It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a drone that makes movies!

August 15, 2013

(MGM and Sony Pictures)

Remember this scene from "Skyfall" where James Bond is chasing a bad guy across the rooftops of Istanbul?

You might not realize it — in fact, that's part of the point — but a not-insignificant chunk of the footage shot for the movie was filmed using a drone.

In fact, a growing share of blockbuster films involve the use of unmanned aerial footage. Beyond Skyfall, the list includes "Oblivion," "Man of Steel," "Star Trek: Into Darkness," "The Hunger Games," "The Dark Knight Rises," and "Iron Man 3," among others.

Drones give cinematographers a unique advantage over traditional filmmaking methods. They have more reach and range than a crane. They're often more nimble than a helicopter. And that means directors can pull off risky, real-world acrobatic shots that would otherwise have to be created on the computer.

"Ten years ago, when you wanted an action sequence you did them at 18 frames a second, then projected them at 24 — so that you could do them slow but it looks fast," said Emmanuel Previnaire, an academy-award winning drone cinematographer, at a Washington conference on drone technology Wednesday. "Now everything has to happen fast. It's become a very demanding industry in terms of motion control."

It's also become demanding in terms of liability. With the Federal Aviation Administration still deliberating on how to allow drones to operate in U.S. airspace, film studios remain generally skittish about relying too heavily on them. Unmanned machines may be less expensive to buy and maintain than other equipment like full-sized helicopters, but a crash, even one where nobody gets hurt, would be a major blow to a studio's credibility. Insurance is a must, and so is pilot experience.

"This is not a push-and-play system," said Previnaire. "You'll never get there if you're not an expert pilot."

Every time a filmmaker wants to shoot in the United States using a drone, they have to ink a one-time deal with the authorities for permission. In other countries where the rules are more lax, the checks may be weaker or nonexistent. And that's led to an explosion in the international market for unmanned aerial footage. Previnaire's company, which helped shoot the Skyfall chase, set up a bureau in Hong Kong in 2005 just to handle all the demand from Asia.

But regulatory hurdles aren't stopping independent filmmakers from tinkering on their own. Here's one California-based team on YouTube using a drone to splice video from a third-person perspective with video from a first-person perspective:

At about nine minutes in, the filmmakers show how they managed to keep the camera level with a climbing actor as he scaled a wall — without an expensive crane. And the final effect is pretty neat.

Previnaire insisted, though, that his job is to be invisible.

"The movie maker wants to tell a story," he said. "They don't care about the technology. Our main goal is to make sure you forget the technology behind the images."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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