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5 Tips for Filming with Drones

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The following article is a guest post from John Montana, an actor living with his wife in L.A. who produces short films. His most recent film, “Hungry” has been accepted into 24 film festivals all over the world. Check out his short films at No Title Production Films.

1. Be A Storyteller

The bottom line is this: The director is first and foremost a storyteller. You must have a cohesive, compelling story to tell. This is not a difficult thing to do, as everyone has at least 1 story to tell from life. Whether it is a breakup, or a family trauma, or a secret desire… the list is endless. Don’t just get a bunch of aerial footage without having some story that you can back up and tell with the footage. No matter how you get the footage, and with drones, the footage is awesome and inspiring. But make sure it supports your story.

Note from Alan: This is true even if you’re not doing cinematography. Telling a story is tantamount to capturing and sharing aerial footage with clients, regardless of what industry you’re in. When you’re in a services-based business, you’ve got to focus on telling the right story for your clients.

2. Know the FAA Rules

It is unfortunate that the government has gotten involved, but it is now a reality, and you must know these “Operating Standards” before you go out and start to film. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a world of hurt. These are directly from the Department of Transportation:

  1. Select an operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.
  2. Do Not Operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.
  3. Do not fly the aircraft higher than 400 feet above the surface. When flying the aircraft within 3 miles of an airport, notify the airport operator, or when an air traffic facility is located at the airport, notify the control tower, or flight service station.
  4. Give right of way to, and avoid flying in the proximity of, full-scale aircraft. Use observers to help if possible.
  5. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance from any airport traffic control tower, or flight service station concerning compliance with these standards.

Note from Alan: For a quick summary of rules in the U.S., check out the Know Before You Fly campaign.

3. Slow Starts Win The Day

I know that the impulse is to go out and get the best drone you can and rush headlong into filming with this very cool new instrument. I would advise that you wait first. At least till you really get the hang of it and become more experienced. If you crash a $1000 drone because you are just learning, then you are going to be really pissed off.

Learn to fly the thing before you attach a camera to it. Because as much as you don’t want to admit it, you will probably crash a lot before you become proficient at flying it. A simple suggestion would be to fly it in manual mode first, so if your GPS fails, it will save a crash. It is always advisable that knowing your equipment and what it can or cannot do will prove to be incredibly valuable. Especially when you start to fly in new, unpredictable situations.

Another reason to start slow and practice is that many beginners will start to film and then wonder why the footage is shaky and unsteady. Take your time and learn how to use it. By taking the time to practice until you know what you are doing, the odds go up dramatically of getting great, amazing steady shots. After all, you don’t want to make your audience feel nauseous and throw up everywhere.

4. Set Up Your Shot List Before Shooting

When planning your shot list, make sure to identify the shots that have a crowd or a group of people near the shot or in it. Remember that these multi-rotor drones are essentially flying lawnmowers. Make doubly sure that everyone nearby is well aware of the dangers and keep non-essential personnel away from the shot. All it takes is one motor failure, a prop flying off, or a guidance malfunction and you have an uncontrollable flying guillotine on your hands.

Here is something else you need to plan for…the wind! If it is too windy or if it is expected to kick up, then don’t be afraid to postpone or cancel that days shoot. The wind is NOT your friend. The footage will be worthless, as it will be shaky and out of focus… not to mention that you are putting your camera equipment in jeopardy. Drones crash in the wind. You main goals are to keep everyone on your set safe, that you don’t lose any equipment and you get amazing footage that enhances your film.

If you are the director, or the camera/drone operator, make sure that you have spoken with the person in charge, whether it’s a director or client, in great detail. Make sure you know what they have in mind. Speak up and don’t be afraid to address concerns for safety issues. If you’re the director… ask yourself those questions. Review the shots using something like Google Earth to get an idea of the flight environment. Check out the area if possible and map out all the trees, electrical wires and obstacles. Then, go practice!

5. Create a Mesmerizing Shot

Story first. Then shots. And then tools. In that order! An audience always wants to see the story and people that they can connect with on a personal level. Always put the shots and story before the tools. If you want to produce something amazing it’s got to start with a great idea. As filmmakers we create content that entertains, moves and inspires people. Drone technology won’t turn you into a great filmmaker but it will enhance your skills as a storyteller and if used well will make your work shine. The more you can understand this technology, the better equipped you’ll be as every shoot is different.

For example, if you film at 60 frames per second and then slow it down and convert it to 25 or 24 frames per second in post and the footage will have an almost dream like feel to it. Get close to an object and slowly rise above it to reveal the amazing vistas in front of you. The best results are produced when flying the drone slowly with long nice fluid movements. These kinds of shots are designed to bring your audience into your film and then your story and the people in the film will keep them there. Don’t expect the drone footage to be everything…because it won’t be. BUT, it sure can enhance the film, and that’s really the goal. Right?

So these are 5 important tips that every filmmaker should have addressed before shooting your film with aerial coverage by a drone. If you take the time to prepare for your shoot correctly, then when you actually get to the set, things will flow much more smoothly that if you were careless. Because if there is one thing you can always count on, is that there will be “challenges” that arise on the set. It is how well you deal with them that will make or break your film.

Alan Perlman – Alan started UAV Coach to help connect drone hobbyists, to provide world-class UAV content, and to educate UAV pilots and aerial videographers with top-notch training programs.

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