Elevated Lens

By Ryan Rizzo ● March 19, 2015 11:00

Part 1 | The Past

You may have noticed that the consumer drone market is exploding with numerous flying platforms hitting the market and new camera and sensor applications being developed daily. Drone manufacturers like DJI and Infinite Jib compete not only on flight performance, but increasingly on camera stabilization and payload capacity. 

The heavy-lifters (better known as Octocopters) have a form factor that has proven itself over the years to be an excellent alternative to the expensive and crew-heavy options of cranes and helicopters for the jaw-dropping aerial shots that we love so much.

What’s exciting about this new aerial technology is that drones are now capable of easy control, stability, higher payloads, and at a much more affordable price point. Translation: Every indie filmmaker now has the option of shooting at new heights!

But it wasn’t always this way … Moving camera angles vertically used to be such an expensive task, in terms of equipment and manpower, that it was arguably a luxury. Only four years ago, purchasing a drone came with a price tag of $35,000 or more. 

Yet, despite the cost, it lacked the stabilization and ease of control that we can now achieve with $4,000 machines. Moreover, having to work with servo gimbals, short-range transmitters, and low-quality, light-payload cameras was a sad reality. 

Even so, this “new technology” was a better alternative than mounting a camera on a crane and hoisting up a crew member to adjust camera and pull focus, with all the attendant safety risks.

Despite the subsequent development of remote heads, which eliminated most of the risks, costs stayed high. Drone photography could only be afforded by feature films and large-scale commercial projects. And if you wanted to go beyond the reach of cranes, the only alternatives were helicopters and airplanes. Notoriously dangerous and extremely expensive, such aerial shots - costing $1,100 an hour and up - were out of reach for most, if not all, indie filmmakers.

Going even further back, say roughly 10 years or so, remote controlled helicopters were introduced as a more cost effective way to achieve aerial shots; though again there were serious issues with stabilization and ease of control. At the time, no one dreamed of capabilities such as GPS, gyroscopes, and accelerometers.

As filmmakers, we always want to get that shot where our audiences are struck thinking “How did they do that?!” Unfortunately, flying over the cityscape, chasing cars or even high horizon establishing shots were quite expensive. Flying, back when the technology was fresh, also came with a lot of uncertainties and challenges. 

The gear was not reliable and it was hard to convince a Production to consider flying their rented cameras and lenses on a device that was not insurable. Moreover, if we wanted a permit to fly in the city, we were required to have $10,000,000 in liability insurance just to get the filming permits! Most rental houses would not cover the gear if it was strapped to a flying machine. This obviously led to many complications getting work and finding the right Production to take the risk.

Thankfully, such hardships are all in the past. In my next article, I’ll dive into the present and share the exciting new cinematic landscape available to indie filmmakers as made possible by current drone technology.

This is the first article in a 3 part series on Drone Technology - past, present and future - written by guest writer Ryan Rizzo.

Ryan is a CFC Media Lab alumni (2011) and a recent graduate of the Digital Futures Initiative at OCADU. His passion is to push the envelope of discovery between the inherent creative potential of digital media technology and its relationship to storytelling. Ryan is currently consulting with several drone filming companies, and is a certified Transport Canada UAV pilot and operations manager. His portfolio ranges the gamut from television commercials to epic films and series like the Amazing Race. Ryan is currently working on a documentary studying and mapping the many ravines throughout the Toronto region. Research and development of 3D mapping software and sensors are also a direction for video game development he finds himself investigating. As long as he can fly it and collect data, he will!