The entrance of drones into cinematography was inglorious.
In the late 90s and 2000s, they were used as cheaper— and often illegal— alternatives to cranes or helicopters. Indie films with tight purse strings had a tool that enabled them to finally incorporate scenic landscape shots to their movies. Serious filmmakers, however, rarely would go near the contraption. The single-rotor drones that were used were far too dangerous and unreliable.
Today, every major movie theater is playing a film with a drone shot.
But if you watch most drone shots side-by-side, you’ll find little variation. Few filmmakers know how to take advantage of these buzzy camera transportation devices. Most films, whether they’re indie dramas or multi-million dollar productions, barely scratch the surface of what’s possible with drones.
After piloting drones for over 500 film productions, we decided to showcase some of the best examples of drone shots out there.
1. Tilt Reveal
A tilt reveal starts by focusing on an object in the foreground, and then slowly reveals its setting or background by tilting the camera up.
In the above example from the Fast and the Furious 4, the revealed background offers a contrast to the foreground—one that’s surprising for audience members. It might showcase a bustling city past a forest, breathtaking scenery behind a chaotic episode, or a sea of soldiers past the wall of a city. This type of shot helps the audience see how the main story is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
This is one of the most popular drone shots because it works well as a dynamic establishing shot and requires very little technical expertise. A professional drone crew can pull this off with just a camera op who will tilt the camera and a pilot.
2. God’s Eye View Shot
God’s Eye Shot is a top shot in which the camera is pointed straight down. The camera can stay locked on as the subject moves about the landscape or can track the subject as they move about the scene.
The camera is elevated at least ten feet in the air— although it’s usually significantly higher— and is pointing either straight down or at an angle. People aren’t accustomed to seeing the world from this perspective, so it can have a disorienting effect— the closer the camera angle is to 90°, the more foreign the perspective will look. But once the audience acclimates to this vantage point, filmmakers can turn the terrain into a canvas.
Helicopters were traditionally used to capture God’s Eye View, but they face a major constraint: they can’t safely fly lower than 1,000 feet. Drones can capture God’s Eye View as close to the ground as necessary, and fly up to 400 feet. At this distance, cinematographers have the proximity to enable audiences to quickly recognize what they’re looking at, yet still, take advantage of an atypical perspective.
3. The Tracking Shot
A tracking shot is a shot that follows the movement of the subject. This can be accomplished with a wide shot during which the camera follows the object, or with a more narrow shot in which the drone must match the speed of the object.
A tracking shot has been a staple in cinematography for decades— since the invention of the dolly. But for a long time, height was a limiting factor to these shots. While a helicopter can be great for capturing high-speed car chases from high up, the height and distance restriction again proves problematic. Only a drone can get a tracking shot within three feet of a race car.
If you’re working with a professional drone crew, you can include a long-range tracking shot by having them operate from a moving vehicle.
4. The Overtake Shot
An overtake shot is a shot in which the camera starts by tracking its object, but then flies past to reveal what lies ahead. By the end of the frame, the subject is out of the shot.
The overtake shot is implemented to shift the audience’s focus. You can shift their attention from the main object to the setting, from the character to her destination, or from the starting point to the endpoint. The overtake is often used to indicate to viewers what kind of journey is in store for the primary characters.
The overtake shot is most effective when you’re close to your subject. Only then will it be intuitive for your viewers to follow the actions of the main object and then know when to switch to the background.
5. The Wraparound Shot
A wraparound shot is composed circling the drone around the subject, while the camera keeps that subject in the frame.
The wrap around shot is used to underline the importance of a central character arriving at a specific setting. This might be a superhero on a city rooftop or the star of musical number. The audience is asked to take a minute and recognize the importance of this specific person’s presence in this specific place.
Nothing can quite accomplish a circular spiral around a character except a drone. The tighter the circle, however, the tougher the shot. You’ll need an experienced pilot and camera operator to pull this off.
6. The Leading Shot
A leading shot is a shot in which the camera is flying backward in front of a subject. The subject is typically moving in the same direction as the flying drone.
This kind of shot is unique because the audience becomes acutely aware of their own limitations. They cannot see the setting that the principal character is moving towards. This implements one of the oldest storytelling techniques, used in Greek tragedies, where reactions are used to inform the audience rather than the action itself.
A common misconception is that drones should only be used for aerial shots, but some of the most effective shots can result from keeping the drone low to the ground or at eye-level. Keep your camera path low during a leading shot to better capture the speed the subject.
7. Swan Dive Shot
The swan dive is a shot that has appeared in cinema only a handful of times. The camera moves forward at a high altitude and then points down to rapidly descend.
This can be a point-of-view shot or just used as a unique way to bring the audience into the action of what’s happening down below. GoPro popularized this shot in the realm of extreme sports, and some VR and AR projects have taken advantage of the POV perspective.
The Swan Dive can only be accomplished with specific drones that have a mechanism that allows for fast drops. The Freefly Alta system, for instance, is one of the few drones that can descend extremely quickly, giving the visual effect of a nose dive into the scene.
8. The Drone Catch
A drone catch is when the camera starts in the air, descends down, and transitions to a regular handheld shot. A key grip must catch the drone out of the air and continue to operate the camera as a handheld shot.
A drone catch has only been accomplished once in a major motion picture, but we believe it to be the first of many. There is no reason that there should be a divide between what can be done with a camera on-the-ground and in-the-air. A camera should be able to start 300 feet in the air, pan, and then come in tight and end on with a stationary shot— something that hasn’t been technically possible until recently.
Our team custom-built a drone catch rig for this very purpose for The Greatest Showman.
9. The Launch Shot
The launch shot is the reverse of the drone catch. The camera starts with a stationary shot of a character or an object, and then flies up and into an aerial shot.
Similar to the drone catch, this is a shot that has the potential to bridge traditional and aerial cinematography. You can get the full effect that you’re looking for on the ground and then zoom the camera out to reveal the setting without cutting.
Drone crews pull off this shot by setting the drone on the ground, at the feet of a character, and then film the lift-off and the ascend.
Drones as Filmmaking Tools
Drones are often depicted as a supplementary tool for cinematographers who want to capture a few scenic establishing shots. Rarely, however, are they recognized for the full range of what they’re capable of: redefining how a camera can move in 3D space.
If you want to join us in discovering new cinematic applications for this gizmo, give us a call for a consultation on your upcoming project.