The dish on drones: A video production Q&A

Ten years ago, sprawling panoramas or scenic skylines were high-budget, wish-list items for video creators. With advancements in drone technologies—from high-definition cameras to precise controls and GPS—these aerial shots are accessible to every filmmaker looking to add a sweeping vista to their production.

As drones become less expensive and operators tout their certifications, it can be easy to add a line item in your production budget. But it’s still worth asking how the drone footage serves the story and the video campaign strategy. Leff director Mike Russell and senior producer Laura Schram discuss how drones can be a vital tool in storytelling, break down when to use them, and highlight some considerations that are vital to navigate for a seamless production.

Evolution of drones in storytelling

Mike Russell: A few years ago, I picked up a couple of drones to experiment with on shoots, and they were so much fun. We got some great shots that really added to our videos. Pretty quickly, drone piloting became a more serious thing: it required Federal Aviation Administration certification, and operators need to be familiar with rules and restrictions. Now, to get the job done right, we work with licensed operators.

As with a lot of video production equipment, the tools have become very accessible and make it so much easier for people to make films. But a great video still requires the filmmaker’s eye and storytelling capabilities. In some cases, there’s a tendency to overuse drones because you have them. Storytellers should ask themselves, “How much do we really need a drone shot? What does it do for the story we’re trying to tell? Is there another way to get it?”

Laura Schram: Since most productions don’t need hours of drone footage—you’re likely going to use a shot or two at most—we like to book enough time in a shoot day to let the operators play a bit.

When we’re working through a client budget, and we know we want aerial shots, drones are usually the best way to go. They’re quite a bit less expensive than alternatives—say, a helicopter or a Steadicam rig. We can get the same high-quality, cinematic shots at a lower cost; most drone operators hire themselves out on a half-day or full-day basis, so you’re looking at around $1,500 to $2,000. With a helicopter, you can hit $20,000 pretty quickly when you consider all the costs, and a boom or a jib lands us around $5,000 per day, all in. Drones are a less expensive, flexible option that doesn’t sacrifice quality.

Drones: What are they good for?

Laura Schram: I always think the best drone shots set the stage, open a scene, or provide a transition. You don’t need hours and hours of drone footage because you’re not going to be able to use that much.

Mike Russell: Drone shots can also help to explain complex ideas. For example, when we filmed Laura Graves, an Olympian in dressage, we wanted to give viewers detail into what dressage is and how it’s scored. The best way to do that was just to put a drone up in the air and bring to life how dressage competitions are judged. We think about this approach in terms of the larger video campaign strategy—how it will be used, what the story is about, and what we need to really come to life in each of the ways the video will be used.

Laura Schram: I had a shoot in Colombia, and the whole project was about this proposed development along the coastline in Cartagena. We were dealing with inaccessible areas or rugged terrain, but the video needed to show this undeveloped land and illustrate what it was going to become; an aerial shot was the only way to do it. Helicopters weren’t going to work with our budget, but a drone did.

I have a friend who has also used drones for time lapse shots, which work really well because of the drone’s accuracy. Say you were wanting to show the construction of a project now and six months down the road. You can direct your drone to GPS points and it will save the settings. You can then get the exact same shot that you got before.

How to work with drone operators

Mike Russell: A good approach is to have somebody with a camera eye to oversee the production. You need a drone pilot and then you can also have someone working the camera as well, so you could have your director of photography focus on the image. For a shoot we did in Texas, we needed an overhead shot of a sprawling corporate training complex. I worked with the drone pilot to walk through the flight path and get the coverage we needed.

Laura Schram: We vet drone pilots, get a sense of their experience, and ensure they are up to speed on guidelines and restrictions. Each city has slightly different statutes, depending on the proximity of the airport, for example.

Mike Russell: Pilots are not going to want to bend the rules on that because they will lose their license. And they can’t shoot at night. So going over the ground rules in preproduction ensures that everyone is on the same page. You get the shots you need, and the client gets the most out of their budget on shoot day.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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