We’ve Reached Peak Drone. Let’s Get Back to Focusing on Story

The holiday season is upon us once again. And just like last year, drones are populating the wishlists of filmmakers everywhere.

There's no doubt about it. In 2015, drone sales skyrocketed during the holidays, and after a record-setting sales year in 2016, they're primed to do it again.

Needless to say, in a few week's time there will be more drones in the hands of more filmmakers than ever before.

But before you rush out and ask Santa for an upgrade to your current drone, or to bring you your very first one, it'd be wise to take a step back and look at how drones have impacted the video production world of late.

Regardless of whether you're a business owner, independent filmmaker, or hobbyist, the surge in drone usage is having an effect, and it's not entirely positive.

So let's dive into this messy issue and get it all sorted out. But first, a quick little story.


You pull up to your client’s business to find them cheerfully waiting for you. 

Introductions are made, everyone seems really excited to get this project going, and you’re about ready to unload your gear and jump straight into production. 

As you unload, your client is standing nearby, almost hovering. You pull out the last of your Pelican cases and close the trunk of your car, then you see a worried look come over the client’s face. 

“Wait, where’s the drone?” 

“Why would we need one,” you respond. “It’s not something we discussed during pre-production, and it’s not really necessary for the story we’re going to tell.” 

“Well I was up last night researching videos made by our competitors," the client responds, "and they all used drones. I really think we should too.” 

Your heart sinks. 

Peak drone has claimed another victim.

What on Earth is peak drone?

If you work in a video business of any kind, chances are you’ve already encountered a situation similar to the one above. And if you haven’t already, you can almost be certain that you will.

The rise in drone usage these past two years has been nothing short of meteoric, and it’s touching every corner of the industry. From small wedding filmmakers and corporate shooters to the highest end production companies, drones are everywhere.

In part, this surge has been the result of the technology becoming widespread and inexpensive. For less than a grand, anyone can be up and running with a new drone that captures nice footage. It’s pretty crazy, especially when you stop to think about where we were ten years ago.

The other aspect of this is that aerial footage was once a rarity. It was something that not only looked really damn cool, but you just didn’t see it all that often. For many years, these aerial experiences were reserved for Hollywood films and deep-pocketed production companies who could afford to rent helicopters. That’s it.

These days, though, aerial footage isn’t a rarity anymore. Nor is it a highly specialized skill. It’s a commodity. Plain and simple.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how skilled you are as a UAV pilot or whether you have a unique talent for incorporating aerials into a larger story. There will always be some 19 year old kid who will undercut your prices because he has the same equipment. And there will always be clients who opt for the 19-year-old because money is tight and drone footage is drone footage.

This, in a nutshell, is peak drone.

Basically, it’s a state where aerial footage by itself is no longer really worth much because there’s so much of it. It’s no longer unique or rare. Yet there’s such high demand for it because we see it everywhere.

The more drone videos we produce, the more clients will want them, and the more we’ll need to produce in order to keep our businesses alive. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, if we dive into our recent history with filmmaking tools, we can see that the answer to this problem is right in front of us.

Peak drone is just the latest gear trend to peak

If you think back a little ways, you’ll probably notice that peak drone is just the latest in a similar line of professional technologies becoming abundant and widespread and overused.

For starters, you might remember DSLRs coming along in 2008 or so, followed by a lengthy period where most everyone was obsessed with getting their depth of field as shallow as humanly possible.

pexels-photo-172077.jpeg

Like aerials, shallow DOF was another visual tool that was once reserved for high-end filmmakers. For awhile, it just wasn’t possible to achieve that look using affordable video cameras with fixed lenses and tiny sensors (although people certainly tried with those crazy 35mm adapters).

But then the humble DSLR came along, and wham! Not only could we achieve shallow depth of field, but we could go crazy with it due to the full-frame nature of the 5D MkII and some of the fast prime lenses from the stills market.

Before anyone knew it, you’d see filmmakers shooting wide open at f/1.4 on 50mm, 85mm, or even 135mm lenses. It was madness. Pure madness I tell you.

As a result, a good deal of the footage from this time looks pretty similar. Soft, blurry, dreamy, etc. Maybe even slightly out of focus — or egregiously out of focus — with some really gnarly post-production sharpening added in an attempt to hide it. I know I’ve been guilty of this. I’m not proud.

But luckily, this fad passed.

Filmmakers realized that shallow DOF was simply a useful tool for visual storytelling, not some panacea for making any shot look more cinematic.

Then in 2011-ish, sliders became the new craze. 

Smooth, controlled camera movements were once only the realm of anyone who could afford to rent a dolly or a Steadicam. Again, these movements were one of the signatures of high-end production. They just weren’t possible for most filmmakers on a budget.

And then inexpensive variants of the slider came along and flooded the market. 

Armed with their DSLRs, everybody and their mother began incorporating sliding shots into their work. Regardless of the type of video or whether camera movement was necessary at all, it seemed like every other shot was sliding back and forth or in and out.

But just like the shallow DOF craze before it, the slider boom settled down as well because it, too, is simply a storytelling tool. 

How we’ll beat peak drone Once and for all

In the end, the solution to this problem is simple, but not particularly easy.

The first step is to realize that drone footage by itself just isn’t all that impressive anymore. There was a time when it was novel and added a lot of production value, but just like shallow DOF and slider shots, drone footage for the sake footage just isn’t enough to set anybody apart from the pack.

What’s still impressive, however, and what will always be impressive, are compelling stories, well told by filmmakers who know which tools and techniques are best for that particular story.

This is something that will never go out of style, and it’s something that will always allow the professionals to separate themselves from that 19-year-old kid with the latest drone. 

Once we’ve got that critically important mindset locked down, it’s our responsibility to begin showing restraint in our own personal work, educating our clients about the power of story, and warning them (and ourselves) against chasing shiny objects and trends just for the hell of it. This is how we eventually get back to a state of equilibrium. 

Just like sliders and extremely shallow depth of field, both of which have come back down to earth and cemented themselves as useful (but not necessary) storytelling techniques, drones need to come down as well. 

As people invested in storytelling above all else, it’s our duty to facilitate that change and make it happen. 

In the end, drones are still an incredibly powerful tool. They give us a perspective unlike any other, and when used properly, they can take a story to new heights (pun totally intended). And the fact that they’re getting cheaper and better each year is a blessing. 

Unless we take responsibility for our tools and stop letting trends and commoditized services dictate the market, peak drone will continue on and keep perpetuating itself.

Luckily, all it takes is a few smart storytellers to start reversing that trend, and that’s exactly what the Muse community is made of.