Send in the drones

Send in the drones

By Andrew Sheldon,
Wednesday, 11th February 2015
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

Breathtaking footage filmed by drones is becoming part of the grammar of TV. Andrew Sheldon is excited, but warns that producers must tread carefully

We work in an industry that takes new kit to its heart. Right now, drones are the gadget of the moment. They bring a little bit of Hollywood to even the most mundane corners of the EPG.

No jib long enough? Don’t worry, the drone will get there. No helicopter nimble enough? The drone will get it… and without the downdraft ruffling the leaves.

A couple of years ago, a director couldn’t have said: SI’d like the shot to move out across the dining table, through the windows and out over the cliff, to reveal the view of the house from the sea in a wide shot from, let’s say, 60m.T

Phantom 2 Vision+ camera dronePhantom 2 Vision+ camera drone

But we can now – and without busting the budget or the shooting schedule. The drones developed for military use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are rapidly becoming part of mainstream television production. And to meet the demand, companies specialising in their use are springing up all over the UK. They bring with them kit in which they’ve invested – perhaps in the region of £20,000 – which, if used creatively, can make your show look a million dollars.

So, all very intoxicating. But it’s not without risk… for the producer, the production company and the industry.

Even though the use of drones is regulated through the Civil Aviation Authority, their operation for filming remains a subject of heated debate. Where, and when, you are allowed to fly them remains contentious.

As in many areas of life, the technology is running ahead of the legislation. What constitutes an invasion of privacy is already a prickly subject, but material shot from drones has the capacity to take it to a different level.

A shot of a board meeting taking place on the 10th floor of an office block? Technically, no problem. A shot of a celebrity sunbathing on the roof of a villa? Ditto.

As the law stands, there are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place and no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.

Read more television magazine

But with the first paparazzi drones already taking to the skies, how long will this remain the case? With the hacking scandal fresh in everyone’s memories, could our airspace be the new frontier for the battle between privacy and freedom of the press?

Drones have brought two worlds together and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the dust settles.

There are a host of human-rights and public-safety issues emerging and a lot of catching up to do.

Media lawyers will need to get to grips with aviation and aviation authorities will be brushing up on their media law.

And, of course, it’s a new line to add to that already tight budget.

We used Spider Aerial Filming’s drones on Homes by the Sea. They did a terrific job, but there were scheduling lessons to be learned, to make sure their presence on the shoot was cost-effective.

The Spider operators felt very confident with the kit, were clearly across the regulatory and legal framework, and engaged with what we were trying to achieve.

They arrived in a van with three different drones, capable of carrying a range of camera types, and coping as well as possible with the oh-so-­unpredictable British weather.

We were conscious of cost; with so many operators out there, there are deals to be done.

But remember that there are also stories of mixed results from some firms. So as well as agreeing the price, make sure their showreel stacks up.

If you do that, you’ll get material that would previously have been beyond the reach of all but the best-funded shows for not much more than the cost of a conventional crew day.

We used a two-person set-up – an operator for the camera and an operator for the drone. This felt like the best way to get the right creative result.

It also minimised the risk of a piece of equipment akin to a hover mower landing somewhere it shouldn’t.

If you want a sense of what the drone offers creatively, then go to YouTube and watch mountain biker Danny MacAskill riding Skye’s Cuillin Ridge. Beautiful… and quite vertigo inducing.

The potential applications are fascinating. From the moment it lifts off, it’s recording. And though you won’t want to use every shot, pretty much every shot is usable.

News broadcasters can report from conflict zones and disaster areas with reduced risk to safety.

Covert and investigative programming has a powerful new tool at its disposal, and film-makers can take us to places we’ve never seen before.

And because we’re not used to viewing the world from the places a drone can reach, it’s constantly offering material that looks fresh and revealing. It’s certainly tempting.

Drones can breathe new life into traditional TV subjects. In the past year, we’ve seen numerous programmes that have successfully integrated drone technology into their formats, from our own Homes by the Sea, for More4, to ITV’s Secrets from the Sky.

As programme makers, one of our toughest challenges is finding ways to provide new insight and fresh perspectives.

Suddenly, that appears to be remarkably easy, but it won’t last. In no time at all, audiences will expect to see these types of shots. Unless these shots are cleverly used, they will lose their impact.

Homes by the SeaHomes by the Sea

On Homes by the Sea, we quickly realised that the way to use this new tool was sparingly. The drone was used to create standout moments.

The director and the DoP delighted in designing shots that appeared to be conventional at first but developed into breathtaking aerials.

Shots could start in the darkness in a tunnel and then burst out into a castle courtyard in Northumbria.

They could move from inside a dining room out across the rugged cliffs of Devon; they could circle a beautiful converted lighthouse in Norfolk.

In a single shot, we could establish our presenter, Charlie Luxton, in a close-up, before moving around him to show the epic coastal landscapes he was describing.

This kit could bring a sense of the spectacular. But what it couldn’t do is replace good-quality material shot on the ground in a conventional way.

Right now, drones feel like they could become a game changer, one of the biggest things to happen to the small screen since colour arrived in our homes in July 1967.

At the time, BBC Two Controller David Attenborough announced that colour programming would be restricted to around five hours per week. By the end of the year, BBC Two was broadcasting everything in colour. It was what the audience expected.

That’s how quickly the stunning can become the standard. When that day arrives for drones, we’ll all have to work that little bit harder once again.

We should guard against coming to depend upon them. They provide a televisual punctuation mark and need to be carefully integrated into the grammar of whatever show you’re making. Everyone knows that there are few things more distracting than over-punctuation!!!

Andrew Sheldon is Creative Director and founder of True North.