Video Production With UAVs: A Conversation With Tom Hallman

The Freefly CineStar 8 flying a Red Epic camera on the MōVI digital three-axis stabilizer.

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—The Federal Aviation Administration recently cleared the way for six companies to use unmanned aerial vehicles for shooting film and television projects. Pictorvision was one of the companies that received approval from the FAA for commercial drone applications, so BE Extra thought it would be good to find out what this means to film and television producers.

Tom Hallman, president of Pictorvision, answered some questions about rules for the operation of these UAVs.

BE Extra: The FAA granted what it calls regulatory exemptions on commercial unmanned aircraft flight to six aerial photo and video production companies. What exactly does that mean?

Pictorvision’s Tom Hallman pilots an aircraft.

Hallman: For a number of years, the FAA enforced a de facto ban on the use of UAVs for commercial purposes. Concurrently the motion picture industry lobbied for permission to use unmanned aircraft for aerial cinematography. With the new ruling, which is subject to a number of rules designed for safe operation, the FAA has granted commercial UAV flight exemptions to six companies, including our own Pictorvision, for movie and TV production.

BE Extra: Can you describe those rules?

Hallman: Not surprisingly, many of the flight rules outlined by the FAA are similar to, or the same as, those for manned aerial flight. For instance, the Pilot in Command, the individual controlling the flight of the UAV, must be a licensed private pilot with a current third-class medical certificate, and have a certain minimum amount of flight experience flying UAVs. Additionally, the PIC must have experience and recent piloting time with the particular model of UAV being used for the shoot. We are required to have a certified Visual Observer who is in voice contact with the pilot during the flight, acting as a safety officer and second set of eyes for the PIC. And when doing filming from the UAV, we are required to have a dedicated camera operator to remotely control the camera and the steering of the gimbal.

There is also the requirement for a flight plan of operations to be filed with the local FAA authority three days prior to a UAV shoot, just like we do for manned aircraft filming. And the UAV flight has to be done over what’s called a sterile set, where the public is not allowed and where only those production personnel, including actors, are allowed to be during the UAV operation. Maintenance records and inspections, just like we do for manned aircraft, are required for the UAVs.

BE Extra: And what are the differences in the rules between manned aerial photography operations and when a UAV is used?

Hallman: Well first of all, the PIC of a manned aircraft is of course riding in the aircraft, whereas the UAV pilot is operating that unmanned aircraft remotely. The rules of the exemptions require the UAV PIC to be within line-of-sight of the UAV, able to see it with human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses. He cannot be riding in a moving vehicle or device while flying the UAV. And there are other differences. The total weight of the UAV, including camera, lens, batteries and other peripheral equipment, cannot exceed 55 pounds. Plus, there’s an altitude limit of 400 feet above ground level, and a speed limit of 57 miles per hour.

BE Extra: How will those last three limits affect the use of UAVs?

Hallman: As for camera payload, we’re never going to be able to lift a big enough payload for long enough—we’re always going to be asked by the client to carry more for longer. But as the aircraft technology and battery technology become more mature, the payload we can lift and the time we can lift it will increase dramatically. We rarely need to go, or would want to go higher than 400 feet. We’re dealing with relatively small lenses because of the weight limitations these unmanned aircraft can carry. It’s not like the manned aircraft world, where we can have a giant 290mm lens on there. We’re talking about 24 and 35mm prime lenses. So being much further away is not something you’re going to want to do very often anyhow. And as to the speed issue, going that fast with an unmanned aircraft is tricky business. It’s not something that you want to do regularly.

BE Extra: You mentioned that the UAV flights have to be done over a sterile, controlled set. Won’t that be limiting?

Hallman: When filming at any exterior location now, even without a UAV, the production will block off the streets because they don’t want civilians in their shots, or for safety when they do big stunts. They get permission from landowners, etc. Productions are used to doing all that work anyway. So we’re just adding one more layer on top of it. It really shouldn’t be all that much more complicated than what they need to do in the normal process of just making a film.

BE Extra: What are some of the advantages of a UAV over a manned helicopter?

This remote-controlled cinematography aircraft was shown in the Cineflex booth at NAB 2014.

Hallman: The biggest difference is really the form factor. It’s the size and the weight. Unlike the 3,000-pound, full-sized aircraft, we’re 55 pounds or lighter. So it’s much easier to use when you get to smaller locations that you couldn’t get to with a full-sized aircraft. And because the UAV is powered electrically, it’s significantly lighter. It has way less rotor wash, so the blades don’t pick up dust like you would with a manned aircraft. With UAVs you can get relatively close to objects and not disturb them or the environment, whereas with a manned aircraft, you’re going to kick up a dust storm if you get within 50 yards. And again, if you’re doing sound shooting, we can get a UAV much closer without interfering than you could with a manned craft.

BE Extra: Cost is always an important factor. What do you view as the difference in cost when hiring a company such as Pictorvision to do a manned aircraft shoot versus a UAV shoot?

Hallman: The savings with a UAV can be significant. Just how much really depends on the nature of the shoot. One of the biggest cost savings is in getting the equipment to the location. With the unmanned aircraft, it’s a bunch of Pelican cases in the back of a truck or excess baggage on an airliner. So when going to an exotic location, shipping the UAV there is not a significant expense. With a manned-sized aircraft, you have to fly to that exotic location at $2,000 an hour—so you can quickly rack up a bill just getting the aircraft to and from, before you even roll a single frame. When you’re local to Los Angeles, that’s much less of an issue.

But still, the costs to operate UAV are significantly less, because we’re not burning jet fuel. There are expenses with UAVs to meet the FAA requirements. There is a three-man crew mandated by the FAA, so this is not going to be run-and-gun with a single guy and a GoPro setup. But we’re going to do what we can to keep the costs as reasonable as possible.

BE Extra: What can you tell me about Pictorvision that you think led the FAA to grant the company one of the exemptions?

Hallman: We were the only one of the exempted companies that brings extensive experience in the full-size aircraft aerial cinematography market. We’ve been doing this for almost 40 years, and the core engineers of this company created the aerial cinematography market, if you go back far enough. That knowledge and experience is definitely an asset when figuring out the policies and procedures that will satisfy the new FAA requirements.