Send In The Drones: How UAV Photography Is Changing Filmmaking

Whether it’s advertising or your next summer vacation video, drone photography is set to change how you see everything.


When photographer Iwan Zwarts was in South Africa recently, he was able to frame shots like never before. Instead of wandering around for hours, looking to set up his tripod and frame the landscape for a unique composition, he was now getting shots that would’ve been impossible before in a fraction of the time.


One look at Zwarts’ photos from that trip and it’s clear he had a secret weapon–an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone. “I could essentially put the drone anywhere in the sky and get frames in seconds that before would take hours,” says Zwarts. “It just opens up the possibilities. The lenses are also very wide, and so you can compose big landscapes with the same level of control that you could compose a macro tabletop shoot. That’s what my photos reflect, these interesting compositions you can get because it’s almost like a CG camera you can put anywhere.”

Zwarts isn’t just a photographer, but a VFX supervisor at award-winning post-production shop The Mill’s New York office, and drones are also playing a bigger role in his day job. The flying machines are giving directors and VFX artists the ability to create in-camera shots that were previously impossible or prohibitively expensive.

In one spot for Converse (watch it in the slideshow above), the camera provides a smooth, sweeping, inverted view of the city, following skateboarders, street artists and others from a unique perspective in the sky. The Mill’s executive creative director Angus Kneale says it’s the kind of ad that couldn’t have been shot even just a few years ago. “Even if you tried, it would’ve been very expensive, with all kinds of wires and spider-cam rigs between buildings,” says Kneale. “It’s one of the most arresting spots we’ve done, in terms of just changing your perspective on the world. To have this at our fingertips is so exciting.”

Breaking Down Creative Barriers

Creating quality content can take a lot of time, equipment and technology. Kneale says drones are becoming invaluable tools that make the creative process quicker and cheaper, breaking the constraints of needing big physical gear like dollies and cranes. “(When) you can cut that down to the bare necessities, it’s there you get true artistic expression,” says Kneale. “The images of what Iwan shot in South Africa are a great example of that.”

While the drone’s-eye view from the sky is becoming more common, Kneale says the potential of UAV photography is just starting to be utilized. “The wonderful thing about drones is using them outside and in the sky, but another way that hasn’t really been tapped often enough is utilizing them inside and in controlled spaces,” says Kneale. “We did a Lexus spot (see slideshow) with drones that were programmed with AI to know where they were. It’s just another slant on this technology and how you can combine it with other technology to create things we’ve never seen before.”


New Tech, Traditional Skills

As with all new technology, Zwarts says UAV photography’s biggest strengths are realized when combined with tried and true fundamentals. “There are loads of people trying it out and taking aerial shots, but it’s about using that freedom while staying grounded in good composition and other creative foundations,” says Zwarts. “It’s like when digital cameras became readily available. You have millions of more photos, but are they better? It’s about sticking to the artistic interpretation while using the new tools.”

For Zwarts, the perfect drone shot starts close on someone indoors, with the camera pulling out, maybe through a window, and into a wider shot. “Before we’d have to shoot it in sections, with all kinds of technical limitations and then stitch it together in post,” he says. “Now we can shoot that in one take with a drone.”

Regulatory Red Tape

Drones may be opening up all kinds of creative possibilities, but one of the biggest challenges is the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently has drones under the same classification as commercial aircraft. Of course, stories like this aren’t making it any easier, but Kneale says that the lack of clear regulation forces most of their drone projects outside the US. “These are incredibly difficult to use in the US,” he says. “It seems like regulators have been caught on their back foot and didn’t expect this to catch on as quickly as it has. For us, we know it’s just a matter of time before it becomes easier to legally use these here and then we can really start showing what it’s capable of.”

Here Comes the Boom

Both Zwarts and Kneale see it as just a matter of time before drones become ubiquitous. “We’re on the verge of a boom much like the GoPro,” says Zwarts. “You’ll just see it more and more, in movies, commercials, everywhere. The application possibilities are phenomenal.”

Kneale agrees that a boom is imminent and takes his prediction one step further. “It’s coming,” says Kneale. “I guarantee the Christmas after next it will be the hot gift for everyone. Then everyone will get pissed off. It will be a social experiment.”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.