Drone Cinematography

Phantom 4 Pro Plus in Action

Aerials have always been the dream of us earthbound cinematographers. We spend our time creating depth and dimension with foreground, perspective, and lighting. But sometimes we sense there is a missing angle, a higher view, to help tell our stories. 

Earlier in my career, I used to go up in helicopters. And still do given the chance! For the PBS documentary series “On the Waterways,” I would shoot out the side of the open door strapped in with a monkey harness  (I was the monkey) filming with a camera equipped with a heavy gyro-stabilized lens. What fun adventures we had heading down the Mississippi River following boats or heading out to oil rigs in the gulf of Mexico.

Tom & Trevor on a glacier in Denali

Tom & Trevor on a glacier in Denali

Later I got to use a Tyler Mount on the nose of the helicopter as we flew through the city of Chicago filming a project for the tourism board called Chicago’s Got it! While not quite as fun as shooting out the side, it was still pretty epic flying lower than the tops of the tall buildings through the heart of the city. (This was pre-9/11, and we had the city government on our side.)

We've also filmed from airplanes. On one epic adventure, ESPN sent us up in the air over Denali National Park with a glacier pilot to get footage for a feature we were doing about Sean Swarner - a climber and cancer survivor who had conquered Mount McKinley. Shooting out of plane windows doesn’t afford the perspective and control that a helicopter provides, but I wasn’t complaining. Plus we got to land in an airplane on a glacier!

Aerial cinematography changed in 2013, when DJI introduced their first Phantom drone for aerial video and photos. I saw it at NAB that year, and knew nothing would be the same. They had a booth right there behind GoPro, and were flying these little white beauties around in a huge cylindrical netted cage. 

I bought one then and there!

Flying it was tricky, battery life was short, and you had to hang a GoPro Hero camera off the bottom to get any footage. The footage was often bumpy (no built-in gimbal), and had some other weird warping effects that you had to eliminate in post. I can’t remember if it had GPS, but I don’t think it did. 

I had fun flying it, shot some cool footage, and crashed it many times. It was not by any means simple to fly. Sometimes it would just fall out of the sky. I’d recover it, tape things back on, and send it up again. Eventually it died and  I gave it to my engineering friend for parts.

Drones have evolved dramatically since then, with incredible technology that taps into multiple satellites for GPS, can fly programmed paths using intelligent flight modes, and utilizes sensors for collision avoidance. They’ve gotten much easier to fly, but still challenging and fun to get great footage.

Late last year I finally took the time to get officially FAA certified as a UAS pilot to fly commercially, and invested in a Phantom 4 Pro Plus, with an attached gimbal-mounted 4K camera. It’s been a great addition to our toolkit, and we’ve already used it on some shoots.

The cool thing about drones is that you don’t always have to shoot from above looking down. It’s a great perspective, but unlike helicopters you can also fly very close to the ground - tracking cyclists from their eye level, heading down a river, or even replicating dynamic jib or dolly shots in set-up scenes. 

The possibilities are endless.

And for this earthbound filmmaker, it’s become another fabulous storytelling tool.


  • Get a great team - Everybody thinks they are a drone cinematographer these days! So no matter who you hire, be sure to check their credentials (are they FAA certified), look at their work, and maybe even ask for references. Do they have a website? Did they really shoot the work they are showing there? You can also learn a lot about someone by talking to them. They should ask a lot of questions about your goals and logistics, and provide you some creative solutions for shooting.

  • Budget for what you need - Drone shoots can range from $500 to $15,000+, depending on crew size, skill, and equipment. The majority of the simpler shoots are on the lower end of that range.

  • Drone and crew size - Simple missions can be flown with a one-person crew - a skilled FAA-Certified pilot, who operates the drone as well as the camera. This person, along with a spotter (who can be a client, friend, or PA), can get a lot done with a Phantom-style drone. These include epic scenics, beauty shots, structures, real estate, events, simple tracking shots, etc. More complicated shoots - like following cyclists through a forest, cars through a canyon, or actors through elaborate movie scenes, might require a larger crew and a more sophisticated drone. These drones have two cameras - an onboard FPV (First-person View) camera for the pilot, and a second that shoots the video that the camera operator sees. The spotter becomes the 3rd member of the drone crew. Some crews are even larger, with dedicated tech operators and data wranglers.

  • Can we shoot there? One of the first things we check for are airspace restrictions at the filming location. And if there are restrictions, can we get a waiver from the FAA? The earlier we can learn about the shoot and the location, the better. I've seen a few shoots dashed by being too close to an airport or military installation.

  • Weather - Since drones don't love high wind and precipitation, it's always good to have a plan "B" time/day built in!

  • Insurance - Make sure your production company or drone pilot carries liability insurance that explicitly includes drones. They can do a lot of damage, and many policies exclude them. We use VeriFly - which gives us $1 to $5 million in liability on an as-needed basis.

Learn more about our Aerial Cinematography Service HERE, or just CONTACT US.

Check out this very short clip of some of our recent drone work with the Phantom 4:

Written by Tom Miller, Copyright © 2018 Big PIctures Media, Inc