Doing aerial cinematography with a “heavy rig”—a big drone designed to carry a heavy payload—for a movie production can be a very lucrative niche when it comes to operating your drone commercially.
But there are a lot of factors to consider, and just figuring out how to get started can feel overwhelming.
We asked Max Tubman, founder of BFD Systems and all around heavy rig expert, what advice he’d offer those considering breaking into work with heavy rigs on movie sets, and he gave us these 9 important factors to consider. (Check out BFD’s Facebook page here.)
Max with a huge hexadeca drone
Max is a deeply experienced pilot when it comes to flying big rigs for movies and training others to do so. In addition to his work for Gryphon Dynamics, he just launched a new company that specializes in making custom systems for big rigs, working with companies like Gryphon Dynamics and others (more on that soon!).
We should also mention that Max and Alan, our CEO and Founder, first met when they were teenagers in an outdoor leadership program called Adventure Treks, back when drones as powerful as the one Max flies were just a twinkle in the eye of the nascent drone industry.
Why Big Rigs?
Before diving into Max Tubman’s 9 factors to consider for work on movie sets, it’s important to talk briefly about why you might want to use a big rig over a smaller drone in the first place.
When it comes to work on movies, it’s important to use the right tool for the job.
In many cases this could mean using a smaller drone, such as a DJI Inspire or DJI Phantom. However, there are situations where heavier payloads may be required, and knowing how to pick the right tool for the job is crucial.
These reasons could include production needing a wider range of options in the camera sensor or the lensing—the discussion on why we bother using a larger camera or nicer lensing is a whole other conversation, but for the purposes of this article, know that scaling up may be needed.
This means a big, heavy camera, which means a big, heavy drone that can handle the large payload required.
1. Getting the Call
The more prepared for the call you can be the better, and this goes for all film and drone work.
When a producer or director calls you, it’s great to have a list of the answers on hand or at least somewhat memorized so you can paraphrase. Most of the questions will be similar from client to client, so it can help to have a PDF or document on hand that you can use as a reference for these calls.
You’ll want to make your own list that pertains to your experience. In general, you want to have a solid idea of your capabilities—what you can lift, for how long, and everything else you’re capable of doing. This can be a delicate dance because you want to be able to push the limits and grow your experience level, but you do not want to oversell yourself to the point where you take on an unreasonable amount of risk or danger.
Keep in mind that production staff are busy people and may be juggling many different responsibilities. The more prepared you can be for this conversation, the easier you’ll make things for that them, and the higher the chance is you’ll be hired.
So try to anticipate what production is going to want before they even have to ask. This will set you apart, and help indicate that you know what you’re doing.
Common questions include:
- Insurance requirements for the production: Do you need to get a certificate of insurance with the production company listed? What other insurance requirements might the producer have?
- General capabilities: What is the producer looking for in terms of shots, and how will this play out in terms of gear (i.e., lift power) required?
- Budget: What is their pricing ballpark?
- Conditions on set: Will you have to contend with weather, or a crowded set? Surface these issues in that first call so you can start planning right away.
- Prohibited Shots: Does the producer want flights at night or over people, or other scenarios that would require a waiver or special airspace authorization? Surface those potential issues early so that you won’t be in a position to deliver bad news later, when production is already underway.
2. First Things First: Find the Right Tool for the Job
Although heavy rigs will often be required for any work on a movie set, it’s important to establish what your client wants to get, and make sure you pick the best drone for the job.
So make sure you know your options and needs.
Here’s an overview of things to consider as you start planning a heavy lift operation shoot:
- Rental houses: You may not own everything you need in terms of camera, lenses, and lens control, and you probably shouldn’t. Rental houses are a great resource for camera and other equipment for getting the right tools for the job, and you can build your rental costs into your overall billing structure. It is wise to familiarize yourself with how your local rental house works before you need to use them, so that you’re familiar with the process ahead of time.
- Crew roles requirements: Make sure everyone on your crew knows what he/she is doing well in advance of shoot day.
- Flight specs: What do they want to shoot, and where? Will those shots be permitted under FAA’s Part 107 regulations? Make sure to surface any shots that might be prohibited (i.e., flying over people) early on, so you can set realistic expectations with your client. Make sure you give yourself adequate time to obtain a waiver or the appropriate airspace authorization
- Client budgets and cost of operation: Understand a ballpark of how much your client has to spend, and what they want to get for their money. This is a talent that can take a lifetime to perfect.
- Insurance requirements: Most movies have stringent insurance requirements and will oftentimes try to put as much liability on you as possible. Make sure to ask about this when talking to the production team during planning. Many heavy lift operations are required to have liability, hull, and payload insurance at a minimum (scroll down to #9 for a full list of types of insurance to consider). Whoever is renting the camera equipment is responsible for insuring it, but make sure this is very clear. Even if the production is renting/insuring the camera, it’s still a good idea to have payload insurance of your own as a precaution.
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So prepare for that opportunity.
The rough breakdown of what good preparation looks like is:
- 30% Equipment
- 30% Workflow/ Crew Resource management.
- 40% Experience
3. On Movie Sets, Time Literally Is Money
Moving to heavy lift means moving into heavy budgets, which come with heavier risks.
Max flying a GD-40 from Gryphon Dynamics in winter conditions
The more you can fit into the existing infrastructure of the film workflow, the easier it will be for the rest of production to work with you and your team—and the more likely it is that you’ll be invited back, and recommended to others in the film industry.
So be prepared, and move quickly (but safely!). The more time you save production, the more valuable you are. Learn from your mistakes and stick to your own safety protocols.
4. Production Staff Review
The culture on a movie set is unique, and has its own hierarchy and set of rules.
The more you can understand who does what before you arrive, the smoother the work will go. You might think that you’ll be working with the director, but in all likelihood you may not interact with the director at all (unless they’re just really into drones and want to see your rig!).
Here’s a list of roles on a movie production, to help you get oriented:
- Director: The person who directs the making of the film/show
- Producer: People in charge of planning and coordination
- Production Coordinator: Will be the person with the paperwork regarding insurance and other agreements
- DP: Director of Photography is the chief of camera and lighting crews.
- Camera Op: Operator of the cameras.
- AC: Assistant Cameras are in charge of the camera function (on the ground). 1st AC will be mainly focusing the camera. The Second AC is in charge of camera packages, orders and will be the person you interface with if renting a camera.
5. The Rental House
Productions do not own gear and therefore rely on a symbiotic relationship with rental houses to supply them with equipment.
The A Camera (main camera) Second will be the main unit crew member to talk to about your camera order.
Your team’s Gimbal Op or AC should be the one to interface with in order to make sure nothing is left out. The A Camera Second will be able to tell you what Rental house the production is working with.
Pro tip: Always require a check out. A check out is an opportunity to build the camera exactly as it will be used on the shoot day. There are a lot of parts that need to work together on a cinema camera and gimbal. Make sure all these parts are working together at the checkout so you’re not trouble shooting lens motors or video transmission when you show up to work.This is best done at the rental house where all the camera gear and accessories are coming from. A check out should be billed as a regular day rate for your time spent setting up.
Billing can be broken up into line items:
- UAV and support gear
- Ground support such as batteries and chargers
- Crew—each crew will have a day rate
- Travel—travel days can be charged as half day rate per crew.
- Insurance cost for additionally insured
Download this template as an Excel spreadhseet
7. Being Prepared Before Shoot Day
Be as prepared as possible for everything, despite what production has planned for you. Anticipate that everything will change by the time you’re up to shoot.
This means you should show up ready to shoot first even if you’re scheduled for the end of the day.
Request a “pre-call” if needed for time to setup and build. Do whatever you have to do, but be prepared.
8. Shooting Day and CRM
30% or more of your success will rest on your workflow and Crew Resource Management (CRM).
Workflow means knowing exactly what you do and what order you do it in, and CRM means knowing who does what. Having both of these nailed down ahead of time will help your operation function like a well-oiled machine when it’s go time.
Working on a movie set usually means hours and hours of waiting around and then suddenly being on—schedules don’t really mean anything on a movie set. When they call you up to fly, you’re either ready or you’re not.
So when it’s your turn to shoot, you don’t want to be hustling to prepare—you want to be ready to go immediately. If you have to make others wait while you get set up or refresh your crew on who’s doing what, you will make the producers angry, and you may not be invited back. (Remember #3—Time is money!)
To the same point, make sure to arrive at least an hour before call time (i.e., the time given to show up to set) so that you can make sure you’re ready to go. The schedule might shift suddenly and you might be the first thing on deck that morning, and the last thing you want is for everyone to be sitting around waiting for you to set up.
Make sure to assign roles to your crew members to maximize efficiency and readiness.
Crew Roles Review
- Pilot in Command (PIC): The person who has the final say on all flight operations and has the ultimate responsibility for safety during flight
- Gimbal Operator/Tech: The person responsible for the operation of the gimbal and interfacing with the camera operator or DP to achieve the shot.
- Drone Tech: The person who will assist in flight operations and battery management. Can help with flight/battery logs and can assist with gimbal operations if applicable.
9. Types of Insurance to Consider
Crashes happen, so it’s important to be protected, especially when you’re flying big, expensive drones with even heavier and expensive payloads attached. Camera packages can easily exceed $50k-$100k.
Multiple levels of coverage are usually required by the producers of a given movie.
You should consider getting all of these:
- Hull Insurance
- Liability Coverage
- Camera Package or Payload insurance
- Insurance Red Flags
Because accidents happen…
That’s a Wrap
Working on movies can be a great way to push your career forward as an aerial cinematographer, but you have to be prepared.
The list of items above is really just a jumping off point for helping you get ready to do this kind of work—but the most crucial factor will be how good you are at flying and shooting. If you don’t have the chops, none of the other stuff will matter.
So make sure to practice until you are incredibly confident in your abilities, and then practice some more. Know your limits for safety and stick to them; you’ll get a lot of pressure to break your own rules. Be critical of your work and take away a lesson from every flight.
When you’re ready, this list of 9 factors to keep in mind will help you take your skills and turn them into real work.