Quadcopters Take Filmmaking Up in the Air [Video]

This DJI Phantom quadcopter (pictured above) may look like a remote-control helicopter, but the sleek machine is far from a toy. In recent years, this and other small quadcopters like it have helped start to change the face of filmmaking. Once only possible to get aerial shots by renting an (expensive) helicopter for the day, these quadcopters are making it possible for low budget films to get those aerial shots without spending the big budget dollars.

“You can get the perspective you couldn’t get before without having an actual helicopter,” says Full Sail Digital Media graduate Chase Heavener, the Founder and Creative Director at Fiction, a Central Florida-based visual and video production company. “I’ve been flying drones like these forever, and I use [the DJI Phantom] personally all the time. Companies have targeted students and people who more or less want to shoot cool GoPro footage.”

There’s an array of quadcopters for sale on the market (some people are even making their own), but according to Chase, the DJI Phantom – which retails for around $479 – is one of the best and most attainable ones out there for students. You mount a GoPro camera (not included with the Phantom) to the quadcopter and within minutes you’re flying. (Chase also suggests buying a gimbal for the Phantom, an add-on that allows the camera’s movements to be independent from the orientation of the quadcopter, which makes the shot steadier. They retail for around $400.) Another plus of the Phantom: it’s constantly communicating with GPS for its coordinates, which really helps keep the quad in its place.

“Students can get really smooth dolly shots,” says Chase. “If you take the quadcopter off GPS mode and you want to do a walking shot, the copter will keep going in a straight line. Students can also shoot cool reveals of cities, shots of trees, or showing off a house. It’s just really a cool new world of getting shots that you can think of.”

The same filmmaking tips apply when using the quadcopter for aerial filmmaking: sunrise and sunset are the best times to get clear shots. Chase shoots with the GoPro in the raw color settings with no automatic white balance. The best advice: practice operating a quadcopter for a couple of weeks before using it in a shoot.

“[The Phantom] is so small that it looks like a toy and feels like a toy, but it’s not,” says Chase. “It’s not something to mess around with, so you always want to be really careful where you’re flying. Don’t just go zooming over someone’s head. Be safe.”

Full Sail faculty member James Neihouse, a Film program Lab Specialist agrees. “You really need to use a lot of common sense with [quadcopters], especially when you’re operating around people,” he says. “I had a friend lose control of the copter and he lost his camera.”

Another important thing to note, FAA regulations state that it is currently illegal to use quadcopters for commercial purposes, meaning you can’t sell your aerial filmmaking or photography services to clients for a profit. An NBC News Investigation story reported that hobbyists can use these quadcopters within remote-control regulations, which according to James, makes personal use and amateur filmmaking okay.

“They fall in a really gray area of regulations,” says James, “But If you know the limitations and you’re proficient with flying, these quadcopters are great little tools.”