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How the FAA ruling on drones used on film sets will change the industry

The Frame's John Horn with Ziv Marom of ZM Interactive
The Frame's John Horn with Ziv Marom of ZM Interactive
James Kim/KPCC

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The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved six companies to use drones as a way to legalize the shift in the entertainment industry from using helicopters to shoot those iconic aerial shots

Helicopter crashes are responsible for more film set fatalities than any other type of accident. Drones are seen as a safer and cheaper alternative according to Neil Fried, senior vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America. 

Ziv Marom, the Creative Director of ZM Interactive, does not see drones replacing helicopters but "adding another tool in the tool box." Marom's company, which specializes in aerial photography using drones, recently used the pilotless aircraft on the set of "The Expendables 3." 

Marom talked with The Frame about what drones are capable of and how the FAA ruling will change the filmmaking industry.

Interview Highlights:


What can drones do that helicopters or cranes can't?

Well, you have almost unlimited [point-of-view]: you can start to fly indoors and go right outdoors and go high. It doesn't cost a lot, you don't risk pilots' lives, which is important; they do really crazy shots with real helicopters, and they're amazing pilots, but you don't necessarily need to do that. We fly exactly the same, if not better, cameras — it's pretty amazing.

What can drones not do? Can they fly large format cameras like IMAX cameras?

We can fly large cameras. We build our own drones so we can design them any size, any power that we need. We can fly two Red Epic Cinema cameras for 3D for example, or a fully-rigged ARRI Alexa. We cannot do things that are too much work; there are limitations. For example, if a director's asking us to fly too far, too high, sometimes too fast, for a shot they didn't plan right on the set, we always say no. Even if we can fly, we wouldn't do it if it's some kind of a risk for any safety reasons.

The FAA rules prohibit flying drones above 400 feet and also prohibit their use at night. Are those too limiting in terms of what you are going to be able to do on a movie or TV show?

Not really. The whole purpose of the drones is low-aerial flight — to fly, for example, between buildings on set. We will not fly over a crowd unless the actors know that it's there and it's not exactly above them — so everything is very calculated, very planned, very safe. Even if it falls down, it will fall not exactly above the actors or anything.

I am a hypothetical movie producer. I have the choice of renting a helicopter for a couple of days to do my photography or hiring your company. What is the cost difference going to be?

Cost difference is going to be pretty big. First, [we must determine] if we can do the shots, because there are limitations, there are things we cannot do.  That's why we're working before that with the [director of photography], with the directors, to make sure that we can actually provide [the shots]. And then once we see that we can provide that, the cost is a lot different. I'm not sure exactly how much different than a helicopter.

Let's say thirty thousand dollars for two days of helicopter shoots.

While it depends again on the gear and the team, between $3,000-8,000, tops [for drones], if we need to bring a few operators, so it's a really big difference. We can also get to location a lot easier, we can just put it in a backpack and get to the top of a mountain or fly off a boat.

*laughs* It's a little harder to land a helicopter on the top of a mountain, isn't it?

Exactly, yes.

The FAA plans to approve more production companies to use pilotless aircrafts in the future. Ziv Marom is currently in the process of reviewing the application to use drones legally. 

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