On Set Aerial Filming for Professional Productions
In the UK it is a legal requirement to have a Permission For Aerial Work to fly for commercial purposes. In order to gain this, you must be a qualified UAV pilot. If you want to find out more about what is involved in getting qualified, we have written a 2 part guide on the EuroUSC BNUC-S process. Part one is a guide to the BNUC-S UAV pilot qualification and talks about the ground school and theory exam. Part 2 is about passing the BNUC-S Flight Test and what you should expect in the practical flight test.
This article is aimed at those planning to provide an aerial filming service for the TV and Film Industry. I’ll walk through what you need to do to ensure the smooth running of a shoot by covering what you need to do, what you should expect and what the client will expect from you as a professional drone operator.
Note: This guide is in addition to following your operations manual.
Before getting on site, there are a few things you need to do and establish with your client.
- Time and location of your meeting point – this would be stated in the ‘call sheet’ given to you by the producer.
- What camera and lens set-up you will be using. If it’s not your standard set-up, it could be worth getting your hands on it the day before so that you can balance and calibrate the gimbal to save time setting up on site.
- Have a copy of your air traffic control permission, insurance details, operations manual and permission for aerial work in case someone needs to see it (this can be an electronic copy).
- Lastly, it may sound obvious but make sure all of your equipment and batteries are charged, even if you don’t think you’ll need them.
Who’s Who On Set
Depending on what the shoot is, the size of the crew you’ll be working with will vary. In some cases you may just be working directly with your client, in other cases you may be working on a film set alongside 50+ other crew members.
Either way it’s important to establish who is who.
Producer – The person who makes stuff happen. They will be the one you spoke to about your rates and availability.
Director – The person in charge of the film. You may be working with him directly on small productions.
DP (Director of Photography) – The person you will be working with on bigger sets. He is in charge of visual aspects of the film and will talk through the shots he is after with you.
1st AD (First Assistant Director) – Helps move she shoot along and will call “roll camera”, “roll sound”, “cut” etc.
Talent – Actors or stunt crew
Gaffer – Your electricity and lighting man. He can sort you out with power so that you can charge your equipment.
Grip – In charge of moving lights and camera rigs.
Production Assistant/Runner – There to do various small jobs.
Craft services – In charge of catering for the cast and crew.
Briefing the Cast and Crew
Before undertaking any flights it’s important to brief everyone involved with the production to maintain safety on site. Here are a few things you will need to cover:
- Where you will be landing and taking off from – emphasize how important it is to keep the area clear.
- Any verbal calls you will be making when arming the drone, taking off or landing.
- Flight path, height and rough duration of the flight.
- Where the crew should be stood.
- What to do if something goes wrong.
Once you have covered these things, ask if anyone has any questions or concerns. Keep in mind that your answers may seem obvious or common sense to you as a professional but some people may never have seen or worked with a drone before so it’s important to be patient and talk in layman’s terms to help answer their questions.
Communication is Key
When there is a moving subject and timing is important, it is critical that there is good communication between all the cast and crew involved.
If communication is weak, you’ll often find that people get confused and the shot doesn’t go to plan which results in having to reset and re shoot. This wastes time, and time is money on set. In some cases you won’t have the opportunity to have a 2nd chance which is why it’s so important to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
In terms of communication methods, if you can’t talk directly, you can use walkie talkies, or if you need an open line, use your phone on speaker or with an ear piece (often useful for the pilot as he needs both hands on the transmitter).
If you need to tell your talent to start or stop an action while in flight, it is sometimes best to use a visual cue rather than an audible one as drones can be pretty loud, making it difficult to hear what people are saying if either party are too close to it.
Getting the Shot
Before each flight talk through the shot with the drone pilot, camera operator, DP and talent to establish the camera movement, speed and flight path of the drone and where and when the talent should be.
The DP will be stood with the camera operator looking at the live video downlink screen ensuring the composition and movements are how he visions them. The DP will communicate the shot he wants with the camera operator, the camera operator will then in turn, translate the appropriate information to the pilot to make the shot a reality.
It’s important to define and stick to this order of communication as it can often cause confusion if it’s not. Speaking from experience, the DP might say “up a bit” and this can be interpreted by the cam-op as “tilt up” or by the pilot as “increase altitude” – Two very different things and could easily compromise a shot.
Once the drone is in position and the DP is happy with the shot composition, the 1st AD will then call “roll camera” which means you start recording, then “action” when the shot begins. Once the shot is complete, the 1st AD will then call “cut”, at this point you should stop recording and come back to land.
Reviewing the Footage
If you have time it is good practice to review the footage before moving on to the next shot or location in case there are any problems.
If you are on a big film production, there may be a video village where there will be multiple big screens that can be used to review the footage or if you are on a smaller production, simply putting the SD card into a laptop so that you can preview it will be fine.
It’s important to review the footage on a bigger, HD screen so that you/the DP can look for any details that aren’t apparent on your live video downlink screen which tend to be fairly small and may not necessarily relay an HD feed. Some things to look out for are focus, exposure, composition, camera movement, specs on the lens and anything that might have come into shot that shouldn’t be there e.g. some trash on the floor.
Transferring the Footage
It’s rare that you will be required to do any post production of the footage so it is best to transfer the footage to your client on site rather than sending large video files via a cloud based file sharing site which can take a very long time to upload for you and download for the client.
It’s good practice to transfer the footage onto the clients hard drive while keeping a copy of the files on the SD card so that you can make a back up of the footage when you get back to the office. Now, if in the unfortunate event that the client looses the files, you can save the day.
Once you’ve packed up, make sure you haven’t left any mess then say goodbye to the crew. It’s worth saying goodbye to the Producer, Director and DP in person if possible as they are the most influential people that may get you back for another shoot in the future.
If you’re looking to supply a high quality aerial film or photography service, we have the professional tools you need to get the best results. We stock a range of aerial and ground photography equipment from the DJI Inspire 1 Pro through to the DJI Ronin-M. If you need some advice on choosing what equipment would best suit your needs, get in touch with us today via email or call us on 01737 457404.