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video tools: How to shoot drone footage that doesn't suck

Toy Story: Learning to Use Video Tools

Recently I picked up a multi-rotor drone to carry my camera.

I’m having fun flying my drone, but now my videos feel all the same: running along a straight line, go up and take a 360, fly really low almost touching the bushes. Pretty pictures, but not really good video.

Any ideas on how to script/arrange/film better videos for subjects as simple as “last weekend with friends”?

–Ed

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Okay, it might not have been Lincoln– maybe Socrates. But what he meant was this: you have a cool video tool. It may not be the best tool for the job, but you’re so excited about it that you use it anyway. With boring results.

Worse, getting locked into the hammer/nail thing prevents you from seeing all that a hammer can do. It can flatten chicken breast, or pry out a screw. The handle could caress someone’s back or bat a ball. Twenty hammers, welded together, might make a great sculpture. It’s easy to get stuck on one use for video tools. But even if you have a hammer, there’s no reason to just pound things.

Basic drones operated by okay operators are mostly good for scene setting and beauty shots. Think fireworks from inside the blasts; an establishing montage of New York City between segments on a TV show; or a high shot of the OK Corral before the gunfight starts.

State-of-the-art drones, operated by pros, yield breathtaking and unexpected camera moves. But that takes a lot of thought– and practice. For anyone, using drones for the same dull high-overhead shots, the same way all the time will bore your audience. There is only so much information the tops of people’s heads can communicate.

Which brings me to some general guidelines for using cool video tools the best way possible:

The tool serves the story. The story doesn’t serve the tool. What tale are you telling? You’re communicating in very different language about a christening when you shoot from high up in the ceiling of the church than if you’re on a tight close-up of an adorable baby. Is this an intimate, warm moment, or the climax of The Godfather?

Improve your tool-craft: If you’re feeling trapped by drone moves, it’s you, not the drone. In the hands of a trained pro, drones will blow your mind.

Try using your drone as a static crane, or a low angle dolly. Pick up a tracking unit to lock your drone a moving subject for exciting traveling shots. Choreograph a moving shot from street level to a 10th floor window as part of a scripted piece.  The old “fly and look” is just a small part of what it can do.

Practice my “50 Ways to Shoot One Thing” exercise with your drone and see if you can break out of your drone shot rut.

Do you need the tool at all? The Academy Award-winning doc Free Solo looks like it used drones, but it didn’t. Drones are illegal in national parks. If the filmmakers had had their hearts set on using drones, they might have given up on the film.

Resist the temptation to only use the tool: “Friends at a cookout” doesn’t scream drone to me. I want to be on the ground with your friends, or on macro lenses seeing super-closeups of delicious food (or barbecue disasters- I’ve had both.) Use the drone for what it’s good for, and shoot most of your story with a more human-friendly camera.

Ed asked a great question. Do you have a great question? Ask it here.

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How To Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck: The Video Course

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About The Author

Steve Stockman

Steve Stockman, president of LA-based Custom Productions, Inc., is a prolific producer, writer, and director, known for over 200 diverse media projects. He is also the author of the best-selling book "How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck," taught globally from middle school to graduate level, and available in 9 languages.

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