Drones in Movie Shoots: Debate Rages Despite Safety Claims, Cost Savings

Expendables Drone Watermarked - H 2014
Phil Bray Courtesy of Millenium Films

Expendables Drone Watermarked - H 2014

This story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, lots of gunfire, a speeding train, an approaching helicopter — all caught in a swooping bird's-eye view. Not that long ago, the only way to capture all that simultaneous action in one aerial shot would have required a second helicopter with its own camera crew. But that isn't how the opening sequence in The Expendables 3 was shot. Instead, an unmanned drone, operated remotely, hovered above the scene for the film, which Lionsgate is releasing Aug. 15.

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"We flew right next to a train and helicopter," says pilot Ziv Marom, owner of the drone camera-services company ZM Interactive. "We shot everything from chasing tanks to explosions to flying over buildings and motorcycle jumps. We can also do shots that a real helicopter can't do. We can do lower altitudes."

As drones — also known as UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles — are being employed for everything from warfare to Las Vegas bottle service, Hollywood is eager to draft them into filmmaking because they hold the promise of new creative options, real cost savings and possibly even safer sets. Drone-makers, rigging manufacturers and aerial production companies all are joining forces to offer remote-controlled, camera-equipped drones. Another shot in Expendables illustrates a drone's versatility: A camera-equipped drone flew out of a building's window for an aerial view, then returned back through the same window — something that could never have been achieved with a helicopter. But Expendables was shot in Bulgaria. In the U.S., before drones can become commonplace, regulatory issues are a major hurdle.

Currently, federal law prohibits the commercial use of unmanned aircraft — in filming or for any other purpose. To conduct an operation like film­making with a UAV in U.S. air­space, users need a certified aircraft, licensed pilot and Federal Aviation Administration approval, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr. The FAA is considering a request by the MPAA, which filed a petition on behalf of seven aerial production companies — Aerial MOB, Astraeus Aerial, Flying-Cam, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Vortex Aerial and Snaproll Media — asking for a regulatory exemption to allow for the domestic use of unmanned aircraft systems by the motion picture and television industry.

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"All flights will occur over private or controlled-access property with the property owner's prior consent and knowledge," Snaproll said in the petition. And addressing privacy concerns, it added, "Filming will be of people who have also consented to being filmed or otherwise have agreed to be in the area where the filming will take place." In saying it would consider the issue, a process that could take a few months, the FAA cautioned, "All the associated safety issues must be carefully considered to make sure any hazards are appropriately mitigated."

The FAA already is working on a proposed set of rules specifically developed for users of small — less than 55 pounds — aircraft that it expects to complete later this year. Although the FAA has not yet determined what those regulations might entail, they could be applied to drones used in filming because many digital cameras are getting smaller and lighter as the technology advances.

Making the case for why film and television productions should be allowed to follow suit, Neil Fried, the MPAA's senior vp government and regulatory affairs, argues: "Unmanned aircraft systems offer the motion picture and television industry an innovative and safer option for filming. This new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots."

Not everyone is convinced, though. "I'm really dubious about the use of drones," says director of photography Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers and an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governor. "First of all, people don't realize that these things are like flying lawn mowers — excessive care must be taken with their use."

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Others argue, though, that unmanned craft could make filming safer by keeping filmmakers on the ground. Says Dan Kanes, a director of photography whose company Paralinx makes a wireless HD video link that enables remote monitoring while filming with a drone: "It's much safer than flying a full-size copter. Unfortunately, sometimes there are helicopter accidents." In 1982, on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, one such accident resulted in the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children. More recently, two filmmakers who were working with James Cameron were killed in February 2012 when their helicopter crashed while location scouting off the south coast of Australia. And in early 2013, three died in a crash while working on a Discovery program in Acton, Calif.

Although the Feb. 20 death of Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old camera assistant who was struck by a train in Georgia while filming Midnight Rider, didn't involve an aircraft, it has given new urgency to demands for safer sets. Drones could offer one solution. "If you place a remote-controlled, unmanned camera in a place that is dangerous to humans, you are also alleviating some of the risks that crewmembers could face," says Kanes, adding that unmanned aircraft "can make filmmaking safer as long as the people practicing are following safety protocol on set. It's really important to have vetted specialists, hopefully union members." In fact, he suggests, Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild, should consider establishing a special designation for drone operators.

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Patrick Smith of Aerial Media Pros — a dealer for drone-maker DJI — says that his company has used drones for low-flying shots. And he always starts with a safety briefing that includes the actors. "We want to talk and let them know we can get within maybe 10 feet of them, if they want, based on their comfort level. We do a lot of preplanning. I'm constantly scouting so that if something goes wrong, [I know] where I can ditch it in a safe position to avoid everyone."'

But a red flag was waved by the FAA's Jim Williams in a speech in May at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Conference when he reported that there have, in fact, been filming accidents involving unmanned aircraft. "During the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Australia earlier this year, an athlete was injured when a small UAV commissioned to film the event fell from the sky, hitting her in the head," said Williams, who is manager of the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office. "The competitor was unable to complete the race because she sustained injuries that required stitches." The risk of injury from unmanned aircraft is not limited to people on the ground, either. In March, a near midair collision was reported close to the Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida. According to Williams, "The airline pilot said that the UAS was so close to the jet that he may have collided with it."

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Nonetheless, outside the U.S., filmmakers already are employing drones. They were used in the U.K. for HBO's Game of Thrones and the upcoming BBC One drama series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

And cost savings immediately come into play. On Expendables 3, the original shooting plan called for about 38 days of helicopter shots, but that was reduced to no more than 10 when the drones proved their versatility, according to ZM Interactive's Marom. The daily rates for using the drones ranged from $4,500 to $8,000, he says, depending on the drone, camera and number of operators. Typically, a two-person crew — a pilot and a camera operator — are required, though sometimes a focus puller also is added. By comparison, adds Smith, "you're probably looking at between $15,000 and $20,000 for a helicopter day with a crew."

Beyond safety concerns and cost savings, Kanes emphasizes that drones can offer filmmakers new creative options. "It's a great way to get new perspectives. Instead of using a jib or a crane, it allows you to have an infinite crane arm," he says. And, adds Smith, "the one-take shot is what the directors of photography and producers really like, the ability to follow something really close and then pull back or go high for a reveal."

But Crudo remains dubious. "Sure, they have their place in the tool kit," he says, "but it won't be long before gratuitous aerial shots will be breaking out like the plague at every level of the business."


Although any type of drone to which a camera can be attached can be pressed into service, typically the UAVs used by filmmakers are multirotor aircraft that use multiple propellers to achieve lift.

A small UAV with a tiny camera like a GoPro can weigh as little as 2 pounds, while a heavier UAV configured with such larger cameras as a Red Epic or Arri Alexa can range from 16 pounds to 30 pounds.

Typically, at least two: a pilot who operates the drone and a camera operator who operates the camera via remote control. Sometimes, there's a separate lens puller to handle focus.

A wireless HD video link allows directors to see what's being shot in real time.

Some companies already are working to create rigs that could hold two cameras on a single drone, allowing filming in 3D from the air.