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The dangerous prevalence of drone shots in cinema

In the right hands, flying cameras can make art. Too often, however, they dehumanise and demean
September 6, 2023

Who could forget, once seen, the dazzling motorcycle chase at the start of the 2012 movie Skyfall, in which James Bond—in his Daniel Craig incarnation—pursues an enemy across the rooftops of Istanbul? The pursuit starts in the ancient covered bazaar and on the streets, but takes off visually—and literally—when Bond and his quarry emerge onto the city’s ramshackle skyline. We are above, behind and alongside them as they race along, no longer just spectators to, but almost participants in, the action.

It’s a breathtaking sequence, and wouldn’t have been possible without the camera being fixed to a drone, as though the lens had been given wings, as well as the ability to move in any direction at any moment. Free from the ground, and in constant movement, the viewpoint moves fluidly, the excitement of the chase augmented by the liberation of the audience’s perspective. The drone shots are not overused, nor do they feel intrusive or self-conscious. They are at the service of the narrative. 

If only all drone shots were so creative. The much-used gizmo can make movies more exciting, but they are too often vehicles for the dispensation of cliché. Take this year’s Netflix series Transatlantic, which recreates the story of US journalist Varian Fry’s heroic attempt to smuggle Jewish artists out of occupied France during the Second World War. Its high production values are let down by a predictable script—and predictable drone shots. You’ve seen the kind. Cars on roads, shot perfectly from above, our viewpoint moving along with them. It’s one of the go-to shots of the modern thriller—and the series uses it again and again.

It’s not just Transatlantic. Nor, indeed, just cars. Think of all those times you’ve seen a camera swoop for what seems like miles across a forest canopy. The flights over skyscrapers. The descents from mountaintops. You might not be able to place where exactly you’ve seen these stereotypical drone shots, but that’s sort of the point: they’ve become so ubiquitous that, in many cases, you barely register their presence. As a documentary filmmaker myself, I’ve seen drones conquer my medium.

How has this happened? Partially it’s because drones are toys and enjoyable to use. A cameraman friend told me of a family who spends every weekend playing with their flying machines. His and hers for the adults, and smaller models for the two kids. The first time I saw a drone was on an Ibiza beach a few years ago: some guys were having fun swooping their gadgets to-and-fro over the topless female sunbathers, making Instagram-ready reels to titillate their followers.

A still from “Grenfell”, directed by Steve McQueen © Courtesy Steve McQueen A still from “Grenfell”, directed by Steve McQueen © Courtesy Steve McQueen

Fun—though not unsanctioned voyeurism—is obviously part of drone use in cinema, rather like cranes or tracking shots, which are often deployed for no reason connected with film language, but only because they enhance the director and crew’s sense of having access to a full playset. I remember being asked at the start of a production if I “wanted any toys”. This is filmmaking that ignores the most basic syntax of cinema, in which framing, camera positioning and movement are understood as having narrative, emotional or psychological significance, not just for their razzle-dazzle. 

The epidemic use of overhead drone shots in film, however, isn’t just about entertainment or adolescent technophilia. If we connect the over-use of these flying machines with their deployment in assassinations and war, that banal god’s-eye view in films takes on a more sinister meaning. The use of drones by US forces to locate and destroy human targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, operated by army personnel many thousands of miles away, raised a multitude of questions about killing an invisible opponent—frequently with collateral damage. A young and fresh-faced operator somewhere in the Midwest, perhaps, with a well-developed skill at manoeuvring a joystick, would dispatch an enemy remotely, remorse-free. Wasn’t this just an extension of a video game, in which the enemy is blasted out of virtual existence, providing the player with repeated and potentially addictive thrills?

Reports from Ukraine give a particular and much more nuanced sense of contemporary drone warfare. Drones can be seen in different ways depending on, well, your perspective. Luke Mogelson’s late-2022 New Yorker article “Trapped in the Trenches in Ukraine” describes in fascinating detail how a group of foreign volunteers used drones to locate Russian gun positions, tanks and personnel. In this case, the drone is the relatively cheap and accessible piece of kit that gives both sides of the conflict more information about their opponents. But we’ve also seen another side to drones in Ukraine: the recent attacks on Moscow and the sea-drones used to target Russian ships in the Black Sea, for example.

Height and distance make possible atrocities that might be less bearable if they were committed at close contact

Disengaged warfare, of course, isn’t new. The moment soldiers had weapons that reached beyond the length of a sword or bayonet, the enemy was to some extent dehumanised. The bomber crews that attacked London, Dresden or Hiroshima didn’t see their victims. 

Height and distance make possible atrocities that might be less bearable by the perpetrators if they were committed at close contact. This sorry truth is beautifully evoked in the sequence on the big wheel at Vienna’s Prater amusement park in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) finally catches up with his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has been peddling potentially lethal diluted penicillin—and children have indeed been dying. Martins challenges his ethics. They’ve reached the turning wheel’s highest point. Harry Lime, debonair and cynical, opens the cabin door and asks his friend to take in the ant-like people below: “Look down there,” the smooth psychopath asks: “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man.”

I included the sequence in the “Towers” episode of Architecture of the Imagination, a BBC Two series that I made in the early 1990s. This episode suggested that high-rise office buildings and flats not only isolated people from each other, but encouraged a comfortable yet desensitised view of the world below.

When people become dots, they are inevitably dehumanised. In Roger Cohen’s perceptive family memoir The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, he writes of his uncle Bert Cohen, in 1945, arriving at Adolf Hitler’s holiday home near Berchtesgaden as an Allied soldier, and considering the effect of being in the “Eagle’s Nest” on the dictator. “We rested,” he says, “and smoked in Hitler’s armchairs. The view from the pinnacle was such that I felt a few months here would make a megalomaniac of anyone. Literally the world lies at one’s feet; how easy then to imagine that it does figuratively as well.”

Might our relationship with nature similarly reflect a growing detachment from the world? A friend in Provence, a former shepherdess, told me about the latest way of hunting the plentiful wild boar in her region: the chasseurs, self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, will assemble at the edge of the forest and send out a fleet of drones in different directions. When the game appears on their handheld monitors, the hunters leap into their 4x4s and speed off to corner the luckless animals. With their high-velocity rifles, my friend tells me, they will sometimes bag 250 wild boar in a day. Not so long ago, game was located by careful and sensitive tracking, hoof-prints and scat. It’s much more clinical, efficient and faster now: the bloodthirsty boys get a thrill out of playing with their toys.

What makes the seemingly compulsive use of drone footage in both documentary and fiction filmmaking so remarkable today may be the overwhelming and repetitive reliance on a 100 per cent vertical vantagepoint. This produces a flat, map-like view of the world below. It doesn’t have to be so. The only two drone shots in Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), at the beginning and end of the film, are used to establish the location in which the story is set—the land and seascapes of the west of Ireland that provide more than just a backdrop to the unfolding drama. These gently rising shots, very different from the vertical viewpoint, set a powerful narrative tone.

The overhead drone shot is also often used in an attempt to evoke city life, not least with a view of office towers and busy streets below. As with the spectacle of nature, these city shots resonate with Harry Lime’s dismissal of the “dots” below. We are disengaged from what we see. These visual tropes have a numbing effect, objectifying the streets below, maybe reflecting our need to float above the hard knocks of reality. If this is supposed to be a god’s-eye view, then it’s a deity that has withdrawn from connection with the world, perhaps to the disenchanted universe of Google Maps. There’s little trace of soul.

There are other examples of intelligent and creative use of drones in filming, just as shooting a scene with a crane or tracks can, in the right hands, help tell stories in a poetic way. The director Asif Kapadia deployed drone shots creatively in his feature documentary Amy (2015), evoking the familiar cityscapes in which Amy Winehouse’s tragic life unfolded in a way that made them look like something out of a fairy tale. There was a particularly memorable shot in which the camera, starting near ground level in New York City’s Washington Square, swooped under the memorial arch at the north end of the small park and flew slowly up 5th Avenue towards Midtown Manhattan, gradually revealing the buildings on either side. We felt in the city, not above it.

A still from “Upstream”, directed by Rob Petit © Via Upstreamthefilm A still from “Upstream”, directed by Rob Petit © Via Upstreamthefilm

This year, Steve McQueen’s film and installation Grenfell, although filmed from a helicopter rather than a drone, intelligently questioned the nature of what we choose to see. A single shot takes the viewer from the countryside to the northwest of London, gliding over fields at first and later Harrow, to the suburbs close to the capital. On arriving at the charred building in Kensington—where 72 inhabitants, many of them immigrants, died—the camera begins a series of circular swoops, in silence, with no comment at all, save for the filmmaker’s impassive yet passionate gaze. This continues relentlessly, allowing the viewer’s imagination to roam, and the depth of the horror lived there to sink in. The floating camera—unlike the ever-present drones of conventional documentary and cinema—draws the viewer in, but with a distance that is grounded in profound respect. The paradox at the heart of this remarkable film revolves around the fact that the victims of the inferno were indeed like the “dots” that Harry Lime spoke of as dispensable. The voices of the tower’s inhabitants had not been heard, although they had warned the powers-that-be that the building was a terrible fire risk.

In a different mode, Rob Petit’s 27-minute film Upstream (2019), made in collaboration with the writer Robert Macfarlane, was filmed entirely with a drone. The camera follows the River Dee in the Cairngorms, right up to its source under the snow and ice—and enables an engagement with landscape and place that’s unique. Sometimes, the camera hugs the contours of the land, often close to the river, revealing the ways in which the surface of the earth has been shaped by this moving body of water. At other times, the drone and camera fly high above the mountainside, revealing the wider shapes and geology of the Dee’s slowly narrowing valley. The drone is in service here, to both an artist’s eye and a writer’s love of landscape. It results in something more illuminating and touching than anything an earthbound camera might achieve.

There can be symbiosis between filmmaker and machine

The contemporary reengagement with nature, of which Macfarlane is one of the main proponents, seeks to undermine its objectification. By contrast, the default drone shots that are used so frequently today might pretend to celebrate the natural world, but they’re used without the sense of reverence necessary to recognise our place within nature—rather than outside it. While working on Upstream, director Petit actually lost his drone, his camera and a considerable amount of footage; the relatively delicate equipment wasn’t able to withstand the onslaught of wind and snow. He was at this stage working on his own, without the benefit of an assistant, so he had to risk his life retrieving the drone, trudging desperately for hours through deep snow. There is no divine detachment here, just total immersion within the mountainscape and the elements, and a respect for the constraints they demand.

There is a symbiosis here between filmmaker and machine. The drone, in the hands of an artist, responds to what it allows the camera to see, rather than imposing, as in the case of the clichéd overhead shots, a perspective that’s dictated by the technological potential of a machine that lifts the lens away from the ground. One of the greatest tragedies of modern filmmaking—among several—is that the drone has been allowed to call the shots, resulting in a vision of the world that’s closer to surveillance than to genuine wonder.