drones-for-film-productionWhat’s the buzzing high above? It may be unmanned aircraft systems aka drones skittering around or it also  just may be the rising film industry chatter about prospects for using the high-tech devices in new ways in Hollywood — this all triggered by statements from the Motion Picture Association of America and and the Federal Aviation Administration that seven media companies formally have requested federal approval to shoot television and movie footage from the air with the craft that earned their wings, so to speak, on recent and distant battlefields. (Thanks to variety.com for the drone image.)

What’s with the sudden whoosh of activity in this sky-high film making regulatory area? Strap on those seat belts and watch this monitor:


Petitions for FAA exemption

Seven media companies, the FAA said, had worked with the MPAA to petition for exemption from existing U.S.drone  regulations, citing their capacity to deal with: pilot certification requirements, safety, and public interest concerns.

That the firms acted in concerted fashion to get out from under federal rules as they now stand is clear from their petitions, visible online, in which they talk in almost standardized fashion about filming drones not exceeding certain altitudes, not exceeding certain dimensions and weights, and operating under strict control of trained and licensed personnel.

Neil Fried, MPAA senior vice president, confirmed the industry group’s support, saying in a statement that drone filming is “an innovative and safer option for filming. The new tool for storytellers will allow for creative and exciting aerial shots, and it’s the latest in a myriad of new technologies being used by our industry to further enhance the viewer experience.”

Legal issues

What are the legal blocks now to drone filming? This was, of course, discussed at length in February at a conference at Southwestern and it is dissected in informative postsby Morrison and Foerster attorneys here and here. But clearly a key focus of legal maneuvering will be possible amendments to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, including increased safety options for film making and to allow filmmakers to display another visual angle to their industry.

There are potential disadvantages here, including federal regulators designating a fly zone that might permit these craft to pose a safety risk to innocent bystanders. The public safety concerns can be complex and multi-directional:  That’s because drones can provide a safer option to filming with helicopters or planes; they also potentially can be a more dangerous option for those uninvolved in a shoot who might be hit by or injured by the devices if they veer out of control, off course or crash.

Freak accidents do occur and lives are lost in film making in dangerous situations. An accident during the production of  Midnight Rider, a biopic about rocker Gregg Allman, resulted in the death of Sarah Jones. She was killed by rubble from an oncoming train and this has resulted in lawsuits and recriminations about safer regulation for film shoots — including a trade publication’s tragic tally of deaths connected with helicopter-related  filming (33 fatalities since 1980).  Mike Miller, an executive with a cinematographers’ trade group, has been quoted as saying the mishap that proved fatal to Jones “should never have happened,” even as he pledged that “nobody dies making movies again.”

Shooting already

While the effort to win a legal exemption from federal regulation of drone filming received considerable media attention, some outlets, National Public Radio, no less, have reported on the practice occurring, the FAA be darned. The existing reporting does at least offer an important insight into why the cinema crowd craves the chance to explore the devices, pioneered by the U.S. military in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Take a look at this reel from an operator who isn’t shy about showing off that he’s already taken to the skies to shoot: