Drone shooting is still a fairly new technology in TV and cinema production and, due to its similarities with helicopter tracking shots, many casual viewers might not immediately notice the difference.
But there are several major differences between the two methods, and these not only save time and money when using a drone camera shoot, but can also lead to a better overall quality of footage.
Here are five of the main differences that make drone camera shots the better option for many productions – and have helped this innovative new technology to stake its claim in the cinematic industries worldwide in recent years.
Drones are not just more manoeuvrable; they make it much easier to access all kinds of film locations, from remote wilderness far from an airfield, to low-altitude filming where it could be dangerous to have an occupied helicopter skimming along the ground.
This also gives drone shooting the edge over alternatives like tracking crane-mounted camera shots, which require access for heavy machinery at ground level.
With the right permission and safety in mind, there are very few places where it would be impossible to use drone shots – and plenty of locations where drones are the only feasible option.
Filming by helicopter needs experienced pilots and film crew to get a steady shot, and while drone shooting also needs an operator and potentially a separate camera operator or crew, overall the costs are much lower.
The equipment itself is much cheaper to run, and this can either allow you to save on your budget, or to obtain more footage and allow for follow-up shoots without having to find more money from anywhere overall.
However, that doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of the final footage; drones can accommodate the most modern of digital video camera equipment, with remote control to rotate the view around multiple axes and get the shot framed exactly as you want it.
Obviously there are certain safety guidelines to follow when filming with drones, and especially if members of the public are in the area, you should keep well away from any crowds.
But used correctly by an experienced pilot, a drone camera rig can get you much closer to the action – helped further by a decent zoom lens – and manoeuvre around the scene much more easily than a helicopter could.
In general, if you see a new TV or film production and think “how did they make a helicopter do that??” then there’s a good chance the footage you are watching was actually obtained using drone shooting.
While you will most likely aim to keep reshoots to a minimum, there are occasions when you realise you missed a crucial camera angle, or a last-minute script rewrite means you need some extra filler material.
Setting up a reshoot by helicopter can be a nightmare as you try to find an available pilot, get the necessary permissions and permits, and then actually try to recreate the original camera angle as closely as possible.
With drone shooting, it’s much easier to get permission to return and film again, without causing any major disruption to the local community, and in some more remote locations you might not need any special permission to use a lightweight drone filming rig.
There are many more reasons why a small drone camera rig can be preferable to a full-sized helicopter, especially if you don’t want your presence to have much of an impact on the scene you are shooting.
When filming wildlife, for instance, a drone can go unnoticed much more easily than a helicopter flying overhead, and can manoeuvre more easily to track animals as they run at speed along the ground.
For landscape shots, there’s much less risk of a drone casting a noticeable shadow on the ground, which would be visible in the final camera footage.
And in more general environmental terms, drones are much kinder from using less fuel and energy to operate, to avoiding the need for a nearby field to be used as a makeshift helipad – helping to keep the total carbon footprint of your production to a minimum.