The film industry always adopts new technology to provide audiences with out-of-this-world experiences. Whether it’s new cameras, lenses, gadgets, or techniques, filmmakers’ tool bags continuously expand to include the latest and greatest. Virtual production, which the Mandalorian popularized, are one recent innovation. Another one, which has quietly been appearing in films over the years, is the use of FPV drones.
Consumer-grade drones such as those sold by DJI are ostensibly toys when compared to the cutting-edge drones made for films. The drones you see on sets these days are first-person view (FPV) drones, which beam video in real-time to pilots via VR goggles. Essentially, FPV pilots on movie sets are camera operators that can get up close and personal to the action and perform dynamic shots.
As drone technology improves, it’s making previously-impossible shots possible. Additionally, drones can have more uses for production than capturing video, and they can be cheaper to use than helicopters, which are expensive and require oversight from local, state, and sometimes the federal governments. Those are all valid reasons to use drones on set. The best reason is, however, that drone shots are raw, visual adrenaline — they’re incredible to look at.
FPV drones: from championship racing to the big screen
While the industry first began using off-the-shelf consumer drones like the DJI Phantom back in the mid-2010s, drone tech has evolved a lot since then. The biggest development is the rising popularity of FPV drones. Unlike consumer grades that have fail-safe mechanisms to prevent crashing or powering-down mid-flight, FPV drones are largely custom-made, hobbyist aircraft that offer no such safety cushions. Typically, FPV drones don’t come pre-built. They are made from off-the-shelf parts and cobbled together with solder, wire, and screws. Alongside the drone, pilots also need a remote to operate the drone and FPV goggles to see what the onboard camera is capturing.
The world of FPV drones is strictly for serious hobbyists, as it requires a lot of DIY skills such as soldering and 3D printing. It’s challenging to learn and expensive to keep up with, but there’s recently been a push from manufacturers like DJI and GoPro to take the hobby mainstream. The former sells an FPV drone and FPV goggles; the latter’s GoPro Hero10 Black Bones is a stripped-down version of the consumer camera that’s designed to be soldered onto a drone.
That the hobby is more approachable is great news, but FPV drone aces are in a league of their own — literally. The pinnacle of the nascent hobby is the Drone Racing League (DRL). Here is where the best pilots in the world race against each other on tracks in locations around the globe. Though the races may require anti-nausea medication to get through, — just take a look below — they have been broadcast on NBC, Fox Sports, and Sky Sports — i.e., some of the biggest sport networks. What does it all have to do with films? Well, the most talented pilots in the drone racing world are also the same people hired to film drone shots.
The NFL, MLB, and PGA tour have all used drones, but FPV drones are appearing in racing series’ like World Rallycross and Formula 1, which is arguably the fastest growing sport in the U.S. With helicopter shots being a mainstay for F1 broadcast for decades, the shift to FPV is providing different angles and closer flying. While FPV drones are still in the testing phase for F1, use of them has already provided interesting coverage in pre-race sessions. The highlight reel below from Johnny FPV captures the Red Bull F1 car perfectly as it zooms down dirt roads in the Everglades and takes high-speed corners at the Miami Grand Prix track.
Film sets can benefit from the versatility and maneuverability provided by these drones, which can range in size from something the size of your hand to ones capable of carrying cinema cameras on gimbals. From films like Jurassic World and Aquaman to The Wolf of Wall Street and Lion, drones are used in various genres. For example, the biggest franchise in the world, Star Wars, used drones in Star Wars Episode 9 and partnered with Boeing to create life-size X-Wing drones for a special presentation at the Galaxy’s Edge Park. The Netflix movie Red Notice also used FPV drones excellently. One scene, which you can see below, starts with the drone high above the city and slowly descends to street level as it follows a convoy of cars and ends with the drone doing a slow pan of Dwayne Johnson getting out of the car. All that is done in one fluid, beautifully executed shot.
Another impressive show of FPV drone skill is on display in the YouTube video “Right Up Our Alley.” In the video, an FPV drone flies into a bowling alley through the front entrance. The drone flies underneath benches, alongside bowling balls, under people’s legs, and through a tiny space above the bowling pins.
The video showcases how versatile FPV drones can be, especially in small, enclosed spaces like a bowling alley.
FPV drones are becoming so popular among filmmakers that there’s even a film festival, the New York City Drone Film Festival, that celebrates films made with drones. There’s also a lot of video content online teaching filmmakers how to use drones on their projects. More than a passing fad, FPV drones are becoming an essential part of any modern filmmaker’s toolset. However, when it comes to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, there’s one recent film that makes use of FPV drones unlike any other: Micheal Bay’s Ambulance.
Shining the spotlight on drones with Ambulance
Ambulance is peak “Bayhem:” gun fights, car chases, two dudes being guys, explosions. It’s got everything you would expect a Micheal Bay film to have, in other words. Though, in between shots of Jake Gyllenhall screaming at the top of his lungs, there are incredibly captivating FPV drone shots that not only set the scene from a birds-eye-view but also drive the action in key sequences. As a pure “popcorn” movie, Ambulance doesn’t disappoint, and part of that has to go to the drone shots.
In a Universal Pictures marketing video, an executive producer for the film said, “I’ve done nine movies with Micheal [Bay], and one of my first jobs on every movie is: what’s the newest, coolest gear out there, so this movie is called FPV.” Bay wanted cutting-edge tech, and he got it in spades. But it’s not something that a camera operator can simply pick up. It requires professional FPV pilots with years of flying experience. Alex Vanover is one of those pilots. The 2019 DRL World Champion was recruited by Bay when he was just 19 years old (now 22). On set, he was joined by another talented FPV drone pilot, the two-time DRL World Champion Jordan Temkin. The pair are part of Lightcraft, a production company that specializes in FPV filming with drones and other remote-operated systems. Aside from working on Ambulance, the company has worked for Dodge, Aston Martin, Nissan, the NBA, and others.
The talented folks at Lightcraft can do things with drones that would otherwise require a complicated set of dollies, rails, cranes, and clumsy handoffs. During an interview with Bay for Potato Jet’s YouTube video, the director mentions he tasked Vanover with flying a drone underneath an airborne cop car. When Vanover asked if he could practice beforehand, Bay told him he had one shot; Vanover pulled it off. The shots in Ambulance are incredibly technical, but it speaks to the talent of the pilots that they were able to pull them off flawlessly.
The film isn’t solely made up of FPV drone shots, but they’re included at regular intervals to break up the pace and pump up the adrenaline. One incredible shot is when the titular ambulance is being chased by multiple cop cars through a parking garage, with the drone weaving in and out of support beams to follow the action. Another memorable scene is when a drone flies over a building at full speed only to join up with the chase at the perfect moment. Several others involve drones flying underneath cars or other objects, flying overhead to establish the scene, or flying against the action to make it seem like the audience is headed toward the thick of it.
The FPV drone was used to capture a car chase inside a parking garage. Image via Ambulance (Universal Pictures)
Drone flying underneath airborne cop car. Image via Ambulance (Universal Pictures)
Shots like this wide-angle pan were captured by a lateral-moving FPV drone.Image via Ambulance (Universal Pictures)
Equally important to the pilots are the aircraft used. Lightcraft has about 40 drones spanning several designs for different situations. For example, the heavy-lift drone is capable of carrying cinema cameras on a gimbal. Heavy-lift FPV drones are not as fast as their smaller counterparts, but they can capture gimbal-steady video while still able to travel at 80mph as low and can go as low as two feet off the ground, said lightcraft drone coordinator Davis DiLillo in PotatoJet’s video. According to Lightcraft, it was the first to fly a full-sized Red camera on an FPV drone. By the time they shot Ambulance, they were using a Red Komodo camera on heavy-lift drone, but it’s designed to carry a variety of cinema camera and lens combinations. Since shooting Bay’s film, Lightcraft has made big upgrades to the heavy-lift drone. Whereas before it couldn’t send Red Komodo footage from the drone to VTR, but that’s since been fixed.
The cinema FPV drone, on the other hand, is still equipped with a high-end camera, but it’s smaller, faster, and better able to pull off high G-force maneuvers and get closer to the subject. The latter is what made it possible to get right up to the action. In fact, the drones sometimes got so close that the explosions would melt the ND filters. Now, that’s close.This Lightcraft drone got so close to the sparks in Ambulance that it melted the coating on the ND filter. Image via Ambulance (Universal Pictures)
Lightcraft also uses underwater FPV drones and remote-controlled FPV cars. The RC cars have gimbals for cinema cameras and are so stable they can apparently do donuts when loaded up with gear. The underwater FPV drone has different housings depending on the depth and length of submersion, but the housings can also accommodate cinema cameras. You can see all the drones in action in Lightcraft’s reel.
How drones are used on set besides filming
The merits of FPV drones for filming are many, but they’re also useful in other ways. Outside of filming, drones have been used to save people from cardiac arrest, create jaw-dropping synchronized light shows, inspect wind turbines, aid in Ukraine’s defense, spread pesticides, and more. And on film sets, drones can be equally versatile.
Illumination is one prime example of what drones can do on set. This short film from director Tim Sessler (via PetaPixel), used multiple drone lighting setups to light the film. On set, the crew had built several lights that could be attached to a drone, such as a 900W floodlight, a 400W spotlight, and a beam light. The lights were sometimes used as a primary source of light for the scene, or as a stationary key light, though other times, the lights were used for panning or creative effects. The director mentioned in the article that this kind of drone lighting could be “revolutionary for the film industry” and that he was excited about how it could evolve and be used on future projects.
A spotlight attached to a drone created this from-above illumination. Image via Tim Sessler (Vimeo)
The light drone was also used to create artistic lighting like this lens flare. Image via Tim Sessler (Vimeo)
The team over at Lightcraft offers drone lighting as a service, which can be used to illuminate moving subjects, or as a practical light that imitates a helicopter spotlight. Lightcraft also uses drones for other practical effects. The crew mentioned in Potato Jet’s video that it was designing a drone for a client that would look and act like an artillery shell. Instead of using actual artillery or adding it in post, the artillery shell drone would fly through the air and imitate the real thing. It’s a clever way to use drones for practical effects, especially when the term “practical effects” remains a big buzzword in film circles.
Drones are also great for security. Film sets that are shrouded in secrecy are the number one target of drone pilots with too much time on their hands. It’s just too easy to get a drone these days, and there’s nothing to stop one from flying over a film set and capturing all the juicy details of billion-dollar movie franchises. Not only could that ruin the film’s success before it’s ever released, but it also poses security risks to the crew, members of which could be hurt if one of those drones were to fall out of the sky randomly. Something must be done, and, ironically, that something is a drone. According to an article from 2016, Disney reportedly deployed a “drone army” to block other non-approved drones from flying over the set. As film studios increasingly become more protective of their IP, the idea doesn’t sound so far-fetched. At any rate, it’s better and much more humane to use drones instead of birds to remove hostile drones from restricted airspace.
Film sets need drones
While drones aren’t likely to replace helicopters, flying FPV drones is cheaper, safer, and less of a hassle. The amount of bureaucratic back-and-forth is sometimes not worth it when you want a simple overhead shot. Also, helicopters can’t get as close to the ground as drones, nor can they fly indoors or pull off high-G pirouettes and loops in tight spaces.
FPV drones, and other drones used in production for that matter, are effective tools that are adaptable to changing circumstances, especially when piloted by an ace. Whether it’s a vertigo-inducing dive bomb or a slow-paced pan across a twinkling nighttime cityscape, no other camera in a filmmaker’s tool kit can accomplish similar results, at least not without a lot of workarounds. Additionally, creative filmmakers can use drones for purposes outside of filming, such as using drones as key lights or practical effect props. After only a few years of FPV drones being used for films, it seems like the sky’s the limit.