How the Opening Shot in Skyfall Launched an $8.8 Billion Industry

The first minute of Skyfall gives you your money’s worth. The film introduces the blue-eyed, dour 007in a high-speed motorcycle chase scene on the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar. You see Bond steal a bike, follow the villain through the crowded nooks and crannies of Istanbul, and eventually ride up a stairwell that leads to the rooftops of the Bazaar.

You’re feeling an adrenaline rush before you know anything about the plot of the film.

This opening scene to Skyfall impressed audience members and critics alike, even earning the engineering team an Oscar in the Scientific & Engineering category. The movie has been continually lauded for artistry and cinematic achievement. Robert Elbert says Sam Mendes “triumphantly reinvents 007 in one of the best Bonds ever,” and Robleto calls it “Thrilling from start to finish.”

Few, however, have recognize it for its economic impact: kickstarting an $8.8 billion industry.

Best Display of Aerial Cinematography in 2012

Skyfall was the first film to really take advantage of what a flying camera can do. The drone was instrumental in capturing the action sequence of the opening scene.

At one point, the drone rises to reveal the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar.

At another moment, the drone flies past 007 as he jumped from rooftop to rooftop.

Then, the drone captures a closer shot, flying alongside 007.

And finally, the drone follows the motorcyclists from behind as they covered the full distance of the rooftops.

All of this was done using a technology developed by Flying Cam. This was precarious— the single rotor heli is mechanically complex and has multiple points of failure. And the footage was low-quality, compared to the footage captured by most cameras used on film sets. These small contraptions are great for mapping, but they’re not built for the rigors of filmmaking.

The effect on audiences, however, was unquestionable: the UAV was excellent at conveying the action of the sequence.

Other Films Follow Suite

Skyfall was not the first film to use an unmanned aerial vehicle. One scene in Harry Potter was filmed with a drone as far back as 2002, and films like Van Helsing and the November Man also implemented the device in a scene or two. But Skyfall was the first to make use of the drone as more than a floating tripod.

Over the next two years over a dozen films followed suit and used drone cinematography in their films, including Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Game of Thrones (2014), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and The Expendables 3 (2014). Drones were safer and cheaper than helis, could fly higher than cranes, and made each action shot considerably more dynamic.

At this point, all the major production studios were eager to get aerial shots, but only the projects that were shot abroad were able to secure the rights. Many productions operated illegally, of course, but the restrictions drastically limited the amount of customers that underground drone businesses could serve.

The FAA— the organization responsible for the airspace regulation in the US.— explicitly forbade any commercial use of UAVs. For years, this red tape curbed an industry that was poised for take off.

The Airspace Race

Finally, in early 2014 there was a tipping point. The demand for permissions surrounding airspace was coming from the entertainment industry, but also the agriculture, industrial inspection, and energy industry. Aerial videos and photos were not only being used abroad for artistic purposes, but also to gather visual data to keep track of vast swaths of land.

In September of 2014, FAA officially created permitting and regulations for the commercial use of drones. One year later, 32 companies had exemptions to film (we were among the first, clocking in at #10).

But the technology had a lot of catching up to do.

In 2014, drones were a risky business. Off-the-shelf drones weren’t safe to fly near people, and no drones were capable of capturing a cinema-quality picture. Drone service companies were competing and trying to meet the industry standard for the quality of footage.

At Aerobo, we had to build our own proprietary heavy-lift drone, specifically designed to lift cinema grade cameras into the skies.

In the following two years, drone manufacturers started to catch up. Market leader, DJI released its first reliable heavy-lift, the Matrice 600. Shortly afterwards, they started releasing drones with higher-quality and easier-to-control cameras, like the Inspire 2. These off-the-shelf systems gave the drone industry the gift of scale.

Companies could now build up their inventories, set up vast pilot networks, and be accessible in major cities across the country. By 2016, media and entertainment drone services was valued at $8.8 billion.

What’s Next for Aerial Cinematography

Leading drone cinematography companies have the talent, the gear, and the experience to take aerial footage to a new level. The implementation of these services, however, is up to filmmakers.

Many cinematographers still think of drones as safer alternatives to helicopters, but a select few are open to experimentation. “We now get creative input on set,” says Aerobo pilot Jon Graham. “Many of the people we work with have never worked with a drone before and look to us to find out the limitations and possibilities for drones on set.”

[Source for cover image.]

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