Are drones overused in production today? There was a time not long ago when getting a helicopter shot for your film immediately upped the production value. If you were lucky enough to have such a shot and you put it in your film in the first few minutes you could actually buy some time with the audience believing the budget was much higher than it actually was.
The one that sticks out in my mind the most was the opening shot of Mystic River. The smooth helicopter shot that flies out over the water was so polished and eerie that it immediately set the tone for the rest of the film. Interestingly enough, the rest of the film is actually shot pretty modestly so getting that helicopter shot in right at the top of the movie really did make me site up and realize that I was watching a “serious” director.
Helicopter shots don’t even stand the test of time
Interestingly enough, helicopter shots weren’t always so smooth and looking back on them by today’s standards some of them really don’t hold up all that well. If you look at the guitar intro to Once Upon a Time in Mexico you’ll notice towards the end of the intro there are some pretty wobbly helicopter shots that don’t really hold up to the standards of today’s drones. Here’s the clip if you want to take a look for yourself:
How has the drone landscape affected all this?
Fast forward to 2018 and drones are something it seems everyone has in the trunk of their car. Drone manufacturers seem to be putting out cheaper and more advanced models every quarter.
Drones Overused: Making drones cheap has made them pedestrian
Drones have gotten cheap. If you’re looking to get quality, 4k imagery out of a drone you can actually buy a drone for around $1,000 that is totally capable of being cut into footage from just about any cinema camera. I didn’t realize how much this shifted things until my brother, a real estate developer, told me he purchased one. My brother has no idea what a shutter speed or iso is but he knows how to operate a drone to get impressive aerial shots of houses he’s building to show prospective buyers.
If someone is learning how to operate a drone before they’re learning what an f-stop is what that effectively is doing for the general audience is cheapening the perceived value of drone or helicopter shots as a whole. People have and always will be most impressed by things they can not do themselves. I learned this back when I was a magician at the magic castle in my teenager years. We now have an audience that has access to drones but doesn’t know how to pull focus. The net effect of this is that a rack focus is more impressive than a drone shot. I’m not exaggerating! I still get people asking me about how rack focusing works who own and operate drones as a hobby.
The net effect of this is that a rack focus is more impressive than a drone shot.
Most people don’t know how to use drones effectively
Another reason drone shots are not giving you the same value you might expect is that drone operators are self-trained and aren’t quite that good on average. As soon as technology is cheap people tend to dismiss it as easy. This has happened both in the drone world as well as the brushless gimbal world. I cannot tell you how many horrible Ronin operators I’ve met.
People think because they drop a thousand or two on a piece of camera kit that suddenly they know how to get steadicam style shots – wrong! Operating a Ronin to look as good as a steadicam takes an ENORMOUS amount of practice and understanding the limitations of a brushless gimbal system. In contrast, I’ve never met a steadicam owner/operator that does not get great steadicam shots. Because of the expense involved in getting a proper steadicam rig, almost every operator goes through rigorous training and as a result they become the tool as much as the gear. Drones are no different. The operators are simply not putting in the time to become amazing with the gear by and large because they’re not financially committed to the craft.
Drone shots can be very distracting
Filmmakers love their toys. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a cinematographer or a director say they want to shoot a short film because they want to test out a lens or a new piece of kit. I understand doing some test shots so that you can see how your new gear works, but writing and producing an actual film just to test out gear is stupid. You should be making films to tell amazing stories – full stop.
There’s a great number of people in independent film who have gotten into the artform because they’ve been seduced by the technology. When your mind is not on the heart of a story and you’re on set to play with all your cool new dollies, sliders, ronins and drones what happens is a film with cool movement that is about as interesting to watch as paint dry.
I can’t tell you how many short films I’ve seen that start or end on a drone shot and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how it made sense creatively to do so. It was so distracting that I had a hard time paying attention to the content of the movie.
Production value is almost always equated with costs
Audiences aren’t stupid. They know what drones are. They see them at the parks, they’ve probably researched how much they cost around the holidays to see if they would make a fun gift for their kids or co-workers. The more filmmaking tools become accessible to the general public the more they become disillusioned with the craft of making films. One of the reasons 3D animated films and superhero films do so well is because they both employ technology that is way beyond the understanding of the general public.
It wasn’t that long ago that color film was so prohibitively complicated and expensive that all you had to do to get the attention of the audience was shoot your movie in color. These days, though, drones and helicopter shots have become old hat. Unless your movie has believable aliens, a talking teddy bear or some other crazy special fx work that nobody can replicate with an iphone app and a couple thousand dollars, you better start focusing on the story more than the camera movement.