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Film Production with Drones – Shotwell Aerial Cinema

Drones are being used more often in film production

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Shotwell Aerial Media was created by filmmaker and pilot Justin Thomas Ostensen and brings brings over 20 years of Hollywood film product experience to the field, applying the professional standards of technique and craft gained over decades of on-set application. Justin, and Shotwell, are film production experts.

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Following their Section 333 approval on April 3rd we reached out to them to ask a few question.

Q. Would you have any recommendations to others who are just beginning the exemption process?

The process does take some time, so any downtime that you can eliminate by responding quickly to any inquiries is wise. Every day saved during the process is another day that you could be flying in the future.

Q. In your opinion, is the FAA looking for the proper requirements to fly UAS / drones?

As a fixed-wing pilot, I really respect how challenging the issue of airspace integration by itself is, but this is compounded by the myriad other non-airspace issues like enforcement, privacy rights, operator licensing, and security concerns. It is an amazingly complex set of issues and they are made more challenging every week by two factors:

  • UAV technology is innovating at an incredible pace, which is phenomenal for our safety and the pure joy of flying, but it makes creating any standards difficult
  • Every week another news headline occurs with a bonehead operator flying outside the recommended guidelines. UAVs are transforming every industry and offering us one of the most incredible technologies in all of history to do good and beneficial things for our world, it is a shame that all of these opportunities are being lost in stories about a few thoughtless individuals.

I think we all agree that some kind of formal operating license is imperative to hold operators responsible for their crafts and flying. What was outlined in the NPRM is a great framework and I’m interested to see how it changes after the public comment period, but there are just far too many people flying UAVs in populated areas without proper training. Just like driving a car, you should be able to demonstrate responsible operation that won’t negatively affect anyone else and carry insurance in case you do.

One other aspect that I think is not frequently enough addressed is the difference between a lot of hobbyist and professional operations. Professional aerial companies have a lot to lose if they have an incident: hundreds of thousands of dollars of gear, lost time on a valuable production day, their industry reputations, etc. In my experience, the people and companies operating commercially are consistently the most concerned about safety, maintenance, and protocol.

Q. Do you believe the FAA is fully familiar with the UAS / drones that are being used to shoot aerial video for film production?

I don’t have any personal experience with this, but it does seem like they are making an effort to reach out to professional operators to better understand their needs and the specifics of the equipment that we require to capture cinema-quality imagery. Open dialogue about the details is critical to creating a roadmap that will work for everyone in the future and it seems like this is happening.

Q. Your exemption paperwork notes that: “The exemption would allow the petitioner to operate an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to conduct closed-set filming and aerial photography.”. How does this impact your business?

Nearly all of the film work that we do is on securely closed sets already and all of the procedures outlined in the Exemption were already in place, so it hasn’t been much of a workflow adjustment.

Q. How did you determine that the use of drones would make sense for your business?

As a cinematographer, it just stemmed from a desire to capture new angles and offer clients another perspective in our productions. It is awesome how the more you get into it, the more you realize what is possible. I am constantly inspired by the visuals that people are creating daily with UAVs and how so many things that we are used to seeing take on a completely different meaning when viewed from the air. Low-altitude aerials are like a new language that we are all creating every day.

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Q. In your exemption paperwork you note that you will be using multiple drones: DJI S1000, DJI S900, DJI Inspire 1, and DJI Phantom 2. Why are these the right ones for your goals?

Every job requires a different rig, but these had the most accountable GPS and Return To Home functions that were aligned with the Section 333 standards. They also had detailed operating manuals which was a requirement. In the future, we hope to gain inclusion of our larger and more customized heavy-lift systems.

Q. How many drone pilots do you envision hiring in 2015?

Our needs require about 5-7 licensed pilots and visual observers, but hopefully we grow to need more.

Q. What type of pilots do we use?

Pilots holding current Commercial and Private Pilot Licenses

Q. Were there any questions we should have asked you about drones or drone use in film production?

Aside from the discussion of all the current regulations and laws, we also want to emphasize how much we just love flying UAVs to offer unique and beautiful images of our incredible world. Who has not been blown away by a drone video in the past few weeks? It is so inspiring to see what people are creating with this technology and even in addition to the stunning visuals coming from every part of the globe, it is so great to think about how UAVs will help to better society with more efficient food production, safer inspections, emergency responses, and a whole range of other areas that we haven’t even considered yet. Pretty cool to be a part of it.

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