DRONES, and drone shots, are awesome. They lift the production value substantially and are very pleasing to watch. Recently on my film Bork we used drone shots, and as always there were things I wish I had done differently. But I learned some lessons too, and I can pass on some advice to new directors working with drones. A lot about using a drone isn't actually getting out and flying. There's much more to using a drone than standing there saying "Oooh" and "Ahhh" while everyone points at the shiny thing in the sky because let's face it -1, Drones are cool, and 2, people actually do stand there and point saying, Oooh and Ahhh.
Preparation before the shoot day is just as important for drone shots as any other shot. Maybe more so because you have less time. You can't decide on the day to just 'wing it'. You'll waste time, confuse your pilots and be unsatisfied with the results.
You need to prepare shot lists and do your research - watch what aerial shots other people use and note them down. There are many generic shots and you need to know what they are. You need to know which direction the drone will track in, if it s following a subject and if it's resolving towards a particular direction at the end.
Check the weather beforehand. Going to location and have it rain on you means the drone won't fly. When you do your location scouting, look for hazardous objects like power lines and trees. Your pilot won't go near them. You will save yourself a lot of time if you plan your drone shots in the location before shoot day.
When you're in the air, you have even less time than you thought to get it right. The batteries for the Inspire 3, for example, last roughly 15min and your pilot won't have unlimited batteries. You may only have around an hour of flight time, depending on your drone and battery availability, and you will want to squeeze that drone for every drop of juice.
Once you've made your preparations, it's time to talk to the drone operators. You need to actually have a conversation with them, before the day. They need to prepare and have a clear understanding of the shot. The more detail you can communicate, the better your shots will be.
You should be asking the pilot (and camera operator) what they can and can't do. Ensure the drone you have chosen has the camera capabilities you require. What features does the drone have that you can take advantage of? What are the drone's limitations and flight limitations within the area of operation? Where is it not safe to fly? How long will setup take, how long to reset from a battery change, etc.
These are the kinds of questions you need to know the answers to, to get the best end result. Make sure you are specific in your communication, don't be vague or waffly. Try to learn correct drone terminology - because what you thought was one thing might be something completely different to them. I know this all sounds obvious, but sometimes it's not! If you are going to spend the dollars to get drone footage, you need to make the most of it. I certainly didn't know what a drone's features were until I asked, and unless you're in the biz you won't either. Cast & Crew Remember how I said people will stand and point and go Oooh and Aahhh? Yes, well, your crew will do that too. Everyone wants to see the drone. This is fine, however your cast and crew need to be briefed about what's happening. Just as communication is important with your operators, it's equally important with your cast. The crew can do what they like, as long as they are safe and out of shot. The operator will need to run a safety brief with your crew to advise of what to do in an emergency. Your drone pilot will not fly a drone over people so make sure everyone is accounted for, understands where they are allowed to go, and make sure any gear will be out of shot. It would be awful if you got that perfect shot of the city skyline at sunset with all the beautiful colours and majestic movement only to realise someone left a tripod on a rooftop you just tracked past.
So how do you get that perfect shot you want? Every situation is different, you might only need the drone for one shot and have half a day to do it in, in which case, great! - but if you have multiple shots, angles and locations, the chances are you probably won't be able to get each one perfectly. It doesn't mean you can't, but unless you're working on a budget production you simply won't have time. Just like the old 80/20 rule. Spend 20% of the time getting 80% of the shots and not the other way around.
While you're in the air and you think you've got it, keep the shot going. Don't stop! You already have the drone in the air a few more seconds won't hurt. I've had plenty of shots where I said to myself "This is beautiful!" - and then the shot ends, leaving me wishing it continued. So, like it is on the ground, keep the camera rolling, and the shot going just that extra bit longer for good measure. You'll thank yourself in the edit room.
Lastly, or better still firstly, the question you need to ask is this - why are you using a drone? How will using the drone fit your project and style, and how can you use it? I've seen people use a drone as an expensive dolly and do what people on the ground could have done Not only is there higher risk of injury or crashing the drone, but it complicates and extends production schedules.
Drones can give you those epic sweeping, tracking or panning shots and help to show depth and space at altitude. There's no end to how creative you can be with drones, I love them, but like everything else they are just a tool. They won't be the best or most practical solution for every shot but they will always add value when used effectively. Work with your operators and get their input. Be safe and happy shooting!