As the search for locations continues for SOS United States, I went to Newport yesterday for a day trip and took my drone (DJI Spark) in the hopes of producing some interesting shots. It was in Newport four years ago where I shot The Breakers along with various images of the ocean. While shooting The Breakers was a grand “Gilded Age” experience, it was practicing against the wind at the ocean that was the most important as I prepared to produce First Signal.
When I was directing First Signal in 2019, there were some particular drone shots that we had to get right. First, it was raising the drone to its recommended maximum of 400 ft to allow for a VFX spaceship to be inserted between the drone and the actors on the field. Then there was the lower shot of Major Sampson driving onto the field and General Reager arriving at Chièvres Air Base. Honestly, perhaps one of the most difficult to achieve for steadiness was the pull back shot when President Colton was sitting at the conference table.
Although inside shots have limited space to operate, the one thing they don’t have to contend with is wind. I count myself lucky that on the days we needed to use the drone when producing First Signal, the wind was minimal. While the DJI Spark can withstand speeds of up to 17 mph as it has wonderful stabilization technology, it really is impossible to tell wind speed at 400 ft from ground level. And the dreaded phrase you hear so many say during filming, “Fix it in post,” only goes so far when trying to steady an overly shaky shot.
My advice to anyone using a drone for professional purposes—practice! I know it sounds obvious, but so much must be taken into consideration as time is usually the one thing you don’t have much of when producing a film. As the DJI Spark battery only lasts 16 minutes, you really need to carefully plan your shots. Another recommendation is to have a couple of extra batteries. I learned the latter the hard way when practicing using only one battery. As an independent filmmaker you want to economize but given that the batteries take about an hour or so to recharge, that’s an hour lost on set.
In SOS United States there are a few drone shots that are not only sweeping but require careful timing (if anything owing to battery life). In SOS, we are flying along the ocean and then rise up to see the President of the United States addressing an audience on a battleship (I hope it’s the USS Massachusetts). While the shot itself won’t take more than a couple of minutes, it’s truly about getting everything ready for that call to action. When we do produce this scene, I’ll recommend two-three drones for redundancy. If one of them gets in the shot we decide to use, that drone can always be removed in post.
With time passing from First Signal’s release, the one thing that isn’t is profitability. While I love producing, I also don’t mind saying, I also love profits. I honestly didn’t know how First Signal was going to do in the VOD world on its release. There are so many films competing for eyeballs these days, but First Signal found an audience and broke through. To those that have supported this endeavor, my sincere thanks to all of you.
I’ll never forget the day Adam Starr brought his drone to the set of Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the part in the story that called for a drone, I count myself lucky that Adam had one. In those days (2012) a drone for an independent film was a novelty. Adam had recently purchased a drone for a commercial shoot so thankfully he had one. As you can see from the image below, he did a great job. And with his VFX skills he transitioned from drone footage to special effects seamlessly.
Last weekend was a bit of a drone adventure for me. After my successful shots at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center earlier in the month, I went to a WWII event at Battleship Cove. I go every year, but this time I brought my DJI Spark. Although I’ve been working with the drone for a few months now, I never really put it through the paces. The image above was from the drone’s maximum height (without the remote controller). Yes, “Big Mamie” is a big ship! To watch the video, click this link.
The next day I went to Newport, RI and toured The Breakers. Although I took a picture of Marble House with the drone when I was at one of the “Cars & Coffee” shows, I had yet to video one of the Gilded Age “summer cottages.” After the tour I started to envision what I wanted to see from this great mansion that was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. For those that remember the opening credits of Dynasty, that was my motivation. To watch the video, click this link.
To answer what some of you may be thinking, yes, I always get permission to film at museums and the like. The drama you hear about drones is pretty much nonsense. Operating a drone is like driving a car. It’s called practice and being responsible. If I’m not sure about something, I’m not going to try it. One of the cardinal rules is pretty simple—always be able to see your drone. Today’s drones have so many wonderful features built right into their programming. For mine, I can just tap “return to home” and that’s exactly what it does.
As part of SOS United States takes place on the USS Massachusetts, I’ve always wanted to do some filming at the museum. My interest in The Breakers was obvious. What filmmaker wouldn’t want to film such a grand residence? Because these two locations are so unique, my aim was to get two different looks if you will. But there are those moments when you kick yourself. I was approaching the low battery warning and had one more chance to get a shot at The Breakers. I hit “tap to fly” and the Spark was moving forward nicely. After a few moments I hit return to home. But I forgot to hit record when it was flying! Thankfully, I had enough footage.
Of course I originally purchased this drone for First Signal. Although actor and crew scheduling conflicts meant moving the film to 2019, this actually gives me more time to experience the capabilities of the Spark. There’s lots to shoot in the region!
As for First Signal, SOS United States, and my other projects, I always have a plan b. This November I’ll be traveling to the American Film Market. I haven’t been to Los Angeles since Justice Is Mind had its west coast premiere in 2014. It will be great to make new contacts and visit with friends and colleagues from my days in “Hollywood.”