Hollywood Stakeholders Organizing to Support Drones in Production

The newly named Society of Aerial Cinematographers urges filmmakers to comment on FAA proposals at educational event.
Phil Bray Courtesy of Millenium Films
Drone cameras have been used extensively in films like "The Expendables."

Hollywood's aerial filmmaking community is organizing under the newly named Society of Aerial Cinematographers, which kicked off with an education and training event Saturday, held by camera gear provider and training facility AbelCine in Burbank.

Prompted by the growing interest in attaching cameras to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — also referred to as drones — the new group was initiated by aerial cinematography enthusiast Robert Rodriguez, who is also director of technical operations for Technicolor Creative Services.

Opening Saturday's program — attended by an estimated 100 people, many of whom were pilots — Rodriguez urged participants to learn about and get involved in issues surrounding drones for production, which he believes might be "at risk." He noted that the U.S. "is the only country" where UAVs for production are regulated. "This makes it difficult for people to market themselves as aerial cinematographers," he said, adding that with tax incentives already driving work out of the country "we don't need another piece to go."

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Currently, in order to conduct a commercial operation with an unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace, users need a certified aircraft, licensed pilot and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval, according to FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

But speaking on Saturday, Rich Hanson, director of public relations and government affairs for the nonprofit Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), asserted that regulation of drones for production is more of a gray area, though there are a few specific agenda items with the FAA that need attention.

The first, he said, is a proposed FAA interpretive rule, that would create a "very narrow" definition for hobby and recreational UAVs, making production uses more clearly subject to regulation. Hanson related that the 30-day comment period for this interpretive rule ended on July 25, but the AMA has worked with the FAA to create a 60-day extension to allow filmmakers to better understand the issue and comment.

Rodriquez urged attendees to comment before the new Sept. 23 deadline.

The AMA's Hanson noted that, separately, the FAA is working on a small unmanned aircraft rule aimed an enabling all unmanned crafts of under 55 pounds to fly in U.S. airspace. He reported that the FAA target to put out the proposal is November, opening up a period for public comment. He projected that a final rule could be ready during 2016.

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Recently, the FAA also said it would consider granting exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAV applications, and has now closed the comment period for seven aerial production companies that applied for this exception. Those companies now await response.

Hanson was on hand to answer questions, but he warned that "unfortunately a large amount of public sentiment has built against this industry." He placed part of the blame with the FAA since "the equipment is out there and there's no education about what people can and can't do." But he also put some blame on operators, added that some do "crazy and dumb stuff and put it on YouTube."

Also in attendance was Michael Chambliss, business representative for the International Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600). "We want to see [use of UAVs in production] done correctly ... and facilitate best practices and information."

The rest of Saturday's event was dedicated to education about key topics such as safety, and included a look at the gear itself.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA