While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.
The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.
Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.
But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.
The Drone Aesthetic.