Video drones can help tell the story—as long as they aren’t the story themselves

Drones are the latest in the series of technological advances—digital editing, action shots courtesy of the GoPro camera, home recording studios thanks to ProTools—that have brought high-quality video production capabilities to the masses.

Drones have the video production community abuzz, and for obvious reasons: with a nimble camera in the sky, directors can get sweeping camera shots from a variety of heights and angles for a fraction of the cost of traditional equipment. In fact, with a maximum altitude of thousands of feet, some drones allow for the kind of panoramic shots that were once reserved for productions with deep enough pockets to hire a helicopter for flyovers.

On each drone, two sets of controls—one for flying and one to adjust the camera—ensure that the perfect shot is always within reach. A GPS holds the drone in a hover, freeing up the operator to focus on positioning for a shot rather than keeping it airborne. Put it in manual mode and let the wind (or an air conditioner, if you’re inside) gently direct the drone to capture the sensation of floating. The result is footage like this:

I just completed a series of video shoots with Mike Russell, my video production partner, and he spiced things up by gaining access to a DJI Inspire 1 drone equipped with an HD camera. When we had the drone out, it was amazing how many people stopped dead in their tracks to watch. Some pulled out their cameras. Others unconsciously followed the flight path just to see what might happen. There’s just something fascinating about seeing a drone buzzing around. It was a bit intoxicating.

And therein lies the challenge.

As with any breakthrough technology, drones should bring the story to life in new and exciting ways rather than be a substitute for a compelling narrative. Think of the last movie you saw that was long on special effects and short on story. You might have had the nagging feeling that the director was more enthralled with what could be accomplished visually rather than the impact it might have on the audience.

Drones also have the potential to become the storytelling device du jour, where iconic shots become so ubiquitous that the novelty and impact wear off quickly. A few years ago, the fad was the whiteboard video, with hand-drawn images bringing ideas to life in new and visually interesting ways. After the first few such videos you saw, you might have had trouble making it through any subsequent offerings. So like the guitar player who wraps nearly every solo in the cloak of a wah-wah pedal, the drone in the wrong hands could quickly wear out its welcome.*

By the same token, in the right hands drones can open up a whole new world of storytelling. The applications for a drone-mounted camera are as boundless as one’s imagination: point-of-view footage, seamless tracking shots, new perspectives on action and the setting in which it takes place, and a dynamic complement to more traditional shots.

Mike and I are excited to explore the opportunities to integrate this tool into production and take our motion picture storytelling to a whole new altitude.

*I was initially ambivalent about drones due to a party I played at Union Station in Chicago. Our jazz quintet was set up at one end of the main floor of the station, and a caterer was showcasing a new service: hors d’oeuvres delivered by drone. For three hours, drones were buzzing us as we played, and though they were typically six to eight feet above us, it was unnerving to have them directly overhead. Were the snacks delivered via drone any good? My guess is that none of the guests could tell you.

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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