Drone filming is changing the way filmmakers get spectacular swooping tracking shots, but until relatively recently US laws did not allow drone cameras to be used, even over Hollywood studio lots – which is why scenes shot in this way have generally been produced overseas, with some very recent exceptions.
Even in the UK, larger drones can only be flown in designated ‘danger areas’ and any drones flown for commercial use – such as by a third-party drone film company or for a commercially released movie – must be licensed by the CAA.
Besides all of that, drone cameras are best used where there is spectacular scenery to capture or, in some cases, for rooftop scenes like the motorcycle chase in the James Bond movie Skyfall.
Here are five things to keep in mind when planning a drone film shoot in continental Europe:
If you are planning to film in an EU member state, then you should be aware of the laws in place across the European Union, including the regulations set out by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
These are becoming gradually more consistent across the entire EU, but it’s also worth being aware that individual member states vary in terms of their own aviation laws and their classifications of ‘small’ and ‘large’ drones by weight – usually around the 20-25kg mark.
At worst, you could be at risk of taking a perfectly legal drone from the UK to mainland Europe, only to discover you have planned your film shoot in a country where your drone is not permitted to fly, so always check local laws well in advance.
Unlike a pilot’s licence, it is unlikely that a drone operator licence from any one European country will be recognised by the others, and Spain in particular has strict requirements for qualified drone operators – even including a medical as you would go through to pilot a manned aircraft.
The Spanish aviation authority is Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aerea (AESA) – not to be confused with the EU-wide EASA – and with the right approval you should be able to film both on mainland Spain and on the country’s islands, giving you plenty of scenery options to choose from.
Learn to recognise the legal limits on drone flight, especially if you are not experienced at flying an airborne craft and appreciating distances over all three dimensions.
In Germany, for instance, you usually cannot fly a drone within 1.5 kilometres of an airport; that’s nearly a mile, and a hard distance to judge without any reference points.
Where your planned film shoot is close to any of the limits on altitude or proximity to built-up areas, try to use a nearby landmark, tree or other feature of the terrain as a reference so you can tell if your drone is drifting into a restricted area.
Some of the most impressive drone cinematography comes from long, swooping shots over large distances, but local regulations might prevent you from flying the drone out of your own line of sight, even if you have live video from onboard to allow you to safely steer.
In France, you can potentially get around this by having a ‘spotter’ who will keep the drone in full view from their vantage point, even when you can no longer see it.
By doing this, you may legally be allowed to fly a drone out of your own view, although as a matter of best practice you should still aim to keep it in sight as much as possible.
Finally, remember that the code of good practice applies equally to commercial drone use as to recreational use, so make sure that you follow the same general guidelines except where you have obtained special permission to film in an area where drones would normally not be allowed.
For example, you usually would not fly a drone over an inhabited area or close to buildings; for a rooftop scene like that in Skyfall, which was filmed in Istanbul, you would need careful planning to ensure nobody on the ground was put at risk.
Safe flying should always be the priority; drones are very nimble and quite light, but can still pose a hazard if flown recklessly. If in doubt, always hire a reputable drone filming company to do the work for you.