I’d been meaning to shoot with a drone for a couple of years. Alongside the emergence of the GoPro, which gives new and dynamic personal point-of-view footage, the drone adds a further dimension to a filmmaker’s armoury.
Drones are already revolutionising filmmaking, allowing filmmakers to achieve cinematic results on a tiny per cent of the budget of Hollywood productions. Helicopters and cranes have their uses, but a drone can pretty much match these, shot for shot, and in some ways give you more scope – you can’t fly a helicopter through the middle of a forest or a tunnel for instance.
When LAW Creative chose to film on Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, my first thought was to get hold of a drone. The deep ravines, majestic waterfalls and snow-capped peaks were crying out to be captured on film, something impossible on a fixed camera unless I had the aforementioned helicopter and Hollywood budget. We found the drone could perform jaw-dropping aerial manoeuvres, especially suited to grand vistas and the sense of freedom associated with motorcycling (the subject of our film), as well as perform steady-cam shots, allowing you to achieve smooth close-ups without the use of a Ronin rig (saving the costs of a second camera unit).
This Transfagarasan Highway had been made famous by Top Gear as one of the top five driving roads in the world, lying deep in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. Top Gear decided to film with a helicopter and what they captured is just as famous for the bonkers helicopter pilot as for the cars.
Filming in such areas can require quite a bit of technology. Our featured motorcyclist kept in contact with us and the drone operator via headset, and GPS kept us in contact when visibility was lost (not only were there vast areas to cover, but also mountain mists rolled in extremely quickly and a bright day could turn to a ‘pea-souper’ within minutes). One of the first things we discovered when filming in such enormous valleys is that drones, like small children, can very easily disappear out of view unless they have your undivided attention. A dark shape moving over a background of pine forests, it was with a collective sigh of relief when we tracked the lights after momentarily losing sight. They are, in fact, fitted with a GPS safety device, which means in theory they should return home when about to drop out of the sky or you lose them, although fixing a GPS signal was proving a little difficult.
Other things to be wary of: The drone makes the noise of a thousand angry wasps, so keep away from animals (especially flocks of sheep), family picnics, motorists (never underestimate the lure of a drone to catch a motorist’s eye on a 6,000 foot high mountain pass), power cables (more than you’d think when you stop and have a look) and crowds. Luckily enough we didn’t have to worry about this in the mountains.
To truly achieve the drone’s potential takes two people. The drone has to have a skilled operative to not only fly it but also be aware of potential hazards, and a camera operator who can focus and move the on-board camera, otherwise your shots will tend to have that fixed ‘GoPro’ wide effect. With a battery life of only 20 minutes you have to rehearse your shots. These need to be discussed in depth with the operator and cameraman and to achieve the beautiful smooth wide shots when following a subject takes a little bit of time, but is worth it. Never has the phrase ‘teamwork’ meant more, as we constantly kept a running commentary on angles and trip hazards (as well as operating the drone, the operator himself has to be able to move but be concealed so as not to give away the magic of the drone shot!)
I have definitely caught the drone bug. It isn’t a magic fix – you still have to realise and rehearse your chosen shots – but it does give an amazing difference of perspective, and your films more depth of interest. The drone is an essential piece of kit, which adds true cinematic quality at little extra expense, and that little extra magic that could turn your great piece of film into an epic!
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