As the Chief Creative Officer and one of the founders of an advertising agency, I’m addicted to new technology and pushing our agency not only to adapt quickly, but to be an industry leader. My newfound addiction to video “Drones” is now consuming me from a creative standpoint.
I want to be clear that I am discussing commercial UAVs, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The word “drone” has negative connotations because of the media depiction of the government’s controversial usage of them in recent years.
Now, to be fair, I have a history with this sort of addiction. I’ve always had radio-controlled helicopters; radio-controlled, gas-powered cars and trucks, and even tried an airplane once. I say once because after the initial flight, it was unable to fly again.
This interest is what led me to follow the work of Colin Guinn and Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics, who are considered pioneers of the consumer multicopter movement. We always have big agency projects coming up, and I needed a good excuse to use a UAV. The issues I saw from a production standpoint was the stabilization of the video from a GoPro mounted on it was iffy, at best. So, I kept watching and reading. The big talk was now a two-axis Zenmuse Gimbal that people were installing on their DJI Phantoms. It removed all of the “jello effect” and harshness from flying, ultimately stabilizing the shot. It also gave you control of your camera to tilt up or down. As of today, a three-axis Gimbal is available.
Using a GoPro-equipped UAV has been the entry point to this addiction. So, right as I was planning the logistics for a television commercial shoot in Boston, I storyboarded out driving/running footage shots in order to use the UAV.
That’s when the challenge really started.
Working with our in-house production crew, we scoured the Internet and social media for someone with one of these DJI Phantom rigs with a GoPro Hero3 Black Edition and a Zenmuse Gimbal. We found one person in the Boston area who had one, but he only got it about three weeks prior to our shoot. We went for it. What did we have to lose?
I had two versions storyboarded out just in case we couldn’t get the shots from the UAV, but we did and it was fantastic – even if some of the shots were difficult for our operator with three-weeks experience.
Within four days of returning from Boston, I knew I would now be able to justify owning my own DJI Phantom, so I started working with Robert Scott of DSLRPros, a company based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. that take stock DJI Phantoms and customize them into a real filming rig. After a two-week building process, my DJI Phantom arrived complete with upgraded motors, carbon fiber propellers, Zenmuse Gimbal, Futaba radio with a 7-inch Custom FPV (first-person view) screen attached and so much more, including the batteries and chargers.
With this in my possession, I knew we could get any shot we needed. I just needed some practice. DSLRPros initially sent me six LiPo batteries that last about 10 to 15 minutes per flight. After exhausting all six batteries during one of my practice sessions, I immediately ordered another six, along with an extra charger. Batteries were not going to slow me down.
With my history of flying model aircrafts, it was like riding a bike – albeit a bike that flies with signals from seven or more satellites, can return home if I lose signal and lands safely if the battery runs out of juice.
Since that time, we’ve taken the UAV to Detroit during the North American International Auto Show and caught aerial footage of some of the city’s iconic landmarks, including the infamous Packard Automotive Plant, which you can see in the photo above. I’ve also filmed in Miami, New York City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Buffalo, NY. The UAV has allowed me to capture footage that would once only be possible with a helicopter. We now have additional capabilities to provide new visual depth for all our video projects.
Detroit from above from Scott Rodgers on Vimeo.
As my flying skills improve, so do my thoughts on regulation and flying responsibly. Just like anything else that is affordable and marketed to the masses, there are always that percentage of people that ruin it for everyone else. People look at my setup and say, “Can’t you buy that on Amazon.com for $500?” I usually chuckle and say yes. However, the reality is that you can’t. Unfortunately, we are all lumped together.
Until the FAA regulates UAV use, which is expected in late 2015, the UAV Wild Wild West is here. As it stands right now, there are no laws that govern the use of UAVs for personal or commercial use. There was recently a case involving Team Black Sheep flying over the University of Virginia. It was dismissed by a National Transit Safety Board Federal Judge on the premise that there was no law in place that Team Black Sheep was violating by flying over the university and then using that footage for a television commercial. This ruling dispelled a popular myth that said UAVs weren’t for commercial use, only personal use. However, there have been some signs that the FAA will unleash “low-risk” drones for filmmakers, farmers, and other industries sooner than I previously thought. Needless to say, I have already submitted a request for approval.
Ultimately, those of us who fly responsibly aren’t going to put people at risk. There are “hobby” guidelines, such as not exceeding a height of 400 feet, not flying within 5 miles of an airport and not flying anywhere you can endanger people. When we fly to shoot television commercials, we get permits to close down specific roads so we have control of the environment. However, there will always be “that guy” (or “those guys”), who will post a video flying in a heavily populated place or unsafely. In the U.S., though, the FAA does monitor YouTube and a few of the Facebook groups I belong to and have sent a few “warning” letters. But, again, at this point there is no law regulating flight.
One of the reasons we started Tier10 was to become one of the top industry leading agencies, both with our production techniques and execution strategies. The only way to stay ahead is being obsessed with all things new, big or small.
Years ago, Guinn and the company he was formerly with, DJI North America, were small blips on the radar. Now, what they do is mainstream. CBS’s 60 Minutes did an episode on this phenomenon recently; it’s very insightful. They visited one of the “drone conventions” and spoke to Guinn, who demonstrated one of the DJI Phantoms.
The use for these is endless. And just like with everything else in the world, it can be used for good or bad. In this case, the good outweighs the bad. In 2013, when the tsunami hit in Japan, a UAV was flown into the Nuclear Plant to assess the damage, as it was unsafe for humans. They have also been used to survey the damage where no one was able to go, looking for survivors, most recently during the tornadoes in Mississippi.
All in all, UAVs are here. They are a technological revolution, and I am excited to be a part of it. What’s next for Tier10 and UAVs? A bigger copter of course! I am currently spec’ing out an octocopter to use our usual Canon 5D MKII or possibly even a RED Digital Cinema Camera. We are also doing everything we can do to educate consumers and the public on this topic and becoming an advocate for regulation. Being located in our nation’s capital, it is something we are working to get involved with. For now, though, we’ll definitely be getting some excellent footage.
I’ll leave you with some of my previous work below. Also, be sure to stay tuned for Part 2, as well as my Vimeo channel and Instagram for updates coming soon.
Scott Rodgers is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of advertising agency Tier10. You can follow him on Twitter @scotty703 or connect with him on LinkedIn.
Range Rover Sport at Land Rover Fort Lauderdale from Scott Rodgers on Vimeo.
2014 Miami Boat Show on Collins Avenue from Scott Rodgers on Vimeo.