Drones have featured in Hollywood films for decades – notably in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, one of the earliest productions to show a drone, which was filming a news report in the then-future 2015 Hill Valley.
It’s one of the movie’s most accurate predictions about the 2010s, when drones are now not only a common sight in the skies, but are specifically fulfilling that forecast by being used for filming TV shows and cinematic productions.
The timing is spot-on too, as drone camera rigs have been used around the world for several years, but only gained FAA approval for use in Hollywood and the wider Los Angeles area in late 2014.
In Hollywood, drone cameras are often referred to using their more technical name, small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS – and under the common US definition, this applies to rigs weighing anything up to 55 pounds.
In 2014 there were still no rules as such to permit drone filming; instead, the FAA granted waivers and exemptions to the rules preventing the use of drone camera rigs.
Some of the first ever drone filming in Hollywood took place in December 2014 for the TV series The Mentalist, with scenes for other shows and movies following soon after.
The lightweight aircraft can get the kinds of shots normally achieved using a helicopter, but can access much tighter spaces, and without the risk to human life of having a pilot and film crew on board.
A previous alternative would have been complete CGI rendering of aerial shots – such as the long zoom through the streets of Montmartre at the beginning of Moulin Rouge! – but with a drone filming rig, you can get similarly nimble and manoeuvrable shots in the real world.
It wasn’t until June 2016 that the FAA finally introduced new positive rules for drone filming in Hollywood, rather than requiring a waiver of the existing restrictions on flying drones in built-up areas.
During the 18 months up until that point, unmanned aerial camera rigs had already been used on major blockbuster movie productions under the waiver and exemption system.
Among them was the Marvel fantasy action movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the HBO series The Leftovers, one of the current crop of television shows produced to near-cinematic standards.
The Motion Picture Association of America welcomed the new rules, with chairman and CEO Senator Chris Dodd saying: “The FAA final rules will further enable the film and television industry to incorporate this innovative technology into great storytelling.”
With only 12 months passed since the rules positively allowing drone filming in Hollywood were introduced, many of the first movies to benefit from the permission are yet to hit cinemas, but studios are already working on new ways to use the technology and incorporate it into other techniques like CGI-enhanced shots.
The local industry is also using sUAS in its celebrations of its own history and heritage – most recently in the third annual Night On Broadway festivities, which took place in February 2017.
Each year, the NOB Festival celebrates the historic downtown Broadway Theatre District of Los Angeles with a night of music and artistic performances, with over 75,000 guests taking to the streets this year.
Among the sponsors was FilmL.A., the organisation tasked with granting filming permits for the Los Angeles area, including for unmanned aerial camera rigs.
True to form, FilmL.A. had UAS cameras on hand to fly over the crowds of the NOB Festival, providing stunning aerial footage and sweeping panning shots just like those seen in Hollywood movies and TV shows.
Danielle Matthews Walker, communications coordinator for FilmL.A., said: “Having drones at the booth helped to draw event attendees, affording us the opportunity to discuss FilmL.A.’s services and drive home FAA requirements with regard to operating UAS in the City of Los Angeles.”
The event also highlights how new technologies are complementing, rather than replacing, older methods – with unmanned aerial cameras in this instance adding to the festivities in honour of the long-held tradition of stage theatre productions in Los Angeles.
As Hollywood looks to the future and more movies using sUAS cameras are completed, we will see more of how this 21st century technology allows filmmakers to achieve camera shots that would have been impossible in the 20th century.