How Drones Are Changing The Way TV Shows Are Produced

Get the shot!  Get the shot!  We’ve all heard the phrase from directors or from TV producers alike.  The idea is to have the timing, skill, and technology to do whatever possible to get a particular shot before the opportunity passes.  Part of this means being able to maneuver the camera into a precarious position.  That’s why, in the past, TV shows, following in the tradition of movies, have used booms, cranes, helicopters, and Steadicams mounted on the shoulders of actors to get the right angles.

Here’s where the top production drones come into play.  They’re small and compact and designed to stabilize cameras and get shots that are hard to get otherwise.

And production crews in the TV industry have taken notice.  While it’s estimated that drones were used by roughly only 10% of TV production crews in 2015, that percentage seems to be rising, and that’s not counting their use in shows that use drones as characters or as the stated concept.  Production crews aren’t the kind of people to throw undo skepticism at drones, since they are always looking for something that will save them work or money, or, more importantly, get them that great shot.

With helicopter costing crews roughly 25K per day–and up–a price tag of 3 or 4 thousand a day for drone aircraft looks pretty good.


But in terms of storytelling itself, unmanned craft have been used, in their early days, largely for action shorts and for anything requiring a low aerial vantage, or a moving shot in relatively close quarters.  For example, The Mentalist put a drone aircraft to work on its 2015 season finale, shooting a man running through the woods, which, with a helicopter would be distant and drained of much of its drama, and for a dolly would probably require some torturous chainsaw labor. (This was the first U.S. use of a drone in TV production, coming immediately after the FAA allowed drones’ use).  Some of the chase scenes and moving panoramas in Narcos were shot with drones as well.

Drone News is Good News

It’s exciting for fans of drones to hear about some of their cherished TV series using drones in production.  It will be happening more often, and it will be fun to try to identify drone shots while watching.  But while the percentage of production crews using drones is still modest, it’s TV news crews that are clamoring for the help of drone aircraft.

In fact, rather than being slow to recognize the value of a hot new technology, TV producers were waiting for guidelines to loosen before they could use the drones how they wanted to.  In February, former head of the FAA’s drone office, Jim Williams, told the AP, “every TV station in the country wants a drone, but they can’t be limited to the middle of nowhere.”  However, the laws he referred to, which essentially measured how close drones could get to people, were loosened in July of this year, and went into effect in August.

The new regulations flatly remove any distance requirement from people, stipulating only that they be under cover in case of a crash.  They also remove the requirement for a flight path, meaning that news outlets can now blast the drones out toward breaking news.

CNN recently did just that, bringing back compelling footage of the horrible destruction caused by a Baghdad suicide bomber.

For television news, the closer-than-a-copter trait is even more crucial than in television production.  What you can see, in the context of television news, means nothing less than your perception of the news and events.  So using the unmanned craft for coverage of fires, riots, demonstrations, etc. is tremendously valuable.  Robert Unmacht, of iN3 Partners, a technology-focused consultancy firm says using drones “will be absolutely essential to all broadcast journalists.”

One of the most spectacular non-fiction feats involving drones came a year ago, and it teamed the DJI Inspire 1 with Maria Stefanopoulos, production manage of Good Morning America.  The program not only flew the Inspire into an Icelandic volcano, but streamed it live.  The footage captured oozing lava, and the Inspire got so close that some of its equipment melted.

Theoretically, a clip like this could be used in science classes for years to come, and is of educational value to the curious everywhere.  However, ABC doesn’t mind admitting that they did it largely for the “wow” factor.  Frankly, that’s what’s going to drive the use of drones in any television context.  It’s likely that the more cool things that various TV news and information shows do with drones, the higher the pressure will be.  How this serves the news-seeking public is a question for an essay on journalistic ethics, but the development is great for lovers of drones.

What Course are TV drones on?

We’ve seen, in the last year, that the FAA is ever more accommodating toward the television industry.  In general, one no longer needs a pilot’s license to operate a commercial drone, which demonstrates a definitive loosening on the part of the FAA.  There’s no reason to expect anything but clearer sailing for drones in the upcoming years.

One imagines that both scripted series (particularly dramas) and non-fiction programming like nature documentaries, news, and sports, will develop in their reliance on drones at a nearly equal pace.  Will we be seeing an explosion in shots that hover over a character or track her through corridors?  Will we see even more shots that travel I circles, an aerial version of the diner scene at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs?  What will be interesting will be seeing to what extent the “because we can” effect drives what we see and to what extent other cinematic principles and preferences rule the day.

And here’s another thing: other technologies.  For example, the Flyboard, from Zapata Racing, is a water-powered hoverboard.  But Zapata now has a prototype for Flyboard Air, which allows the visually-arresting feat of a user standing on the board and hovering dozens of feet above the water.  Filmmaker Michael Maher, writing for Shutterstock, speculates that this wonder could be used for shots in which the user is holding a camera. It’s hard to see what advantage this oblong, manned craft would have over drones, unless it’s price.  But the concept is worth noting—other technologies could come along to give drones a run for their proverbial money.  In fact, makers of drones might develop even smaller relatives of their creations that couldn’t be considered drones, per se.

But, for now, drones are hotly sought-after, particularly by news crews.  Here’s something to consider.  Game of Thrones is just one TV series that has found its set bombarded by drones whose users wanted to get footage of the shows as they were produced.  What better advertisement for the machines?  Even if the shows’ crews were annoyed, they had to be impressed with the capabilities of the small, unmanned aircraft.  Perhaps they’ve already begun putting them to use in their shows.