A Day In The Life On A Movie Set As A Drone Pilot

Original post by Bobby Watts from official Linked in.

(7 Minute Read)

Within the last few years, drones have become just another tool in the toolbox for movie creators, both big and small. Thanks to enormous leaps in technology from companies such as DJI, Freefly and others, drones have become commonplace on film sets. The next time you finish watching your favorite feature film, TV Show, Netflix series, or Amazon original, peek into the credits at the end. More than likely you will see the names of a drone pilot and gimbal operator in the list. Drones are becoming more popular on set and they have practically secured their position as a great supplement to conventional filming tools. The best usage of a drone falls somewhere in between a Steadicam, a crane, and a helicopter. So you have seen the shots, but what really happens on set? How does it work and how do we pull off the stunning shots you see on the big screen? I’ve had the pleasure of working in the film industry for over a decade flying camera drones and I’m about to shed some light on the subject.

Since 2007, I have been flying for XCam Aerials Inc- an aerial company owned by Jordy Klein out of the Central Florida region. In our time working together we have had the pleasure of shooting for companies such as HBO, Netflix, Disney, Publix, Ford, Dodge, along with a list of feature films most recently including Tupac’s biopic “All Eyez on Me”. We have been on over a hundred sets together and every day provides us with a new shot to capture and a new set of obstacles to overcome.

A typical day on set begins a few weeks or months before with some emails exchanged from production. They will often require copies of our FAA Part 107 Certification and proof of insurance. Most productions require a $5 to $10 million insurance policy in liability coverage. After all of the formalities are in place we will then be told the shot or even given storyboards of the shot they are asking us to capture. These storyboards can be hand drawn, computer generated, or even done in Previs which is practically the entire scene rendered in a computer animation. Sometimes we are given the shot, but other times we simply walk on set blind and are told what the shot is about 2 minutes before take off. It really just depends on the project.

On the day, we arrive at the location at our scheduled call time. Most often, we are shooting during the whole day so call time is usually at the crack of dawn, before sunset. As we all know, both sunrise and sunset provide the most compelling light to shoot in, so we’re usually on set by 6am most days. Depending on the production, they may even have a catered meal waiting for the crew which is my absolute favorite part of the bigger productions. After downing some coffee and breakfast, we are shown our first shooting location by a director, location manager, or production assistant. Once we know where we are shooting, we unpack all of the gear necessary for the job. On most features, we are filming with our MFD 5000 drone which carries a Red Epic Dragon or Arri Alexa Mini Camera. All inclusive, this aircraft package costs upwards of $60,000 and weighs just under the 55 lb limit. It’s super important to be meticulous when packing for shoots like this – as there is so much support equipment required for a serious aircraft like the MFD 5000. On any given day, we carry generators, chargers, gas cans, extension cords, spare cables, soldering irons, spare propellers, spare landing gear- you name it, we’ve got it with us.

Once we are at the first location, we begin unpacking and setting up camp for the day. First off is the Landing Zone. For me as the pilot, I want to have a landing zone that is nice and big, approximately 4 times the diameter of the aircraft. This way, if I were to have any sort of failure in the air but can still control the aircraft, I will have plenty of margain to bring it down safely. I make sure the landing zone is free of anything that could potentially be sucked up by the propellers (or blown down into our eyes) including sticks, trash, and other debris. Next up, we have a chat with the director and get the exact shot that he is looking to achieve. Once we know our shot, we find where both the pilot and gimbal operator are going to position themselves in order to get the perfect shot. As the pilot, I always ensure I am standing in the perfect position to see the aircraft at all times. Also, I’m always just a few steps away from Jordy (the gimbal operator) and the director so that I can hear the action. If I have to stand anywhere else that will give me a better angle for piloting, we use walkie talkies to communicate during the shot.

Once we are all in place, it’s time to arm and take off the drone. As the pilot it’s our responsibility to make sure that we fly safely while getting the required shots. As an FAA 107 pilot it’s our job to know the shots we can and cannot do. For example, if a director asks you to fly over a group of people, the proper reply is “Sorry Sir, we cannot do that legally, but perhaps we can fly off to the side while the aircraft flies over a safe area next to them”. It’s really all about conveying what you can and cannot do in a nice way – after all, you are just the hired gun there to capture the shots that they want.

Once we are in the air, capturing a shot is a delicate balance between the pilot, gimbal operator, and camera assistant. It’s the pilot’s job to get the aircraft in position and keep it close to the action. The gimbal operator is responsible for keeping the camera in on the action, showing exactly what the director wants to see. Lastly, it’s the camera assistant’s job to ensure the shot is in focus, exposure is correct, and the camera is recording. Watching a three man team pull off complex choreographed shots like this is always fascinating to watch. For our big aircraft carrying these big movie cameras, our flight time is approximately 10 to 12 minutes. We will fly, get the shots, then return to the landing zone with about 30% worth of battery capacity in reserve, primarily for safety reasons. Once we are on the ground, the aircraft is disarmed and a frenzy often ensues. Between changing batteries, camera memory cards, and lenses there always seems to be a bit of activity going on in between flights. We will re-load and go up again, seeing if we can improve upon the previous shot or going after a different shot all together.

After capturing beautiful shots during the sunset and morning hours, we often relocate for a completely different shot all together. Because videos are often shot in a non-chronological order it is very possible for us to shoot the last scene in the movie during the morning, then move onto filming a scene for the beginning of the movie later in the day. Once the director is happy with our morning shots, we break for lunch and prepare for the afternoon. This is when the generators are running at their peak, charging up all of our aircraft, camera and support batteries for the rest of the day. Once we have finished up lunch we often head out to a third location or back to our original location to capture more shots until the end of the day.

During the course of a shooting day, we have flown anywhere from literally one flight to about twenty flights. It just depends on what the client wants to see and what we are able to capture for them. As a pilot, one can imagine this can be quite tiresome- having to hold your concentration with so much action going on all around you at all times. It is your responsibility to conduct safe flights while putting the aircraft in position for your gimbal operator to capture the best shot possible.

Once the production is happy with the shots we got for the day, we will hear those three words that are sweet music to the ears: “That’s a wrap!” Once we are wrapped, we take the memory cards to the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) who is responsible for transferring all of our footage onto their secure hard drives. We then pack down our equipment, clean up our Landing Zone, and return home just to do it all over again the next day.

After having done this for some time, I have came to the realization that drones are an extremely useful tool on movie sets, so long as the production uses them appropriately and effectively. Often times we are asked to do shots that are probably better suited for a crane or a camera car, but because of their versatility, drones can capture just about any shot imaginable. Directors are now even choosing drone shots as the final shot in a film, simply because they are able to pull off such epic, beautiful shots that no other moving camera tool can capture. There is no doubt that drones have cemented their place on movie sets. As drone operators, it is our job to operate our aircraft safely so that this technology can continue to flourish on the big screen. If you currently fly drones, keep practicing and keep shooting… you never know when you might be called up to shoot for the big screen!

Happy Flying Everyone,

Bobby Watts


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