A few months ago, we got a call for an upcoming Lincoln car commercial for the 2019 Lincoln Wish List Sales Event. The spot was aptly named "The Art Of Flight" and a Christmas theme was incorporated to tell the story of "the scene inside is frightful, but the comfort outside's delightful".
This was a clever concept by the agency, Hudson Rouge, in which the basic idea of the commercial is absolute chaos inside the house: the children and their dad are flying FOUR drones all at once, with one drone having a Christmas star decoration attached below it, while two other drones crash into a vase and the Christmas tree itself. The mother then comes home in the new Lincoln Aviator to see the chaos that's ensuing and instead decides to quietly retreat back to the peace and tranquility of the luxury SUV.
To be able to fly multiple drones (even these small ones) safely on this shoot, in conjunction with multiple talent (and a cat!) on set at different times, it took numerous discussions and pre-production meetings to afford us the ability to control the drones seamlessly in each of these scenes. We brought on three DJI Mavic Air drones with prop guards, and had the drones altered to NOT look like DJI drones. This was done by spray-painting them, and adding LED lights and wings on top with epoxy, in order to alter the standard DJI look. The other drone we used was the Sky Viper Scout Drone, where we had Sky Rocket Toys sign-off on its use for TV, so that drone didn't need to be altered. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take any behind the scenes pictures, as this was a huge production and we were under an NDA. Sorry!
This isn't the first time that we've flown drones as props for a TV series or commercial; we've done this many times for many different productions.. Companies like DJI, Yuneec, Walkera, Sky Viper Drones, Western Digital, Tiffen, and CBS, just to name a few.
It is very important for clients to hire a competent drone production company for this type of work; those of whom like us who have 7+ years experience in the business, and have had zero major incidents to date. Crashes happen sometimes, but when working with talent so closely, you simply can't afford to do so. Everything has to be perfect.
On this job, one of the people who was working with us on set said that they flew FPV drones and could do this one easily with his friend. Admittedly, they were not FAA 107 certified, did not carry $5 million in UAV liability insurance and it was obvious that they lacked the judgement of risk assessment and experience to do this safely. We see this all the time in our industry, where people who fly drones as a hobby believe that they can fly on these productions merely because they can do so at the park or their own backyard. Sometimes clients make the mistake of getting the cheapest quote, only to pocket more profit, which compromises the safety of everyone on set. Unfortunately, it's a risk that some are willing to take.
A quick true story here: I was contracted a year and half ago to do something very similar, flying only one drone though, and doing so for another drone production company that hired us. Their client was a big production studio that was filming a new show where the drone was part of the show and also on-camera. The first day at the first indoor location in Hollywood went flawlessly, as I was piloting and in control, and flying nearby talent safely - as per the directors' requests. The next day, filming was taking place on a studio lot where I was doing some test flights at the indoor scene location, which was very tight with multiple light fittings and other obstacles and soon to be filled with talent and crew. The pre-production and on-set safety meeting went well until the director changed the plan of having safety glass to protect the talent from the "crash" scene where the drone was supposed to be flown into the "Hot Girl" talent. Seeing as this was news to me, as the Pilot In Command, I said that this wasn't safe and not part of the original plan. It just so happened that at that moment, the owner and chief pilot of the drone production company that hired us came to set to see how it was going and quickly overruled me and said "I do anything the director tells me to do". Well, he proceeds to take control of a drone for which he'd never flown before, the director calls action, and he subsequently knocks over a prop.. so they have to reset. The director calls action again, but this time he didn't fly closely enough to the talent's head for the shot they want, and just barely misses her face. As they begin to reset again, the owner then proceeds to land the drone near the talent's head and accidentally gets her hair caught in the props. Hair and makeup had to come out and cut it out of her hair (which obviously wasn't good). They reset for the third time and as the director taps him on the shoulder, he flies directly into her temple, causing the drone to violently catch her hair, jerk her head, and nearly knock her off her stool. The head of studio safety then shuts the whole thing down and luckily the talent didn't lose an eye or become permanently disfigured. The moral of this story is that the director isn't always right; some will compromise safety to get the shot and it's our job as PICs to say "NO", and offer an alternative, safe shot. As for the that particular drone production company, we haven't worked for them since and never will again in the future. You simply don't overrule an experienced drone operator who is Pilot In Command when they say it's not safe. It turned out I was right from what happened this day on set, but being right doesn't make it right in hindsight.
Thankfully, nothing like this little story ever came close to happening to us on this Lincoln spot. We did all the pre-production planning, test flights with prop-guards and safety meetings required - and as per our company policy - we had everything signed-off on by the client, agency and production company. While there was definitely some Hollywood magic and clever post-production in this spot along with our piloting experience to make this commercial happen safely, it was largely a labor of communication and understanding for all those involved.
A big thanks to our talented crew, Mike Bishop and Anthony Valerio, who made this one happen!
If you have any projects coming up where you need aerial cinematography services or drone production support, whether used as props for on-camera or incorporated into an experiential marketing event, then please reach out to our Executive Producer, Matt Feige, or myself, Alex Kavanagh.