Here’s some great news for all of you aspiring and current aerial filmmakers: Thanks to the commercial drone industry’s willingness to embrace rapid innovation, it’s easier than ever to capture cinematic quality at a fraction of the cost. Understanding which settings to use in the camera, selecting the proper ND filter, and mastering post-processing software such as Adobe Premiere Pro has made it possible to produce breathtaking, screen-worthy footage.
At last month’s New York City Drone Film Festival (NYCDFF), I had the privilege of learning how to improve my skills in this area and walked away with the most important tip of all. If there’s one thing the expert panelists agreed on, overwhelmingly, it’s that there is already a glut of beautiful aerial footage. Barring the excellent films screened at NYCDFF, there isn’t enough emphasis being placed on the narrative. If you’re looking to make a compelling film, technical skill will only take you so far. It’s the story, and how you tell it, that resonates.
When people ask me for advice on how to create stunning aerial photographs, I encourage them to study traditional photography methods first. The same principles can be applied for filmmaking. Sometimes you need to look back in order to move forward – and nailing the narrative is what’s going to propel drone filmmaking to new plateaus.
I’ve rounded up five scenes from classic films, plus recommend one that should be viewed in its entirety, to help inspire next-level work. Some of these clips contain violence so please exercise caution if you’re sensitive to it or reading this post with a child nearby.
I challenge anyone to find a better scene, in the entire history of filmmaking, that displays the irony of contrasting values as flawlessly as the Baptism Scene. Francis Ford Coppola expertly cuts back and forth between two separate realities. In one, Michael is renouncing Satan at a baptism to become the godfather of Carlo and Connie’s child. Meanwhile, outside the confines of the church, he’s becoming the literal Godfather to the Corleone family as the mass execution he ordered plays out in gruesome detail.
Warning: This clip contains extreme violence.
The Bomb Sequence that opens Orson Welles’ classic noir masterpiece is one of the finest displays of a long shot. Filming one scene, in its entirety, for minutes on end requires an incredible amount of technical ability. If you’re able to pull it off, however, it’s also guaranteed to impress and give the story momentum. Because Welles had mastered this technique, the filming of Touch of Evil was always days ahead of schedule — an uncommon occurrence on an old Hollywood movie set.
David Lynch’s bizarre, otherworldy cinematic style is so unique, there’s a name for it. The trademark “Lynchian” method is on display here as this film’s victim, played by Laura Dern, is trying to escape a nightmare in which she’s trapped. In one instant, she’s running in slow motion. Suddenly, the video speeds up and brings a sense of urgency to an otherwise dreamlike sequence.
The checkered past of Henry Hill, the film’s protagonist, finally catches up to him. The push/pull effect, where the frame tightens as the camera pulls back while simultaneously zooming in, is used to illustrate how he’s stuck, out of options, and the men he’s about to implicate can no longer bail him out. (Most of this scene involves zooming in, but if you’re using a drone, you definitely don’t want to get this close to your subject.)
In the pivotal “Dodge This” scene, an orbital shot is used to show the viewer how quickly Neo is able to maneuver as a plethora of bullets whiz by him in a simulated universe. The importance of the character’s role in the story is finally established.
6) Chinatown (1974)
This is a film that needs to be absorbed from beginning to end (you can get it on Amazon.com). It’s storyweaving at its finest. Watching it for the first time, you think you know what’s going to happen in the end. As the film concludes, though, you discover that everything that was really happening throughout the film was expertly concealed. Private detective JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, who thought he was investigating a rudimentary affair, finds himself tangled in a far bigger scandal than he ever imagined.
While all of these scenes can be recreated with a drone, it’s important to note that the most compelling films feature a combination of footage taken from the ground with aerial shots added in for effect.
What classic films or scenes inspire you? Please share your suggestions in the comments, below.
Featured image: Dan Lundmark/Creative Commons
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