Why drones are important for filming!

DRONES are handily disrupting everything from intelligence-gathering to warfare. They are easily manoeuvred into otherwise inaccessible places, and they are capable of moving all sorts of equipment, from cameras to bombs, at a cost orders of magnitude lower than the helicopters and cranes they are replacing. Soldiers and spies are already well acquainted with their powers. Now that these devices are becoming cheaper and easier to use, civilian film-makers are starting to exploit their creative potential.

Footage shot from drones can already be seen in the multiplex. “Spectre”, a new James Bond film, apparently makes “ample” use of drone cinematography. Part of the opening scene of the previous Bond film, “Skyfall”, was also shot from a drone, as was the opening of “The Expendables 3”. Hollywood-calibre footage has long been shot by expensive, customised camera drones, but a new partnership between DJI, a prominent Chinese manufacturer of consumer drones, and Hasselblad, a Swedish maker of high-end cameras, will likely lead to off-the-shelf camera drones with comparable capabilities. Drones are already inspiring film-makers to capture more than just pulse-quickening action shots—as a number of new festivals dedicated to their films handily demonstrate. The next one, the Flying Robot International Film Festival, will land in San Francisco on November 19th.

Anyone who has seen Danny MacAskill’s “The Ridge” (pictured), a short film of him cycling the Black Cuillin ridge on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, knows drones can be harnessed to create something majestic. But a look at the entries from New York’s sold-out Drone Film Festival, recently broadcast on the AXS network, makes it plain that these are very early days in drone film-making. Few films are truly capitalising on the aesthetic potential of this new technology.

More troublingly, though, few films address the fact that most people associate drones with warfare. How does their military use inflect their artistic potential? Not every drone film has the responsibility to ponder this big question, but for a festival of drone films to completely neglect it is irresponsible.

This failure matters. In presenting the films from the New York festival, Randy Scott Slavin, the festival’s founder, all too breezily dismissed what has been the most significant application of drone technology to date. “They say that drones are good for spying on people, but the truth is they are way too loud,” he quipped. This seems wilfully misguided. Drones are big business, and they are poised to get bigger. Their surveillance capacity has already had a major impact on America’s foreign policy. Art made by and about drones is a useful tool for understanding this influence. Good drone art is necessary.

“Our Drone Future”, by Alex Cornell, is not such art. The film combines a trite narrative of an autonomous-attack drone gone awry with humdrum footage of San Francisco. “Superman with a GoPro” by Corridor Digital, which won the prize for overall best film at New York’s festival, is even worse. This ham-fisted appropriation of comic-book mythology is weighed down with bad acting and evident self-satisfaction.

This is not to say these films don’t have their moments. One technique that appears frequently is a low tracking shot, near the ground or just above water, which suddenly gives way to a swooping overhead shot. This effect can be beautiful, as in Philip Bloom’s award-winning “Koh Yao Noi”, which uses it to capture an overhead shot of a young boy running down a pier in Thailand. But most films fall short. As Mr Bloom observed in an interview, drone technology can make it hard to create “a feeling, an emotion, a journey…rather than just a montage of shots.”

Other film-makers clearly succumb to this temptation. “Tiny Boston”, for example, jumps haphazardly from one Boston landmark to another (here the Hancock Tower, there MIT’s Great Dome). So too with other festival films, which offer dizzying tours of the Santa Monica pier, the Mexico City airport and elephants in Africa. A slickly produced music video from the rock band OK Go shows hundreds of people dancing with umbrellas, recalling Busby Berkeley. These films are not bad to look at. For example “Heaven”, a music video directed by Daniel Feighery, offers a loving aerial portrait of Coney Island, and culminates with otherwise unattainable close-ups of exploding fireworks. It was easily the strongest entrant from the InterDrone festival in Las Vegas in September. As with early, over-heavy application of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in film, most drone film-makers are so seduced by the technology that they forget to tell a story. As Mr Slavin said, “almost everything looks better when it’s shot with a drone.”

For a more powerful commentary on the potential of drone film-making, one can watch a short Russian film made by Alexander Pushin, a cameraman for Russian state television, which caught fire on social media in late October. (YouTube has removed the video following complaints, but excerpts can be seen on this CNN broadcast.) Against a jaunty electronic soundtrack by Crystal Method, this video remixes news footage of the devastated Damascus suburb of Jobar, in Syria, as seen from a drone. Russian tanks manoeuvre around one another, their turrets flashing brightly as the tanks fire on Syrian rebels. Buildings sit, ruined, as smoke blows and fighters run. The footage calls to mind action films or apocalyptic video games, but is all too real.

This video is both more compelling and more disturbing than most of the films from the recent festivals. It captures the way the real potential for drone film-making is not merely aesthetic, but also practical. As Mr Pushin capably shows, drones are not merely an increasingly essential tool of warfare, but also one of the best means available for documenting the devastating results for a wider audience.