As proof that drones will be the most talked about subject in another year or two, you can already see about a dozen articles related to drones in my article archives just in the first half of this year alone. But it’s probably going to be a daily occurrence before long as drones affect us in just about every aspect of life. While that covers everything from privacy issues to worries about collisions in a crowded airspace, the artistic side of them should get more focus. We’ve already seen the beginnings of “dronies” that’s enhanced the ability to achieve aerial photography on our own with a remote-control drone.
Hollywood obviously noticed the potential of aerial photography and how this could bring new camera technique in movies we haven’t seen before. Now that the filmmaking industry is seeking out FAA approval to use drones in making movies, how will it change cinematography and in bringing true masterful camerawork to a film?
That’s going to be a complicated question that has to delve into the philosophical foundations of art once again. If the Hollywood industry would have clamored to use drones in a different era to achieve certain shots, how much does it take away from creativity, especially in the “how did they do that?” effect we continue to say today in amazing tracking shots of the past?
Bringing Realism to Aerial and Tracking Shots
In the classic era of Hollywood, we all know aerial shots were done by helicopter or airplane, if not even camera cranes sometimes. Arguably the greatest aerial shot ever done in a movie is the opening to “The Sound of Music” that has as much ingenuity behind how it was achieved as the thrill it still gives people when seen in a hi-def, large-screen format. Prior to that, no film had really attempted a fast-moving aerial shot at an outdoor location since the studio system kept most productions on a sound stage. Daredevils like Cecil B. DeMille would attempt sky-view shots on sound stages by sitting in the director’s chair from a near Godlike position.
The above scenario might have been more than an analogy, especially when DeMille filmed “The Ten Commandments” all on a studio set. Once Hollywood decided to make big-budget movies right on location, “The Sound of Music” had the perfect vistas in Austria to bring some movie shots never attempted before. Yes, you have to imagine how the opening shot of Julie Andrews spinning in the meadow would have looked had a drone been used to swoop in.
Discussed for years, the famous opening shot was done strictly by a jet helicopter flying in over Julie Andrews’ head with a 70mm camera. If you’ve ever heard her tell about the story about achieving the shot, you know that when the camera reached a certain point, there was a cut to another take of her close up singing the title song. In reality, she was almost knocked to the ground more than once when the helicopter swooped in, with a few expletives apparently thrown in. When put together, though, it’s pure movie magic for the ages that perhaps wouldn’t have been considered as masterful if done with a drone.
You can say the same about some of the greatest tracking shots in movie history. The opening sequence of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”, for instance, is considered the greatest continuous tracking shot in all of film history. Today, the scene would be very simple to achieve with a drone. Back in the late 1950’s, it had to take true ingenuity with the camera in order to achieve that kind of perfection.
With just these examples, will drones take away from the inventiveness of film, or will there still be some level of art around in achieving certain shots never before attempted?
Putting Film Art in Drones
You could say that placing a camera on a drone is still a risk and could potentially fail if the camerawork looks too shaky, or the camera even falling off. We almost have to wish for some form of creativity involved in using drones in film so true skill can still be noted. If it becomes too easy to achieve certain shots, will the artistic skills learned from the past still be noted?
The positive aspect beyond the art of filmmaking is drones can get into real precarious places that no camera with a human attached would be able to achieve. Since we can scope out CGI fairly easily now, being able to do that in reality without CGI help would at least bring the immediate wow factor to film. After, though, what happens if making films becomes far too convenient to a point where it no longer feels like challenging creative work has to be done?
With cinematography still an artistic skill that’s always cherished, let’s hope some self-imposed limitations are given to allow the human mind to think and invent solutions. No matter how far back films go, some of their remarkable shots standing the test of time were the result of extreme creative planning and ingenuity that films will always need to make them stand out as artistic achievements.