In this edition of Word of Mouth, we talk to Drone Camera Operator, Will Davies, on how the drone revolution is changing the way TV is made, and what the future holds for the technology.
How did you end up becoming a drone pilot?
Technology led me into it – having always been someone who dives into new technology at the earliest opportunity, when the aircraft started hitting the professional mainstream market, I put a toe in the water. A vast amount of flying experience later, and an even vaster amount of money spent on new aircraft to keep up with the demands of TV and film production, and here I am today – four pro-aircraft and about sixty batteries that need constant charging.
What are the main advantages of using a drone over more traditional aerial filming?
This is a great question, because for a while production crews were using drones in place of helicopters because of the cost savings. The beauty of using drones now is that everyone can afford to add that extra dimension to their production – independent companies have us available on tap, and by the day if necessary.
But by far the best thing about using an experienced drone pilot is that you can (for example), have the drone film a chase on foot through a multi-story car-park, through trees, or other awkward spaces – something a helicopter would never have been able to do – and also there’s no running out of tracks, no cranes, jibs, or dollys required. Just a huge amount of flexibility and quick-turnaround shoots.
Which has been are your favourite shoot to work on to date, and why?
This is tough… but I’d probably say a car-chase I did about eighteen months ago on some closed off roads in the Welsh mountains. The director was fabulous – amazing imagination and he really saw what could be done. I was keeping pace with the rear car about four feet away from it, at about forty miles an hour, weaving along this road, then the chase stopped and carried on on foot and the drone camera didn’t stop rolling – just one continuous fluid scene that really helped shape the whole mood of the film. That was a one-shoot take which made it even better. They’re all good though, whether filming at a rave, or through or over historic buildings, each gives a different challenge and enjoyment factor.
Have you ever had any mishaps during a shoot?
Nothing exciting I’m relieved to say! When I started years ago I was less careful than I am now about taking the right amount of time to set up shots. Once when shooting at some derelict warehouses in London, I was rushing to get the kit out of the van because we were running out of time and I somehow snagged the main controller on my jacket pocket. The result was me flinging the controller about twenty feet across the concrete floor, bouncing as it went. It didn’t go back together. At all. I had a spare though thankfully which saved the shoot, and my reputation.
Are there any particular challenges involved in using drones during production, especially in terms of safety and regulations?
With the aviation industry being the most regulated industry in the world, yes, there are plenty. Restrictions on airspace use, flight distances and heights, proximity to people, buildings and cars, and even the data protection act has a big say in how and where we fly. There are even places like central London that require permission from the Diplomatic Protection Group before you can fly. Any good drone pilot should take care of any permissions, scouting, and risk assessments needed for a shoot – in advance, without the production company needing to get too involved – because this is a legal requirement for us to do so.
With the technology moving on so quickly, what innovations do you see drones bringing to productions in the future?
We’re going to see drones with technology that will allow safer close-proximity flying. Features that mean a pilot won’t fly an aircraft into someone’s face by accident (yes, that’s actually happened with inexperienced pilots). Autonomous flying is also going to be really big – it won’t be too far off where a production company will bring in a drone ‘swarm’, that can get multiple angles of the same shot, and do things like follow cast members around without much intervention.
What is the process of becoming a fully licensed drone pilot and what advice would you give to camera operators wanting to head in this direction?
The process itself isn’t too bad, but it takes time and effort, and obviously you need to learn to fly properly. The best route is to take a ground-course and exam with an NQE (CAA Endorsed National Qualified Entity), then take a practical test with the same company (once you pass). Then you have to complete a ‘Flight Operations Manual’, which is exactly the same document that the commercial airlines have to manage for their aircraft. Then your application goes in for inspection. You have to really love paperwork in this job!
Before you go out and spend too much hard-earned money, I recommend that anyone wanting to migrate to this field or add it to their portfolio start off by buying a £100 ‘drone’ from a national retailer. The reason for this is two-fold; the first being that you will crash it. Better to break a £100 aircraft than an entry level Phantom at around £1,000. But more importantly, you will be a far better pilot in the future if you learn to fly without flying aids, which the cheaper aircraft generally don’t have. There are pilots out there relying on flying aids to do their job – if something goes wrong (and it does), they’re the ones who end up in trouble. Take your time, become ‘at one’ with your aircraft over months, not weeks. Learn to fly unaided and without thinking too hard about what you’re doing and you may become a great pilot.