Film, photography and performance

This area features some of the most recent examples of drone innovation, with special emphasis on projects with artistic content, or innovations that offer new creative possibilities. Film, photography & performance take centre stage in the development of creative uses for drones, though as our INNOVATION area shows, the possibilities extend beyond these!

Film & Photography

Whether taking breathtaking aerial panoramas or being used to shoot the latest budget thriller, drones are dramatically changing the practice of filmmaking. So much so that drone filmmakers now have their own drone festival; launched in 2015, the New York City Drone Film Festival is the world’s first event exclusively dedicated to the art of drone cinematography, with awards that emphasize innovative flight technique and aesthetic quality. You can see a list of 2015 winners here.

Drone photography is just as much in the spotlight, being a favourite among hobbyists. Many of the recent innovations around drones involve the creation of ever more sophisticated gimbals that help stabilize cameras and enable better still and moving shots. This will doubtless develop dramatically as camera makers take note and begin creating cameras designed specifically for drones. Danish camera maker Phase One Industrial, for example, promotes its iXU 180 as ‘the world’s smallest 80-megapixel medium format aerial camera’, and the camera is specifically designed to fit inside a gyro mount.

Creative organisations can make good use of the cinematic and photographic capabilities of drones. Recent examples include the OK Go video ‘I Won’t Let You Down’, the opening of which makes use of FPV as the camera skyrockets upward, giving a bird’s-eye view of swirling umbrellas and spinning dancers below.

Another music video filmed by Ryan Staake shows a much different drone filming technique. Using an H3Pro7 GoPro camera rig from 360Heros, the fimmakers commissioned an arm that hoisted seven GoPros into position below the drone and stitched the resulting footage together, making use of a Tiny Planet effect to achieve a dizzying, morphing final result.

As drone cinematography becomes more popular and economical, bringing it within reach of creative users, we will doubtless see increasingly sophisticated approaches that use drones to tell stories, elicit emotions, educate and collaborate with audiences, as well as to entertain and inspire.

Special Effects & Lighting


There are many potential applications for arts organisations and audience interaction involving flying lights. Whether you’re using a drone to bring Tinkerbell to life on stage or on a photographic shoot where you need to illuminate a subject in a way traditionally reserved for the studio, exciting new horizons appear.

Lighting in theatre, film, photography is normally rooted to the floor. Drones have democratised the spatial and budgetary restricted areas that historically have been reserved for high end productions. More people using drones can explore new lighting solutions avoiding rigging and other expensive equipment. That said, drones at first may appear relatively cost effective but often a lot of hidden costs creep in. Ultimately it’s all about choosing the right tool for the right job and being mindful of whether the tech is being used for ‘tech’s sake’.

Super bright OLED lighting combined with drones enable flying lights that can be controlled remotely, offering up new creative potential for lighting designers who are often restricted by the lighting grid. Flying spotlights, lasers, diffuse/ambient lights + super-bright point lights can all be piloted or more impressively can have app-based remote control.

Custom applications made in Open Frameworks and accessible hardware technologies such as Arduino boards have helped a flurry of arts projects involving LEDs off the ground.

LEDs require power. As payloads are a premium, depending on the vehicle you’re flying, the power can be drawn from the main flight Lipo battery. This requires a mechatronics expert to help you along. You can find skilled people to help in such places as the Hackerspace network. As does integrating the computer on module that controls the lights- Brightness, dimming, colour + switching on & off can be triggered by applications such as Qlab via OSC.

Traditionally, lighting in theatre, film, photography is normally routed to the floor. But with new super bright LED lighting combined with drones, we can fly lights & control them remotely – providing many potential applications for arts organisations and audience interaction.


Artists work with drones in many different ways, but the arena of live performance has been at the forefront of new endeavours.

High-profile companies have been quick to embrace the ‘wow’ possibilities of precision performance. Cirque du Soleil collaborated with ETH Zurich, and Verity Studios, to produce Sparked – an enchanting short film in which a human dancer interacts with a flock of inquisitive, softly-lit drones:

Disney is rumored to be planning impressive drone puppetry and display in a new theme park. On the other side of the spectrum, car company Audi produced ‘The Drones’, a commercial featuring a team of sinister quadcopters channeling Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (somewhat badly received by the drone community). Drones have even been seen on the catwalks at Silicon Valley Fashion Week.

Smaller scale projects have proved no less engaging. The Japanese dance troupe Eleven Play have been incorporating drones as fellow dancers in several performances, making use of their eerie, futuristic presence on stage. As early adopters, the rapid advancement of Eleven Play’s drone performances highlight the advancing precision of drone technology. Elsewhere, John Cale and Liam Young’s drone-based audiovisual collaboration LOOP>>60Hz has captivated live audiences at the Barbican, while accompanying collaborations that extended into the online realm  invited audiences to pilot a virtual craft through a cityscape. This mix of delivery and viewpoints is likely to be relevant to creative organisations, who can engage different audiences at different times and remote locations through clever use of technological options. For more on this aspect, see our CREATIVE PRODUCTION area.

“There will inevitably be those who can’t resist flirting with drones just for the sake of using the latest new tech. We’re mindful of these techno zeitgeists and use drones when they offer fresh and purposeful creative opportunities…Our goal will remain to create show-stopping experiences and art.” Robin McNicholas, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Marshmallow Laser Feast

See our Drone Performance Playlist below for further examples.

Next page in toolkit: How Do Drones Work?