The rise of drones in film production

Unmanned aerial vehicles are now part and parcel of film production

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Back in May at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s awesome refugee drama Dheepan became the first winner to include a scene captured from an unmanned drone. In a film industry where drones are replacing helicopters on sets around the world, winning the most prestigious prize in cinema is enough of a milestone to signal the emergence of a new filmmaking trend. Drone cinematography is taking off in a big way.

There is only a single drone aerial in Dheepan, but it is used to fantastic effect, the sequence begins with the camera situated at a normal height, the camera is horizontally tracking the main character (a Sri Lankan civil war refugee) while he walks to his day job. The frame suddenly unhinges from its grounded axis and takes off at a 45-degree angle, pushing past foliage and flying over the apartment block that lead character looks after. From above the audience are able to take in the dilapidation, and the vantage point puts a dramatic end to a relatively sleepy first act of the film. 

Things may change as filmmakers continue to scope out the use of drones in narrative cinema, for now they are still very much a novelty. As they reach mass adoption in film and television it may well become a scenario in which every day camera operators begin adding aerial filming capabilities to their arsenal. While there will always be a call for specialist skill sets, aerial filming could very well become an every day norm for production houses.

We are nearing a better idea of what drones are good for in a documentary by Brian D. Johnson called Al Purdy Was Here, his debut in the documentary narrative, it uses beautifully shot drone cinematography to capture the land surrounding Al Purdy’s infamous A-frame cottage in Ontario’s Prince Edward County—a helicopter crew could not get this close for safety and legal reasons. These shots help Johnson’s film break free from a documentary mode rife with talking heads and ground-based filming.

At this point, drones as narrative film-making tools are still in their infancy. A drone can replicate the functions of a helicopter or a crane or a jib at a fraction of the price, but if drone shots don’t move beyond niche then they risk the chance of become pigeon holed as a directors flight of fancy.