United States: Drone Cinematography: A New Filmmaking Vernacular

Last Updated: March 1 2016
Article by Mark J. Connot and Jason J. Zummo

Shaken and disoriented, the young student dragged himself down a dark and empty alley in a slum of Mumbai. As warm blood trickled down his forehead into his eyes, momentarily blinding him, a voice in his head screamed "why didn't I just hand over the stupid money...he had a knife!" As his hunched over shape materialized from the darkness of the alley, curious bystanders gathered around as he collapsed from his many gaping wounds.

Quietly hovering above the closed set and crowd of extras, a drone captured the action on film using a high quality Red One camera for an episode of Criminal Minds. As filmmakers use drones more regularly on set, they are changing the way that movies and television shows are made.

The dynamic ability of drones provides directors and cinematographers with a myriad of unique opportunities. Drones are becoming popular tools for the film industry because they allow filmmakers to create more distinctive shots quicker, safer, and cheaper. With their ability to go where people and manned aircraft simply cannot, drones allow filmmakers to capture previously unattainable images such as overhead imagery from perspectives too low for a manned helicopter and too high for a crane.

As drone technology evolves and high definition cameras become more durable and compact, formerly difficult, expensive, and dangerous shots will become easier and more viable to obtain. This will ultimately open up new cinematic possibilities that will push innovative and creative boundaries in the industry.

The dynamic filmmaking ability and cost effectiveness of drones on TV and film sets has allowed filmmakers to minimize the use of manned helicopters, both reducing hazards and costs. Although less than 10% of all film productions currently use drones, aerial cinematography companies using drones typically cost Hollywood studios $4,500 to $8,000 a day, compared with $15,000 to $25,000 for a helicopter shoot.

While drone use in cinematography may reduce flight risk and costs, it is not without limitations. Image quality and stabilization continue to present technical challenges. Additionally, with a limited battery life, drones carrying heavy high definition movie cameras do not allow for long shoots. Furthermore, when it comes to filming high-speed action scenes, helicopters are often preferable to drones. However, as drone technology continues to improve, the future of drone filmmaking is limited only by imagination.

The FAA has jurisdiction over the use of drones for commercial purposes. Therefore, using a drone for filming without specific FAA approval violates current FAA regulations. Although the current legal and regulatory framework in the U.S. is murky, the FAA intends to issue final regulations governing commercial drones sometime this year.

Until those new regulations are issued, here are some current basic guidelines for closed set motion picture and television drone filming:

  1. Drones are not permitted to fly within 5 miles of an airport, unless written permission is obtained.
  2. The drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, including energy source(s) and equipment.
  3. The drone may not be flown at a ground speed exceeding 50 knots (58 MPH).
  4. Flights must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL).
  5. The drone must be operated within visual line of sight of the drone operator at all times. All operations must utilize a visual observer (VO).
  6. The drone operator must possess at least a private pilot certificate.
  7. The drone must remain clear and yield the right of way to all other manned operations and activities at all times.
  8. Drone operations may not be conducted during night.
  9. The drone may not be operated from any moving device or vehicle, i.e., operator must operate from a stationary position.
  10. The drone may not be operated directly over any person, except authorized and consenting production personnel essential to the close-set film operations, below an altitude that is hazardous to persons or property on the surface in the event of a drone failure or emergency.
  11. The operator must ensure that no non-participating persons and vehicles are allowed within 500 feet of the area except those consenting to be involved and necessary for the filming production. This provision may be reduced to no less than 200 feet if it would not adversely affect safety and the FAA has approved it.

If you intend to use drones for commercial filming, it is critical that you verify the drone operator you engage is authorized by the FAA and any applicable state law to operate drones. It is also up to you "to verify that such authorization is for the purpose for which you engage the drone operator." This is an important detail because while operators may be granted an exemption to operate drones for "aerial cinematography," there are also exemptions for other purposes not related to filming, such as aerial surveillance of pipelines, crops, and real estate.

In addition to authenticating that the drone operator has proper credentials, it is important to verify if other permits, exceptions, or permissions are needed for your specific use as mandated by the FAA or other applicable law.

It is also important to note that "just because a company has been granted an (via Section 333) exemption, that does not necessarily mean it can legally fly a drone for commercial filming purposes." Again, it is up to you to make sure that the drone operator you engage lawfully may provide the service. Before becoming involved in drone cinematography, either on your own or through the use of another company, it is important that you consult legal counsel knowledgeable in the area of drone law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Mark J. Connot
Jason J. Zummo
 
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