5 Essential Questions Producers Should Ask Drone Operators

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

A verison of this post was previously published from Drew Cobb, Dronewrx’s head pilot and director of UAS opertions.

Here’s a HUGE issue that my contemporaries and I see all too often. Productions just know that they “need a drone” and lump all UAV’s into the same category. Now pay attention class because this is important: What you need is a skilled and licensed pilot/company that has the correct camera/drone/team combination for your production.

Here are five essential questions producers should be asking drone operators.

Question #1: Is your drone pilot licensed?

This may seem redundant to some, but to fly drones commercially, a pilot must hold a part 107 certificate, or have a 333 exemption with a pilot's license. The 333 was the first commercial drone license, which also required a licensed pilot to be the PIC (Pilot In Command). Yes, the FAA required an actual pilot's license in those early days, and a small number of us passionate individuals went out and got them. The 333 exemptions will expire two years after they were originally issued and will not be renewed, but any pilot worth his propellers has got a 107, because FAA FSDO’s (Flight Standards District Office) will no longer process the paperwork required to fly under a 333’s guidelines. If a pilot has both, you know they’ve been doing this longer then a few months and it's a good indication they're someone you’d probably rather be doing business with.

You should ask to see a copy of their qualifications and their drivers license or picture ID. In fact, you’re supposed to get copies for your records. These are things law enforcement will want to see. In some instances, like flying at a state or national park, you’re going to need approval from the controlling agency, plus a POA. (Plan Of Activity) and someone who knows how to talk to that agency. Most guys who have a 333 Exemption will know how to do this.

 

However, merely having a Part 107 certificate does not give you experience. There has been a glut of pilots entering the market since August 2016 when the FAA changed the requirements, who don’t have much experience at all and are often willing to work for peanuts. I often end up directing the shoots, or suggesting shots that I work on because I’ve had so much experience with this technology and know what works. More recently Film LA has been requiring all this PLUS a drone flight questionnaire.

Don’t let your ignorance of the law get you in trouble, and just because someone has a Part 107 and owns a drone does not make them a valuable member of your crew. Drones can be an amazing addition to your production - a camera that moves in 3D in the right hands is gold, it’s a dolly, a giant crane, and a helicopter. However, in the wrong hands it's a bladed eye-poker-outer flying around your talent.

Question #2: Is the drone operator insured?

Commercial drone pilots are required by law to carry liability insurance. Production companies, or government agencies know what limits they are looking for, usually from one million up to five million. We’ve done work for concert promoters that required 10 million for legal reasons. Recently, there have been some on-demand type of services like Verifly, but theses are no good with Film LA or any government agency, and are a good indication that the pilot is either underfunded, only works occasionally or is new to the business. Real pilots have real insurance policies.

Being able to file all the paperwork, and prepare a POA (Plan Of Activity) is mandatory for jobs that are permitted. Not only that, if the Fire Marshall starts asking questions, you don’t want a newbie representing your interests. As toy-like and ubiquitous as drones have become, they are an aircraft with spinning propellers and can be potentially dangerous. 

Question #3: What is their experience? 

On August 29th, 2016, the FAA relaxed the laws governing commercial drone pilots and switched the requirement from the 333 Exemption and a required pilots license and instituted the Part 107 UAV Certificate. Since that day, there have been a glut of newbie pilots entering the market. I know a lot of guys who thought that merely getting their 107 would make them a valuable commodity. I’m getting hit up frequently from guys with “$1,000 and a dream” who have bought a Phantom, taken an online class and now of course they think they’re an aerial DP. While this guy is probably capable of getting simple establishing shots, there is more to getting an effective drone shot then knowing how to take off, wiggle the sticks and land. As the craft has advanced, so have pilots and techniques.

An experienced pilot can get you dramatic flybys, or close follows which really can enhance your production value. Maneuvering smoothly is the hallmark of a good pilot. As the industry has advanced directors and producers have realized that a drone can be much more than a helicopter shot. I can provide you with a lot of different shots in a short amount of time. But the part they are usually lacking is all the paperwork that can potentially be required. POA’s (Plan OF Activity) require knowledge that you don’t learn when you study for a Part 107.

 

There seems to be two eras of pilots - Guys that had a 333 exemption and an actual pilots license, and those who got in since August with the 107. If a potential pilot has a real pilots license, he’s OG yo and has been around since the old days (y’know like two years ago) and has learned valuable lessons. I myself have been flying drones commercially since 2012. As in everything in life, experience matters.

I also get productions who think their DP or cameraman is somehow qualified to be camera operator because of his title. And while they certainly know how to compose a shot, drones controls are specific and one move too fast and you’ve blown the whole shot. I once had a client treat my drone like the productions' own personal video game. “Hey, Johnny, you want to try it”? while we were five miles off the coast! 

Any qualified drone pilot/camera op has a demo reel and website. Make sure you budget for drones, just as you’d budget for lighting, cameras or kraft services. If you think about potential uses for it in pre-production you’ll get the full benefit of the most exciting addition to film making since … kraft services!

A sub question to this one is: Do they have confidence? To fly a drone effectively you can’t be risk adverse, and many people just don’t have the…balls. Unfortunately, lots of guys are full of doo-doo so you’d have to use your own judgement, but if you’re picking up on a timid vibe I’d move on. You also don’t want an ego-manic braggart either. I’ve raced motorcycles, played hockey, surfed and flown an ultralight plane, which has all likely contributed to me being very cool under pressure, if I do say so myself.

Question #4: Do they have the right equipment? 

While there are many drones on the market there’s really only five or six that are commonly used in our industry, and DJI magically makes most of them. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of the process. So many people just ask for ‘a drone”. That’s like walking into a camera rental house and saying “I want a camera” of course there aren’t THAT many viable choices as there are for cameras, but here are the drones you should consider.

  • DJI Phantom Series/Small Drones

The Phantom series which is on its 4th revision is perfect for web based projects, and lower end productions.

  • DJI Inspire Series 

The Inspire has dominated the high end market and will continue to do so with the release of the new X.

  • Heavy Lift Drones 

Heavy lifters are necessary to fly Alexa’s or Red cinema cameras. Only a small percentage will need these. They take more time to set-up and require much higher budgets.

The DJI Phantom Series

The DJI Phantom is the star of the show as its shape has become ubiquitous to drones in general. Everyone has seen a Phantom as it’s practically the official emoji for drones. The Phantom 1 is the drone that started the whole revolution and got many people in the air, including yours truly. For the first time you could buy a drone that you didn’t have to assemble from parts, and it came with it’s own inexpensive controller. This is the era of GoPro’s on Phantoms. There’s a whole back story with GoPro and DJI which ended poorly, and in my honest opinion, is partially why GoPro is barely hanging on. Back then you had to buy a separate gimbal and video transmission system and know how to troubleshoot and work on them. 

They’ve progressed through three subsequent updates, now up to the Phantom 4 Pro which for many productions is all they need/have a budget for. Now there’s obstacle avoidance (which has caused me more problems then it has solved and most experienced pilots I know don’t use it), a much better camera, which is totally controllable from the app, and a higher quality video transmitter known as “Light Bridge 2” that connects to a touchscreen tablet or phone. Perhaps the most valuable of all DJI features is being able to adjust all camera settings from the ground.

3DR (a California-based company) brought this out for the GoPro, but it was too little too late and they couldn’t compete with DJI’s cinema dominance. I’m happy to report the 3DR Solo still exists as a mapping drone with its own proprietary camera. There was a time you could buy Solo’s for $200 because no one wanted them. I’m guessing that’s not true anymore.

DJI Mavic 

I’m going to give the DJI Mavic an honorable mention here. Though it’s not in the Phantom series, it doesn’t warrant its own category because it’s in the sub 5lb category. There’s only been two of them released so far so it’s a sidebar. I consider a Mavic more of a toy. Its whole purpose is to be compact, which is great, and if this were three years ago, the camera would be state-of-the-art. But it isn’t, and things have come a long way. If you’re considering hiring someone to fly a Mavic you’re either looking for BTS or don’t care too much about resolution. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great drone, but in my honest opinion, not quite worthy of being professional. 

FPV (First Person View) Drones were the new big thing a couple of years ago. Enthusiasts dawn goggles so they can see a live video feed through a camera on the drone, and race through a course. The drones are aviailable in a range of sizes from something that can fit in your palm to a foot wide and a new one or innovation happens every five minutes. Small drones like this can fly between tiny spaces and some go as fast as 100 mph creating exciting shots. Because of the small size you’re stuck with a GoPro or something similar and there’s no available gimbals. These aren’t very common professionally, and are also in the honorable mention category because they are used to get a specific type of shot. There’s a very famous drone video of Venice beach called “Rise and Shine” which was shot on a 250mm quad with a GoPro 4, then reversed and stabilized to give a dramatic effect. There was also a recent Kohl’s commercial that used that effect.

Question #5: How are their communication skills? Do they "speak camera"?

You’d think this would be an obvious no-brainer, but often times this can get glazed over in the shuffle to get a drone, especially when there's a time crunch. And when ISN’T there a time crunch in film production?! In order to get the shots you need, the pilot/crew you hire are going to need to communicate properly and also be good listeners.

A drone pilot and camera operator have the duties of a DP and have to be able to communicate with the director, DP and producer, so someone with a film background can be the difference between usable shots and great shots. Many of the recent influx of drone pilots are new to the game and got into it because it’s cool, they think it’s easy (you’d be surprised how the industry tries to sell this notion), or flew R/C planes or helicopters for a hobby. While they probably can fly a drone, they might not know that much about angles and apertures. However, being able to fly a drone is only part of the equation, and like all departments on set, there are many moving parts. And generally, there’s not a lot of time to get a bunch of takes as there’s usually actors, vehicles and critical lighting involved, so important aspects can get omitted in crunch time.

 

I started my TV career doing video playback on CSI Las Vegas, and have worked on shows like Chuck, Parenthood, Pretty Little Liars, Baskets, The Whole Truth, and more recently Showtimes, The Affair. I had my own camera rental business, HD Videoworx (there’s a subtle trend with names going on here), where I got a daily education on cameras and accessories which has been invaluable, and the connections and knowledge come in handy to this day.

So bear in mind, you want to hire someone who can communicate effectively, and who understands camera jargon/set lingo. Ask them some questions about their camera to see if they even know anything. While DP’s can drown you in minutiae involving codecs, and compression ratios and native resolutions, you certainly can’t expect a drone op to be THAT well versed, but they should know cameras, understand shutter speeds, ISO settings and carry a set of ND’s and polarizers for varying conditions. I am always grilling my pilots on this subject too.

On a personal level, I strive to leave my ego out of all my interactions and have found that if people can do that, in general, their relationships will improve. There’s usually some big egos behind the camera and there probably should be, so you don’t want to have conflicts of ego wasting precious time. I can take charge of a situation if necessary and direct talent, or if the director has it under control and knows what he wants I will follow his guidance. I’m good in either situation. I’ve been involved with DP’s and directors who could go “Christian Bale” at the drop of a hat, and people who are calm and collected. Either way, I don’t take it personally and realize that it’s just part of the job. I’ve had a crew of 20 looking over my shoulder and it doesn’t bother me. I’ll often get directors who will send me on my way to get B-roll as they know my work and trust my judgment because I have done my homework and paid my dues.

Dronewrx is expanding the services we offer to a whole suite of stabilized movement shots. Please see our services page from more information.

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About the Author

DRONEWRX
DRONEWRX
DRONEWRX Specializes in professional AERIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY SERVICES for film, television, and commercial productions. We also offer a full range of remote stabilized camera services, including the Movi XL which has a 55lb camera payload.

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Comments
  • Jake Butters said…
    Wednesday, October 3, 2018 8:10 PM
    Great article that touches on key points producers should consider when hiring drone operators.
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