Hot Button Discussion
By Michael Goldman
While so much of the news about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) revolves around the many business, safety, and cultural implications of what people commonly refer to as drones, for the cinematography community, the technology’s rapid evolution has brought with it creative implications of potentially huge proportions. That’s the view of Michael Chambliss, a longtime director of photography/camera operator, and now a business representative for the International Cinematographer’s Guild (ICG), focused on the implementation of new on-set technologies. Chambliss, who also serves as the ICG representative on the ASC Technology Committee, the virtual Production Committee, and on USC Entertainment Technology Center projects, suggests that drone-based camera work is leading to a potentially new and important style of cinematography—a development akin to the arrival of the Steadicam in the 1970s.
“You have to take a look at the history of the development of cameras and the resulting impact on visual storytelling to understand why drones are important for cinematography,” Chambliss suggests. “In the early 1950s, cameras were large and heavy, and that lent itself to a certain style of shooting. In the 1960s, cameras started to get lighter, and all of a sudden, location work became much more practical, and that facilitated location intensive stories, like the road movie, Easy Rider. Those lighter cameras eventually enabled development of the Steadicam. Pretty soon, directors and cinematographers realized that the Steadicam is an entirely different kind of shot, something which is not quite a handheld shot, nor a dolly shot. So, Steadicam became its own vernacular within cinematography. Now, when we read scripts, we recognize this by saying certain scenes can be ‘a Steadicam shot.’
“Likewise, the further development of lighter cameras and the further development of air frames have [suddenly] enabled drone cinematography. It is like the handheld camera, like the Steadicam, in that we can now handle the camera 3 or 4 ft off the ground or up to 400 ft in the air. And it enables us to do things we could never do before. It’s a new type of shot with its own feeling and dynamics—a new vernacular in the language of cinematography. We have had aerial cinematography before, of course, but drones are different than helicopters. They ride on a much smaller column of air, meaning they can work closer to the ground without blowing up dust. We can work closer to people, move the camera through smaller spaces, with smaller and subtler moves. Significantly, drones are not as complex to fly as a helicopter. This enables camera people to take direct control of the airborne camera, and spontaneously design shots while they are being executed. This marks a return to the roots of aerial cinematography, where a couple camera people would grab a bi-plane and go.”
Chambliss states that drone cinematography is “like remote handheld cinematography via joystick.” To understand the unique applications and capabilities of the technology, he suggests taking a look at some demo videos on the websites of some of the original companies like the Astreus Aerial Website, Aerial MOB, or Vortex Aerial. Chambliss suggests the expert use of drones for this kind of work has potential to save productions significant resources.
“To accomplish something similar to the Rock Runner video [a video of a man and his dog running across a rocky hillside, featured on the Astreus site] with traditional methods, I would want a crew of 18 or 20 people, a lot of hardware, and I would tell the production I would need about six days to do it,” he says. “They shot it with a team of three people and a drone during magic hour one afternoon and again the next morning.”
Exciting as these creative possibilities appear, Chambliss cautions that the industry needs to comprehend that the biggest issue productions face regarding the effective use of drones for camera work is the development of what he calls “a uniform operational framework” for employing the technology. By that, he means there is a big learning curve and a lot of continually moving parts involved with using the technology safely, legally, and correctly.
For one thing, crew configurations need to be different than what productions are used to. Most effective drone crews, Chambliss says, feature two-person teams at the controls—“one camera operator flying the drone who is executing the shot, and another camera operator fine-tuning the framing on the remote head. These result in very creative teams, like 'Fred and Ginger,' so to speak. They get accustomed to working with each other, and have their unique ways of communicating, and will tend to be highly practiced before going out with a main crew on an actual production.”
Such techniques require a lot of expertise not only to achieve creative intent, but to maintain safe protocols at all times. The issues related to doing such work expertly, Chambliss cautions, are significant.
“There is a whole list of topics [productions need to consider],” he says. “They need to know that aerial operations require clearance from aviation authorities, which takes some time. You cannot decide in the morning to do a drone shot in the afternoon—notifications need to go out and approvals need to be acquired. If you are working near airports, clearances can be even more involved. So one of the issues is lead-time, and always working with an FAA-certified crew that knows the procedures. Current FAA regulations require all commercial drone operators to have a pilot’s license.
“Then, there are RF [radio frequency] issues. A whole new area of expertise has emerged with the discipline of RF spectrum analysis, because RF issues turn into control issues, and in an urban environment, that can cause a serious accident. In motion picture work, RF spectrum analysis used to be a specialty that was reserved for very large films, but now it is starting to become a standard part of a kit for any kind of drone work—someone on your drone crew should know how to do RF spectrum analysis. Lately, the industry has been looking very closely at 5.8 GHz, because that band is not as crowded as other frequencies.
“A new area of RF design generally—how to control signals to and from the drone—has also emerged. You have flight controls, video signal coming back down for feedback to camera operators, maybe a live broadcast feed signals to control the camera itself, different telemetry from the craft coming back down to the drone operator, signal stepping, and the whole issue of the arrangement of where to place the antennas on the drone so that the signals will not become inter-mixed and will perform with 100 percent reliability. Antenna design and placement is an art unto itself. But it is really important, because signal integrity is a matter of safety. Aerial control must be bullet-proof, and that’s a high bar.”
Chambliss asserts that film and TV productions were the first applications to receive exemptions from the FAA’s prohibition on using unmanned aerial cameras for commercial use in the U.S.
“There is misunderstanding about what an FAA exemption is,” he says. “To legally fly commercially, the owner of a drone needs to obtain what is called a Section 333 exemption, which is part of longstanding FAA regulations. That can lead to confusion because those requirements do not extend to hobbyists, which is a different category, even though they may be using identical equipment. If you are in business of using drones for cinematography, it has to be done—submit your training manuals, have training and certification criterion for drone operators and crews, have each aircraft individually inspected by an FAA official for air worthiness so that it can be issued an ‘N’ [registration number], have your own maintenance schedules, and so on.
“Part of what has happened is that none of the drone manufacturers want to go through the process of having their air frames registered with the FAA the way [an airplane manufacturer] would, because the process is so costly and time-consuming at a time when the technology is evolving very quickly. They have not found it cost-effective to do so. Therefore, it is up to each individual operator to take the necessary measures and register their drone as a custom built craft.”
Chambliss adds that “the current exemption template is based on traditional considerations for a full-scale aircraft, and has yet to incorporate some of the needs unique to closed-set cinematography. Being able to do night work over lighted sets; have flight control from a moving vehicle; work beyond line-of-sight in controlled areas; and have safety zones based on the specifics of the shot instead of arbitrary distances would be important gains for drone cinematographers, and would reduce the cost of operations. Drone cinematography teams are currently working with regulators to find a path to these goals, and are concerned about whether the growing patchwork of local and state ordinances will allow them to work to the full measure of their legal exemptions.”
Additionally, to ensure this new creative tool remains viable for the long-term, Chambliss suggests the industry needs to go beyond the FAA requirements so that safety considerations are given the highest priority.
“After all, in the entertainment industry, there is a real consciousness that we are doing complex work very close to human beings,” he says. “Due to the broad applications for drones, there is an expectation that the FAA may eliminate the requirement for a pilot’s license in the near future. But what we do requires a different level of skill than what a farmer might need to take infrared pictures of a soybean field. If a director says, ‘let’s try this lower and faster,’ at some point, you need someone with skill and experience on set to say ‘no, I believe that would cross a line.’ And this challenge is part of what the industry needs to embrace.
“The FAA has been very clear that we are free to set our bar higher than what they might require for uses in other industries. The bottom line is that, for every drone, and for every particular camera and lens configuration, before they fly on a production, the drone operator and camera operator must have a lot of practice first. Absolutely nothing should be attempted on set for the very first time.”
Indeed, Chambliss recommends that productions using drone cinematography need to involve those crews in location scouts and throughout the preparation process. After all, these same crew members will be tasked with determining safety concerns, weather and flight logistics, RF issues, and so on, for whatever location is being utilized, in order to best calculate what Chambliss refers to as “the ballistics of the drone shot.”
For all these reasons, and many others, the industry has recently become awash in important educational efforts on the topic of drones. There are hosts of websites dedicated to drone-related subjects. Among the ones he recommends, are the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which addresses issues of import to the defense, civil, and commercial sectors, and the Society of Aerial Cinematography. You can also learn more about how to apply for FAA Section 333 exemptions from the United States Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers (UAVUS).
For further resources, here is the industry-wide Contrast Services Administration Trust Fund’s Labor-Management Safety Committee Bulletin No. 36 on recommended guidelines for safely working around drones on set, and an addendum to that document clarifying the general parameters of Section 333 operations.
On the technology front, NAB 2016 will once again include sessions on drone technologies and an Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion. Chambliss says this is an exciting area, because increasingly, manufacturers are designing specialized camera heads, new stabilization technologies, and high-performance camera systems geared toward drone use specifically, and some of those breakthroughs will no doubt be on display at NAB this year.
“Some [pre-existing] heads do not necessarily handle the lengths of the lenses we like to use for drone work,” he says. “Vibrations are the reason for that. Those heads are not developed to the point where they can handle the weight or vibration correction on longer lenses. So when you are using lightweight handheld rigs on a drone, you end up with a more limited range of focal lengths to work with than when you are using one of the specialized aerial heads on a full-scale helicopter. The full-scale helicopter heads have become quite remarkable in recent years. Much of the engineering being done today for drones is focused on miniaturizing this technology to give smaller heads a much higher level of performance. This can lead to a variety of interesting engineering issues, like how should the axis respond when you try to stabilize a camera that is being pointed straight down?
Meanwhile, Chambliss suggests that parties interested in where the technology might be headed next should monitor overall regulatory developments regarding unmanned vehicles on the greater cultural and business landscape. Current legislation working its way through the House of Representatives—(HR.4432), the Commercial UAS Modernization Act—is designed, as the name indicates, to modernize some of the regulations. Here is an analysis of how that legislation is proceeding from the Drone Coalition Website, which you may find useful.
Looming over the widespread development and use of drones in society for numerous types of applications, is the larger question of how best to design a national, and possibly international, infrastructure for what some are calling “low-altitude airspace” and the routine operations of unmanned aerial vehicles—a traffic management system of sorts including security-related no-fly zones, and much more. Chambliss says a lot of interesting new work is being done on that larger issue by NASA, in consultation with the FAA, through the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) project, which you can learn more about on NASA’s UTM page.
Silverman Steps Down at HPA
At the 2016 Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) (formerly Hollywood Post Alliance) technology retreat in Indian Wells, California, which took place in mid-February, longtime HPA president Leon Silverman announced he was stepping down, handing his position over to Seth Hallen, senior vice president of global creative services at Sony DADC New Media Solutions, a longtime HPA board member. Silverman, who will continue to serve on the HPA board of directors in the new role of past president, announced at the retreat that now was “a terrific time to pass the baton” for many reasons, including the HPA’s successful partnership with SMPTE. Also at the retreat, as reported in TV Technology’s comprehensive coverage, there was extensive discussion about the broadcast industry’s push to improve both resolution and dynamic range, how to implement the next-generation transmission standard of ATSC 3.0, and much more. There was even a presentation from a NASA official about preliminary plans to create an infrastructure for eventual deep-space human exploration. This was important to an audience such as the HPA, because as the NASA official, Rodney Grubbs, pointed out, NASA needs all kinds of cameras, monitors, and other imaging-related technologies for space missions. One of their biggest challenges, he said, is the continual degradation of high-resolution camera sensors due to the impact of radiation in the vacuum of space.
FCC Unlocks Cable Boxes
As explained recently in the Hollywood Reporter, a divided FCC voted 3-2 this month to approve a rule designed to essentially “unlock” cable set-top boxes by requiring cable and satellite providers to deliver video programming to app and device makers in a new format that meets specifications to be set by an independent, open standards body. The idea behind the proposal was to give consumers cheaper ways to access content from third parties—an idea supported by many open Internet and consumer organizations. But the MPAA and most satellite and cable companies have rigorously opposed this, charging it is, essentially, a government-mandated technology requirement. Here is the opposition’s point of view, in the form of a blog post from Comcast executive David L. Cohen, and here is the point of view supporting the new rule, from a blog post written by John Bergmayer of the open Internet advocacy group, Public Knowledge. The possibility of court challenges to the decision remains on the horizon, according to recent reports.
SMPTE Sci-Tech Award
SMPTE received a Special Award Plaque this month from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) at the Academy’s annual Scientific and Technical Awards dinner to honor the organization on the occasion of its 100th birthday. It marked the third time that SMPTE received an award from the Academy. The first time was an Oscar statuette in 1957 to recognize SMPTE’s first 40 years of contributions to the motion-picture industry, and the second was a 1989 Award of Commendation plaque for the contributions of SMPTE’s many engineering committees. On hand to accept the award at the Sci-Tech dinner on February 13 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel at a dinner hosted by actors Olivia Munn and Jason Segel were SMPTE executive director Barbara Lange and president Robert Seidel. In her acceptance remarks, Lange quoted SMPTE founder, C. Francis Jenkins, who said in 1916, “Engineers secure the best standards for equipment, quality, performance, and nomenclature, an entirely practical and attainable ideal.”