A Game of Drones: Are we overusing them?

Screenshot from the music video of 'Who Else' from 'Áh Boys to Men 3: Frogmen'

For most film writers, talking about equipment and technology is downright unsexy. Film writers talk content and dramaturgy: what the film is about, what the characters’ motivations are, what the politics and context is. Everyone understands story. Craft is dry in comparison.

However, it must be understood that every good piece of artistic work is 50/50 Dionysian and Apollonian. It is both emotional and intellectual. Even works as expressive and emotional such as a Jackson Pollock painting carry a balance of rationale amidst the impulsive randomness. There’s a process of intellectual choice and not reflexive Id.

Speaking about craft is also complicated, as great film craft would often be interweaved with all the other elements to become almost inseparable. It is why when people talk about how great the shots look in a film, most of the time, they also actually mean set design, make-up and wardrobe as well as lighting, choice of lenses, blocking and camera movement. In speaking about one, you mean to speak about all.

Here is a fun fact about noticing craft in a film. If you are able to notice it, chances are it is a bad film.

And something has emerged in the market over the last 5 years that screams ‘CRAFT’ in capital letters. No amount of engaging drama can distract you from noticing it in a film. Drones.

In fact, it is getting so common, the issue should be renamed Clones.

The problem is not with the drone itself. It is a wonderful and frankly, outstanding piece of engineering and craft. You can get a consumer drone, such as the recently released DJI Spark, for as cheap as 600 dollars and it fits in your bag! Good drone footage can elevate the cinematic quality of a film. Nobody can forget Maria von Trapp singing ‘The Sound of Music’ on top of the mountains with the camera gliding towards her, even though technically that was a helicopter (but the effect is the same). Coverage of the Olympics owes half its glory to drones. 007 too.

The problem is when one uses drones like MSG, throwing in a little dash of it to earn some Hollywood creds or thinking it could be the money shot of your film. Let’s put the microscope (telescope rather) on some local films and see if drone shots are making you drool or drowsy.
Arguably Jack Neo is the grandfather of drone cinema in Singapore. The first feature film that used drones in a major way was We Not Naughty (2012). Jack Neo hatched this idea of bad guys using student-invented drones to smuggle money across borders. Jarring as a plot element but works out in a Jack Neo sort of way. Ironically, drone shots were limited in the film. Perhaps this was a rehearsal for his next film which was Singapore’s biggest love affair with drones - Ah Boys to Men.
Jack Neo outdid himself with Ah Boys to Men as far as technicality is concerned. Not only did he create moderately realistic war scenes, he gave a 360 view of war, much of it created by drones. Despite the graininess of some of the drone shots, great shot ideas abound in this film.

Jack Neo must have taken the idea and run a thousand miles with it. After Ah Boys to Men, he ‘droned-up’ Lion Men, as well as Long Long Time Ago. Some hits. Some misses. But looking at Long Long Time Ago, I guess there was no other way to do a grand Kampung establishing shot, other than using our handy mini aircraft.
 Screenshot from the trailer of 'Long Long Time Ago'
As the proud grandfather of drone cinematography, Jack has spawned many drone fan-boys who joined this peculiar school of filmmaking. Check out Ang TengKee, an entry to this year’s edition of the ciNE65 short film competition. You are looking at the end of the film in which the drone pulls out from the living room, out the window, away from the block. While seamlessly executed, its purpose is questionable. Is there one? In fact, the drone gives the film a cookie-cutter TV commercial finishing.
Here is a recently shot short film for the Hari Raya festive season called Bebas (‘Freedom’ in Malay). The film is a about a drug-offender who spends his first Hari Raya out of prison and is missing his mother who passed away when he was behind bars. The last scene with him visiting his mother’s grave at the cemetery, features a drone shot which soars above him as the film’s closing. It just convinces me these filmmakers love pulling out at the end! (don’t mean to be crude)
Here is another micro-film competition entry. Titled Blithe, it was an entry in this year’s 48 Hour Film Project and it was tasked to make a short film in the musical genre. The filmmakers and their company of actors spared no effort in hamming it up for the camera. I wished they spared the drone shot effort though. It a was strange stationary top-down shot that fits better in a film about suicide.
Not all drone insertions spoilt the broth. In the short documentary Part and Parcel, about the life of two bicycle messengers in Singapore, the filmmakers from Ngee Ann Polytechnic display a dextrous pair of hands in handling drone shots and using them in the final film.

There is a popular notion these days that the audiences are easily bored. Thus the fear of boredom has driven the film industry to a very strange place where stories cannot be told with simple shots anymore. Drones are like free roller coaster rides. They give audiences the high and once they experience it, they need it again to hit the same visual euphoria. Wait a minute, that sounds like something else too.

Some may argue that people are either good storytellers or bad storytellers. So bad drone ideas are bad simply because the stories are badly told. Drones are not that evil. Let on their own, they are not out to destroy your film. You need to find a way to make it dance for you.  Possibilities are endless with drone cinematography and being afraid to try is a bigger cardinal sin than Jack Neo flying another drone through a group aunties doing line-dancing at the community centre.

Written by Rifyal Giffari 
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