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Drones: Robo-Camera Sidekicks

January 18, 2016


   In the past few years, the use of drones on film sets has become more common. They’re built small and light so they can get a bird’s eye view; vast moving aerial shots that would be impossible to get otherwise unless you’ve got an actual helicopter and a pilot. These “quadcopters” operate with four mini rotors (some of them have six rotors) that allow it to achieve lift off. The result of capturing footage with a drone is smooth, fast moving shots that can take on an uncanny look when panning the camera in flight. 


Aerial shots can give an impression that what you’re watching has something of a big budget. Big battlefield scenes, majestic nature shots, whatever the case, using a remote controlled drone can offer great possibilities for flying camera movement. But let’s consider what we use the drones for. They are mechanical substitutes for camera operators. Sure, someone has to control the drone and a second person controls the camera movement independent of the quadcopter. But the drone itself is capturing the footage. Ideally, if these things become more developed, they could be used to capture unconventional shots that go beyond typical cinematography. Instead of seeing an explosion from afar in an action movie, a purposely built drone could fly your point of view through the fire. You’re filming a story where someone’s got to soar up the side of a building? A drone with a skilled operator could be flown up the side of a building (have fun with those permits) to capture that impossible movement in-camera, taking the viewer along for the ride. I can imagine a film production at some point in the future utilizing a team of operators piloting a fleet of quadcopters. Maybe in a car chase scene, a few drones could fly high above the action while another stays level with the hero driving, our view zooming along with the action, filming all areas of interest at once. These shots I’m proposing are all action-heavy, but let’s not rule out the use of the quadcopter for more smaller dramatic purposes. 


Let’s entertain this notion; artificial intelligence is advancing. It’s going to play a part in our future. Sentient robots will very possibly be used in our every day lives to preform tasks. As this technology develops, perhaps the focus could eventually lead someone to designing a system used for drone cinematography. What if there was an intelligent little ‘bot that could be commanded to focus on a certain actor/angle for a scene. Apart from giant sweeping camera angles, a drone can hover steadily, moving slightly to follow along with the action. Rather than struggling to shoot long steadicam scenarios, a hovering robotic camera rig could be a “smart tool” that can move and make decisions on it’s own. You don’t like the way the drone panned at one point in the shot, or maybe it lost focus? Take two. 


The jump from remote controlled quadcopters to robo-camera-operators might be quite a leap. But technology opens up new possibilities for us at a never-slowing rate. Our blog from a couple of weeks ago was about filming cinematic content on the iPhone camera. Although robotics and cell phones aren't exactly that similar, I see both of these trends as major technological changes in the world of filmmaking. These tools are all going to seep into the work flow at some point, what's a mystery is how well will they stick and for how long. Both methods are evolutions of old techniques. While the iPhone camera threatens to possibly replace cinematic cameras, the use of drones are leading to the possible replacement of literal "camera men". 


By the end of this new year, we may have a new iPhone with a BETTER camera. Or a new wave of remote controlled quadcopters that implement the beginnings of this more robotic technology. Embrace it, reject it, either way, it's here. There's still plenty of time for you to rewatch the Terminator films to prepare for the inevitable uprising of robots. 






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