Drones Are Quietly Assuming a Starring Role in Hollywood

Once upon a time – that is, less than a decade ago – few Hollywood cinematographers were aware of the prospective advantages of deploying drones in a major film-making role.  But these days, if you want to make a successful Hollywood movie, drones are likely to play a major – indeed, even a starring – role.  Their advantages are obvious:  Drones can frame overhead shots from various angles that formerly might have required a large mobile crane; they can also film those exciting and popular vehicle chase scenes that previously depended upon a manned helicopter crew. And drones are relatively cheap.  In 2018 Time magazine estimated that major Hollywood studios spend $20,000 to $40,000 daily to rent a single helicopter crew that might shoot several takes of a single scene.  One remotely piloted drone can be rented to film multiple scenes for as little as $4,500.

Drones first entered cinematography in a big way during the filming of  blockbusters like the Bond movie Skyfall (2015) and Jurassic World (2015).  The spectacular opening scene in Skyfall – a daring highs-speed chase with motorcycles leaping from one rooftop to another – – would likely have been impossible to film without a drone.  Helicopters lack the maneuverability for such dynamic multi-angle filming,  and flying them so close to and between buildings would have been far too risky to contemplate (and insure). The film’s drone was like a buzzing metallic dragonfly, menacing and exhilarating viewers with an adrenaline rush of death defying images that left them glued to the scene when they wanted to look away.

Jurassic World also showed how deploying a drone can fundamentally transform the movie-making – and watching –  experience.  In one critical scene, a drone mimics the movements of a pterosaur as it swoops down to attack the creatures below.  The audience comes to feel that it is viewing the scene not as a detached or horrified witness but through the dinosaur’s own eyes.  It’s a subtle transition that allows the audience to identify with the creature more sympathetically rather than an aggressive and threatening “monster.”

Then there’s the remarkable “drone catch” that occurred in the film  The Greatest Showman (2017).  The memorable moment occurred when a remotely piloted aerial drone was literally handed off to a cinematographer on the ground to continue shooting the scene without interruption.  Viewers of  the film say the transition was seamless, a tribute to good planning, a keen awareness of drone capabilities, and dexterous coordination and handling by all involved.

These are just three examples of how and why drones are becoming integrated into contemporary movie-making.  And we’re only just getting started.  In the latest film adaptation of Les Miserables, the central character actually wields a drone as part of the movie’s plot development. Drones, it seems, are no longer on hand just to support and dramatize the film action; in a very real way, they are the action.

Time wrote in 2018 that drones would one day “revolutionize” the world of big-ticket movie-making.  In fact, Hollywood ’s largely unheralded technological and cinematic revolution is already well underway.

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