Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in Film Industry

A UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is defined as a “powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload”. Such definition passes information about the observable structures, unobservable technical & physical operations as well as unobservable system dependencies.

Focusing on the UAV we studied, the observable structures usually contain the vehicle (the aircraft itself contains the body, sensors, power supply, actuators), the payload ( here in our topic is the camera set on it) and a remoter. Each of the three is a second-class black box that can be studied.

In the unobservable technical and physical operations, fundamentally, it is an analog-digital-conversion, ADC,  system which transmit the photographer’s human behavior on the remote control layer into digital signals containing the information of the command to the aircraft. Compared to the manned craft, such radio-transmitted digital commands replace the physical cockpit controls.

When thinking of the unobservable system dependencies, different design principles and regulations based on the functions the UAVs fall into come to me firstly. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles was originally developed for training the military personnel in United States and later were used in a variety of spheres. They are not only important tools in military reconnaissance and scientific investigation, but also playing vital roles in film industry and even shutterbugs daily life(they are toys to some people). However, for different types of UAV, there are certainly different regulations on the designing, producing and even the selling and usage of them. There are a lot of things that need to be limited such as flying height, controlling precision and flying area.  When put it into this specific period of history, the civilization of the UAV is led by the relatively peaceful social relationship all around the world, the popularization of computing technology and many other social elements.

All these elements, or to say systems are certainly shaping the development of the civilian UAV while at the same time the civilian usage of UAV is also shaping the human society. As a UAV falling into different function may bring some different social effect, to stick to our topic, in the following parts, I’d like to focus on the usage of it in the film industry

Lower Cost in Traditional Aerial Shot

(Beginning, 2:59, 3:18 By the way, I’m not really into the storyline of this video even though I’m a fan of BTS. But there are some really beautiful and magnificent shots in it. Visually, it seems not to be a “cheap” music video like the mainstream style of k-pop mv.  )

Such shots can only be seen in those films with great amount of investment or the BBC documentary. However, nowadays,  even such a poor entertainment company who runs only one group of artists is able to give such beautiful images.

Before the extensive usage of UAV filming, photographers manage such aerial shot by sitting in a helicopter and record by themselves. However, it was expensive, long-time-taking and, which is the most serious problem, dangerous. There were even reports about helicopters wrecked during filming. In 2002, two team members of Cameron died because of the wrecked during the film making. Of course, the UAV itself is not a hundred percent safe-guaranteed. When I worked with a photography crew in Thailand, the UAV we are using rushed to one of our photographers and hurt his head because of a wrong operation of the person who controls the craft.

Low altitude shooting and continuous shots

( 0:15)

In The Expendables 3, the first several shots with fierce gunfight,the rushing trains and the hovering helicopter are finished with just one UAV in ten days. In the past, in order to finish them, the whole team might need to be carefully organized and use a helicopter to capture the image with more than thirty days.

Many of the low altitude shots are not able to be finished by cooperating with helicopters especially when the object is moving in high speed. But with a UAV, when the object, like a train or a car, and the UAV carrying proper camera are well operated to rush to each other both in very high speed, incredibly amazing shots can be filmed, conveying a great visual effect.

However, as UAV is used more and more in the film industry, what come to my mind is that when CGI develops good enough, is it possible for this technology to take place the usage of UAV which means that all those brilliant shots are made instead of filmed? If that happens, then what makes a film be film, instead of a CGI visual show?


P.S The Six Functional Categories of UAVs

  • Target and decoy – providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
  • Reconnaissance – providing battlefield intelligence
  • Combat – providing attack capability for high-risk missions
  • Logistics – delivering cargo
  • Research and development – improve UAV technologies
  • Civil and commercial UAVs – agriculture, aerial photography, data collection