All posts in October 2015

  • New Perspectives with Aerial Filming

    LA Times – Drones are providing film and TV viewers a new perspective on the action
    Richard Verrier, Contact Reporter

    A dazed and bloodied student who had just been mugged stumbled down a darkened alleyway in a slum. He lifted his shirt, revealing a gaping wound, before collapsing on the ground as curious onlookers gathered around.

    Buzzing some 20 feet above the crowd of extras was a drone, its whirling blades humming like a swarm of bees. The aircraft carried a digital camera that captured the action for an upcoming episode of “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.”

    The action is supposed to be occurring in Mumbai, India, but it’s being filmed at the Blue Cloud Ranch in Santa Clarita, a 95-acre facility with a variety of sets, scenery and equipment to make realistic-looking films and TV shows.

    Increasingly, a new piece of gear is showing up on set: drones.

    “We’re getting shots you wouldn’t get any other way,” said Tony Carmean, a co-founder of Aerial MOB, the San Diego company that supplied the drone for the “Criminal Minds” shoot.

    A year after the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the way for their use by the film and television industry, unmanned aircraft systems are becoming popular tools for directors and cinematographers.

    Drones aren’t yet ubiquitous — less than 10% of all productions use them. But demand is growing rapidly on film sets because they allow for more nimble filmmaking — and save money. A camera drone and crew costs as little as $5,000 a day, compared with at least $25,000 a day for a helicopter shoot.

    The city and the county of Los Angeles have issued nearly 60 permits for drones on film and TV sets in the last year, according to data from FilmL.A., the nonprofit group that handles permits for the L.A. region.

    TV commercial directors have been especially quick to adopt the new technology, using drones to film commercials for such brands as Tesla, Chrysler and Nike. Drones also have been used on several TV shows, including HBO’s “The Leftovers” and CBS’ “Supergirl.” A spot for Audi even features drones on screen, with the flying machines besieging workers in the company parking lot.

    Robbie Friedmann, a location manager and production supervisor, recently used a drone to provide an “over-the-shoulder” view of a man running through rugged desert terrain in Texas for the Discovery Channel show “Dual Survival.”

    “It was unbelievable footage,” he said. “It was something you would only be able to do with a helicopter, but those costs are really prohibitive.”

    The growing use of drones is changing the way that movies and TV shows are made, giving consumers a new perspective on the action.

    Film industry experts say they could open up new possibilities of filmmaking in much the same way that lightweight cameras did in the 1960s with movies such as “Easy Rider” and the Steadicam did in 1970s. That camera-stabilizing system, with its distinctive arm, was famously used in the climbing-the-stairs scene in “Rocky.”

    “Drones are like a Steadicam that can operate 200 feet up in the air,” said Michael Chambliss, a business representative for the International Cinematographers Guild. “It’s an entirely new vernacular in the language of filmmaking. All of a sudden we can do shots that we couldn’t do before.”

    Chambliss, himself a veteran cinematographer, has been working to educate his members and major studios about the new technology that was initially greeted with some caution.

    Until recently, the FAA allowed only public agencies such as fire departments to use drones for such things as tracking wildfires.

    The agency effectively banned their use for commercial purposes because they were viewed as potential aviation safety hazards and threats to national security.

    Prodded by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the FAA took the first step toward allowing Hollywood to use drones when it granted a waiver requested last year by seven aerial photography companies, including Aerial MOB and Vortex Aerial of Corona.

    Drone proponents hailed the decision, saying it would put the U.S. on a more even footing with other countries where they are legal and used on films such as the James Bond movie “Skyfall” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

    Until recently, many California drone operators did much of their work in South America, Europe and Canada.

    Filmmakers contend that drones create more distinctive shots because they can go where manned aircraft can’t — dropping down into narrow spaces such as alleyways and canyons and even flying through doors and windows.

    “Everybody is trying to develop a shot for them,” said Bob Harvey, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Panavision, which makes and rents cameras and lenses and has referred business to Aerial MOB. “They are certainly going to give more flexibility to artists.”

    Ian Woolf, a co-producer and unit production manager for “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” said the low-flying drone shot on the Santa Clarita shoot wouldn’t have been possible with a helicopter and was 10% of the cost. It took only two hours to set up the shot and 10 minutes to film the scene.

    “It’s easier, faster, quicker and safer,” said Woolf, who also used drones to film a scene at a ranch in Simi Valley standing in for Morocco. “From my perspective as a unit production manager, it’s amazing.”

    Helicopters can be hazardous. In 2013, three people were killed when a helicopter crashed in Acton during the filming of a reality TV show for Discovery Channel. In March, 10 people were killed when helicopters collided during filming of a reality TV show in a remote part of Argentina.

    “When you’re flying a helicopter you have a human being on board,” Chambliss said. “If something goes wrong you can almost guarantee people will get hurt or killed, whereas with a drone, all you need is a broom and a garbage bag. It’s a much smaller impact.”

    Of course, drones can still be dangerous.

    There have been a rash of incidents, mostly involving drones operated by hobbyists. A Pasadena infant was injured in September when an operator lost control of his drone.

    In another incident, a 57-year-old man was charged in Los Angeles with obstructing a police officer when he flew a drone near a police helicopter.

    In 2014, TGI Friday’s mistletoe drone promotion went awry when a drone filming in a Brooklyn restaurant struck a photographer, cutting her nose and chin.

    The cinematographers union, which has members employed by 16 drone companies, has been working with other industry groups to develop a set of safety guidelines for use of drones.

    Drones also have limitations, especially when it comes to filming high-speed action scenes, said Dylan Goss, partner in Team5 Aerial Systems, a Van Nuys company that supplies film equipment for helicopters and recently launched its own drones division.

    His company, for example, used drones to film scenes in Netflix’s “Narcos” series, but concluded that helicopters were more effective when they were hired for filming the fast-paced action in the upcoming “Point Break” movie.

    “I really believe for the large action work, and moving quickly and covering ground, the helicopter is best,” he said. “It’s about using the best tool for the job.”

    Under the new FAA rules, drones can be used only on sets that are closed to the public and cannot be operated at night.

    Operators must hold a recreational or sports pilot certificate, keep the drones within their line of sight and below an altitude of 400 feet.

    At least two people are required to operate the drones: one to pilot the craft with a controller and a second who operates the camera and acts as spotter to watch the drone in flight.

    Applications for drone waivers have flooded the FAA, which has authorized more than 200 companies and individuals to operate drones for film production, according to the agency’s website.

    Among them was Aerial MOB. The company builds its own drones, which cost as much as $30,000 to make. The drones weigh up to 30 pounds and rent for $5,000 to $14,000 a day, depending on their weight and size of the camera.

    One of its first high-profile customers was Warner Bros., which hired Aerial MOB in December to film a scene of a man running through the woods for an episode of “The Mentalist.”

    Since then, business has boomed. The company handles about a dozen aerial shoots a month, with business expected to exceed $1.2 million this year, Carmean said.

    “I’m getting calls left and right,” he said.

  • Aerial MOB: An Offer We Cannot Refuse

    Aerial MOB: An Offer We Cannot Refuse

    In late September 2014, Aerial MOB became one of the first six American film production companies selected by the FAA to receive a Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to use UASs for movies, television and commercials.
    Much has changed since then. Being the godfather of the drone industry has turned out to be a goldmine for Aerial MOB. Still, in the world of media, plot-lines, personalities and silicone enhancements don’t last beyond the pilot, and it’s no different in the burgeoning drone industry. The company would not have been able to grow so fast without being able to deliver on a golden narrative. The cream always rises to the top and Aerial MOB is one of the masters of visual drone storytelling.
    “Pre-certification, we were working, on average, once every six weeks. We were doing much smaller jobs with much smaller production companies. After, we average seven to eight jobs a month,” said Tony Carmean, Aerial MOB’s co-founder and chief marketing officer.
    With golden quality comes top companies with big budgets to spend showcasing their products. Aerial MOB’s client list now includes some of the biggest entertainment and media companies in the world, including BBC, HBO, MTV, and Warner Brothers, among many others. Car companies and consumer brands like NIKE, KIA, BMW and American Express have also gravitated to the MOB for its talent to create stunning visuals.

    Tony Carmean said drones allow directors to be more efficient and more creative.
    “UASs get shots in close spaces in 20 minutes. Before you would need a half to full day just to set up,” said Carmean.
    “UASs also give cinematographers (the opportunity)…to get single continuous shots and long pans over (a landscape) that you couldn’t easily get before.”

    Aerial MOB uses about five different cameras, ranging from a low-end UAS similar to a GoPro in which the camera is built into the aircraft, to the mid-range Panasonic Lumix G DMC GH4, to the high-end Arri ALEXA Mini. The ALEXA Mini retails for $60,000.
    “All of our pilots are FAA certified and are professional cinematographers. They’re members of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600,” Carmean continued.

    As it is commercially known, the highest the devices can fly is 400 feet. Most shots are done at 100 feet and under, eliminating the need for a van full of movie production equipment like dollies, jibs, trams, and cranes. Drones save industry money, but they have also help productions to remain lean, and mean.
    Carmean said when the pilots send a $100,000 machine up to film fireworks, “there’s a lot of pressure on the pilots.”
    The UASs are covered by insurance, but must be treated carefully because many are leased. A complex shoot for a stunt and explosion-filled car commercial can last three 10 to 12 hour days in the hot, dry Southern California chaparral.
    A tight crew of UAS pilots, directors and assistants, and contracted stuntmen work closely and tirelessly to get the shots just right. They are obligated to operate under FAA guidelines, but since Aerial MOB is part of the entertainment production industry, different and stringent rules apply providing another layer of protection and safety. Governing bodies such as local and regional permit offices have assumed jurisdiction when it comes to profession drone shoots in the Golden State.
    Aerial MOB does about 60 percent of its work in Southern California. Its crew has traveled as far north as Vancouver and south as Mexico City.
    Carmean said filming in another country requires a lot of preparation.
    “You list everything you’re bringing in, and everything you’re bringing out. We still have to file paperwork with the FAA for every job. The client has to go their permitting agency (where the shoot will take place) and file with them too,” he said. It’s not an easy process.
    UAS shots are not greatly affected by air pollution. Cameras can be outfitted with different filters to give a specific tone to footage.
    “We do a lot of car commercials where the UASs chase cars on mountain roads. We filmed a guy who got mugged with a reveal shot 20 feet above his head. For the CBS show The Mentalist, we had a very cool continuous shot, with a police officer and a detective out in the woods. The camera pans over the woods and heads in a certain direction,” said Carmean.
    Carmean said his job is coordination. He is on set often.
    “We do everything from the more laid-back plate shots (background landscape shots which do not contain actors or specific set pieces) to action scenes for TV shows,” said Carmean.

    Since Aerial MOB was among the first companies to receive certification from the FAA, it is also getting attention from politicians.
    In late April 2015, Aerial MOB’s partners were guests of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) at the 3rd annual Creativity Conference in Washington, D.C. The conference brings together policy makers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists to explain how the expansion of the creative community encourages economic development.
    “We were in front of U.S. Senators and Congressmen and the news media, and met with U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA). We sat with the FAA for three hours afterward. The FAA listened and made some changes,” said Carmean.
    Carmean said he and other partners explained certification for every location shoot is a little onerous. They also offered suggestions for how to streamline the FAA’s paperwork processes.
    In the coming years, Ariel MOB is looking to expand beyond show business into transportation, building, and utilities inspection.

    “We (the company) made a conscious decision three years ago (to start UAS filming) last year when the FAA was set to grant certification. It was good timing. We have four partner owners, three full-time employees, and about 15 independent contractors. We haven’t lost anybody (since we started). We want to grow,” said Carmean.

  • LA Great Place for Drone Industry

    LA Great Place for Drone Industry

    On Thursday night at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, I spoke about the drone ecosystem and how LA is a great place to be building a drone company. Los Angeles was the center of aerospace innovation in the 20th century. Together with our friends across industry, we’re making it the 21st century home for the next frontier of aerospace technology.
    Donald Douglas founded his aircraft company in Santa Monica in 1921. In 1924, the first ever flight around the world was made by the Douglas World Cruisers, which took off from Clover Field, the present-day site of Santa Monica Airport.

    Douglas World Cruisers, prior to departure from Santa Monica, CA on the first circumnavigation of the world by airplane in 1924.
    The first commercially viable airliner was the Douglas DC-3, every copy of which was built at the Santa Monica factory.

    Delta Air Lines Douglas DC-3

    The Douglas aircraft factory at Santa Monica Airport employed more than 44,000 people in the 1940s.
    As Douglas developed heavier airplanes and eventually jets like the DC-8, the runway at Santa Monica became too short and the company moved to nearby Long Beach. Just south of Santa Monica in Culver City and El Segundo, innovators like Hughes developed airplanes, helicopters, and satellites.
    Today, SpaceX is forging new ground from their Hawthorne, CA headquarters, and companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR have joined Scaled Composites in the nearby Mojave desert.

    Ben speaking at Cross Campus in Santa Monica on September 24, 2015.
    But what does the future hold for aviation technology? Since the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, aviation technology has been about connecting people across borders. When Charles Lindbergh made his record-setting solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, he couldn’t have possibly imagined that only 40 years later people would be getting on Boeing 747s in Los Angeles and arriving in London just 10 hours later. Air travel has become a natural part of our lives.
    The next frontier of aerospace technology won’t be about connecting people across borders, it’ll be about connecting one street corner to the next, it’ll be about collecting data to help us understand our communities better. It’s all about local. We’re already seeing drones being use for all kinds of inspiring applications, like aerial photography and cinematography, much of which is driven by Hollywood (also part of LA). Aerial Mob and CTRL.ME Robotics, both LA-based companies, create awesome aerial art. Santa Monica-based Dronebase helps connect real-estate, construction, and other industrial customers with the aerial images and data they need.
    In ten years, the ways in which we’ll most be enjoying drones haven’t even been dreamt up yet. There are myriad opportunities for innovators to jump into this exciting emerging ecosystem and build great businesses. It feels great to be a part of this new community of collaborators.
    For my team and me at AirMap, our calling is to provide access to the world’s low altitude airspace information so that drones and their operators can understand where it’s safe to fly. Without this information, innovation cannot take flight. And our job isn’t easy. Gathering, scrubbing, curating, and maintaining a global, precise, dynamic airspace dataset is hard. Serving that information up in ways that are simple to use is even harder. That’s why our team is dedicated entirely to this specific contribution to our new industry.
    One example of how AirMap makes its airspace information useful is through the Know Before You Fly campaign. Together with industry and government collaborators, we’re helping to keep people who are new to drones as safe as possible.

    AirMap airspace information integrated into the Know Before You Fly campaign.
    Another example is the integration of AirMap’s airspace information into the popular app for recreational drone pilots called Hover, which provides weather information, a news feed, flight logging capabilities, and other information, in addition to an airspace map.

    Download Hover from the Apple Store or Google Play today!
    Next week, AirMap will be releasing its map SDK to a limited number of beta tester app developers in preparation for a mainstream release by the end of the year. The SDK allows developers building apps for drones to easily incorporate airspace information into their products. Sign up for early access to the SDK by visiting AirMap’s website at
    AirMap is hiring! If you love drones, you like the idea of working with a bunch of smart, passionate, executers four blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, and you want to build a foundational element of the aeronautical infrastructure of the future, we want to talk with you! Learn more by clicking here.