official guidelines allowing Hollywood to use drones in film and TV production, many members of the entertainment industry were ready and willing to help establish those rules. David Wagrich was one of the first cinematographers to get a seat at the table, and he brought valuable perspective to the process. In addition to his decades of behind-the-camera experience, Wagrich has flown full-scale aircraft since he was a teen. “I had a unique perspective as to the aviation side but also what was needed on the cinema side. I knew what made the drone such a unique tool,” he says. Wagrich — president and CEO of Astraeus Aerial Cinema Systems in Los Angeles — joined six other companies that worked with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to propose a streamlined and thorough permitting model that was presented to the FAA. “At the time there was no legal commercial use of
drones in any industry. We got together and collectively decided on an approach,” he recalls. Their efforts paid off in September 2014, a mere 120 days after the MPAA submitted its proposed guidelines. Under these rules, drones can only be used on sets that are closed to the public, and they cannot be operated at night. Operators must hold a recreational or sports pilot certificate, keep the drones within line of sight and below an altitude of 400 feet. Additionally, at least two people are required to operate the UAS: one to pilot the drone with a controller, and a second who operates the camera and serves as a spotter to observe the drone in flight. Having worked with tools such as cranemounted camera platforms, cable cameras, and remote-controlled helicopters, Wagrich quickly recognized the benefits of UAS technology for film and TV production. “Drones can do some of the things that cranes and a camera person can do, but also you can do things that no other cinema tool can do,” he says. “That’s the crux of our business.” One of the most attractive features of UAS is how they provide shots quickly that once took days to prepare and rig on a set. “What’s unique about the technology is you can move the camera in ways that weren’t possible before, in ways that you could only create using computer graphics [CG]. It winds up being a very cost-effective tool in post-production,” says Wagrich. “CG can be very time-consuming and expensive. In the right hands, you can create moves literally and figuratively on the fly that would’ve taken much longer and been much more expensive to generate in post, or using motion-control or cable-cam technology.” According to The Los Angeles Times, the day rate for renting a helicopter and crew starts at around $25,000. Hiring a drone with crew to get the same footage can cut costs down to $5,000. Hal Winer, director of operations for Astraeus, says most filmmakers don’t immediately recognize a drone’s capabilities. “I’m finding there’s a very limited view of what this equipment can do. A lot of them are looking for high, wide establishing shots. They’re surprised we can give them more creative options when we get on set,” he says. “It’s great to see their reaction when they see our capabilities.”
A Droneboy UAS, equipped with a digital camera rig, on a test flight. Photo: Droneboy/Tom Comet.
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Modified Tools Astraeus uses its own proprietary technology to push the envelope of what a UAS can capture on film. “Our approach is that what’s exciting and compelling is when you’re down in an amongst the action, when you participate in the excitement of a scene,” says Wagrich. “We’ve created technology and built this culture at our company that asks: how do we facilitate that? How do we do things that camera carts can’t do, that Steadicams can’t do? We’re talking vast, rapidly changing dynamic moves.” Recently, the 2017 thriller “XXX: The Return of Xander Cage” showcased multiple drone shots in its action sequences, capturing shots that would’ve been much more costly, if not impossible, using traditional camera platforms. Toronto-based Droneboy, founded by UAV pilot and stuntman Tom Comet, was hired to get aerial footage of an intense shootout in an abandoned power generating station. “That was hands down the most challenging drone shot we’ve done,” recalls Comet. “It was this giant industrial building that’s being torn down, with all these exposed steel girders and steel beams. Drones and steel don’t go hand-in-hand. Steel messes up the compass and a lot of sensors.” For this sequence, Droneboy had to fly its UAS through a blazing gun battle with live pyrotechnics and artfully-modified paintball guns firing zirconium spheres that explode on impact. “Obviously it’s all extremely wellchoreographed,” says Comet, “but you’ve got to right through the middle of that mayhem with a 25-pound RED camera that probably costs $150,000. And then you’ve got to do that repeatedly as they do the shot again.” For another scene where actors are riding amphibious motorcycles across the Caribbean, Wagrich and his Astraeus crew kept up where boats couldn’t. The sea’s rough motion slowed the filmmaker’s camera boat so it couldn’t maneuver and keep pace with the stuntmen.
“But our UAVs could track these vehicles at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour over high rough surf conditions where nothing else could,” says Wagrich. “We were flying them half a mile offshore in these really rough conditions. There’s an example of footage you couldn’t have gotten any other way.” Astraeus modifies existing unmanned aircraft with its own technology. One of their tools is first-person viewer (FPV) technology their team has refined in a proprietary manner. “A lot of the other operators are using something like this, but we’ve refined it in a way that creates certain redundancies,” says Wagrich. The FAA inspected the modified FPV technology and granted a special waiver for its use. “To our knowledge, none of our competitors have this waiver. This technology allows us to get in closer, faster, and lower than others to create very dynamic footage,” says Wagrich. “We’re not allowed to use goggles but it’s still a FPV tech. We can augment the way we fly the aircraft with a first person viewer.” For all of its creative potential, the drone is still misunderstood by many members of the filmmaking industry. Helping bridge that knowledge gap is The Society of Aerial Cinematography (SOAC), an industry group formed in 2013. “We promote the safe and proper use of multirotors on and off sets,” says SOAC President Robert Rodriguez, who is also a director of operations at Technicolor. “In reality, we’re serving the production community in and out of the sky. We like to bring people in and help them understand the basics of production and post-production.” These industry basics are crucial to anyone wanting to work effectively on film sets. “There’s an easy way to count on almost one hand the professional UAV companies that understand the industry. Because everyone considers themselves an aerial cinematographer no matter what their skill, it’s hard to tell,” says Rodriguez. Rodriguez sees parallels to the technological advances in the 1990s, which put pro-level tools into the hands of consumers. “Back when Final Cut Pro came out, suddenly everyone was an editor. Now the DJI Fantom comes out, and everyone’s an aerial cinematographer. “Confusion is the number one challenge right now,” says Rodriguez. “A lot of productions don’t understand what they can and cannot do. They’re looking to the actual production teams themselves to understand what’s legal and what isn’t.”
APRIL 2017 | Unmanned Systems
Dan Coplan of Skybandit Pictures (L) prepares to test-fly a camera drone. Photo: Skybandit Pictures/Dan Coplan
The SOAC works to keep its members informed of all the UAS rules and regulations for film shoots, as well as the latest technology as it comes available. The entertainment industry also relies on the drone manufacturers to recognize the needs of this growing market. Rodriguez cites the example of UAV pioneer DJI consulting with cinematographers as they designed the DJI Inspire 2, which sports a Hollywood-grade, 5K raw camera tailored for industry workflow standards. “I noted during that process that DJI really understands production and are really interested in what they don’t know,” he says. Catering to cinematographers is critical to the success of drone manufacturers hoping to be recognized and trusted by the Hollywood community. Meanwhile, groups like the SOAC continue to address some of the challenges facing proponents of UAVs in filmmaking. Helping educate newcomers to the workflow and etiquette of a Hollywood movie or TV set is crucial. “If you come in and you’re an extension of the production, and you understand how to accomplish a shot and block out and frame things with your traditional gear on the ground including cranes, you’re going to be a much more valuable resource on set,” Rodriguez says. When non-skilled UAV pilots land a job on a film or TV production, things can go wrong pretty fast — and cost a lot of money. “I’ve been called by a lot of productions to recommend new teams as a production was firing teams, because they crashed a main rig or backup rig and they lose a whole day of shooting,” Rodriquez says. “In some cases, the lenses cost more than the cameras do. It shows what happens when these things go really wrong.”
Drones in the Spotlight Rodriguez has also noticed a peculiar and telling issue that illustrates both the benefits and the challenges drones represent in the entertainment community. Some actors are wary of acting in a scene with a UAS because paparazzi now use drones to get intrusive footage or photos for the tabloid press. “We come across talent and they’re not comfortable around a drone on set because they’ve only see them in the negative connotation,” Rodriguez says. “If the talent isn’t comfortable, you won’t get the best out of your actor or actress.”
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scenes, but occasionally we are asked to fly drones on set. In this case, the drone is part of the story and in there as a prop.”
When boat-mounted camera platforms failed on set, drones were used to film an aquatic motorcycle chase in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Photo: Paramount Pictures
In other words, actors may soon take classes on how to interact with UAS. And drones themselves — or at least their pilots — may benefit from drama training, as well.
That may seem like a minor issue, but it’s one that may grow in the future. Increasingly UAS aren’t just working behind the scenes anymore. In many films and TV shows, they’re showing up on-screen as part of the world, with actor interaction. The futuristic Fox TV police drama “APB” features a privately funded police force whose high-tech arsenal includes drones outfitted with loudspeakers and Tasers for crime-fighting and crowd-control tasks. The production utilizes modified DJI Inspire UAVs whose capabilities are sometimes augmented with clever CG shots. For Fox TV’s comedic drama “The Last Man on Earth,” Astraeus found itself flying one drone to film another drone — also under their operation — when several of the show’s characters encounter a strange UAS hovering in the sky. “We’ve got a pilot and camera operator who are operating a camera drone, while another pilot is out flying a picture drone as a prop,” says Wagrich with a laugh. “The vast majority of our work is behind the
What does the future hold for UAVs in the entertainment industry? The sky’s the limit, as Lady Gaga proved at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, when she stood atop Houston’s NRG Stadium and was dramatically backlit by 300 Intel drones flying intricate light formations. It was the sort of spectacle usually associated with traditional fireworks, but taken to a jaw-dropping new level. For that memorable performance, Intel obtained special waivers from the FAA to fly its drones above 500 feet, at night, and in a no-fly zone, although the flight was prerecorded and wasn’t live during Gaga’s set. Intel’s UAV Group has been actively exploring the technical and artistic capabilities of drones. Last year, 500 of their Shooting Star drones took to the air in Krailling, Germany, in a dance of light that set the Guinness World Record for most UAVs airborne simultaneously. The stunning event boasted networking technology that allowed just one laptop and one pilot to achieve lift-off for this swarming fleet of UAVs. “This technology can be used for entertainment or for putting ads in the sky,” says Natalie Cheung, drone lightshow business director for Intel’s UAV Group. Expect to see more unmanned aircraft bringing innovation to the large and small screens — and perhaps even the skies above.
A Droneboy UAS stands prepped for action on the set of XXX: The Return of Xander Corvus. Photo: Droneboy/Tom Comet.
APRIL 2017 | Unmanned Systems
A look at how Hollywood is embracing unmanned aircraft for making movies and other productions.