What’s your background, John?
I used to work for the Associated Press in Egypt and a lot of other countries in the region as a producer for its TV side. I moved to Dubai 15 years ago, went freelance in about 2008, and because I have a passion for climbing – I’m a qualified rope access technician – I used to do a lot of difficult shots where I’d be hanging off ropes to get into position. As I got older and lazier and the drone technology got better and cheaper, I started to use drones to get shots that I previously would have had to climb a building to get.
Aren’t there millions of drones now?
The drone market has really exploded. There are sightings everywhere – and there have been incidents in the UAE, too, things like people flying them above Dubai airport. It’s created huge problems, so they’ve banned them in Abu Dhabi and regulated them in Dubai. I wouldn’t be surprised if they get more heavily regulated in the future.
How long have you been flying them?
Since 2012. I had a home-built one; they weren’t very commercially available then. I stuck a GoPro camera on my machine and tried to get some footage. Then in 2014 I started getting really good shots with another home-built version, which carried a Canon 5D camera. I have a friend who’s an engineer so we put the specs together, did the maths and built the drone around the camera. It allowed us to get great shots – both stills and video – and we’re still using it today.
From a film-maker’s point of view, what do drones bring to the party?
Most productions, unless they’re a feature movie, can’t afford to hire a helicopter, but with drones, productions with smaller budgets are suddenly able to afford the shots they couldn’t get before.
How great is the price difference?
In Dubai, you’re looking at above Dh60,000 for a helicopter shot – that’s for a few hours of flying with equipment and camera. With a drone it’ll be about Dh10,000. Drones also allow you to get into places you couldn’t access in a helicopter. We filmed inside the world’s second largest cave in Oman for a base jump – and got shots that no one has before. We can fly inside huge convention centres, and much closer to buildings and vehicles than you can in a helicopter.
Who’s a typical client?
They range from very large production companies shooting feature films to clients who want to showcase their new product or building. Construction companies use us too: filming a construction site from the ground doesn’t give you the perspective of what you’re building. From the air you can really see the scale of the development.
Have you had to turn down any requests?
Usually big events that want us to fly above a crowd – like an audience at a concert – which we don’t do for safety reasons. A drone dropping with blades spinning at 3,000rpm can cause some damage in a crowd. Like all vehicles they can fail, and if they fell from a height on to a car on a busy road you can imagine the damage – so we avoid flying above highways, too.
How difficult are they to fly?
When filming, it’s a two-person job: one flies the drone and the other has a remote control with a live feed to the camera. That person controls the camera and they’re able to pan and tilt and make sure the shot’s always in frame. It’s not something you just pick up and do – you need practice, like driving a car – but it’s not rocket science.
What was your best day at work?
Probably the car crash we filmed for a movie called Bang Bang, a Bollywood blockbuster that we worked on in Liwa, south of Abu Dhabi in the desert, last year. It was a three-car crash with some top stunt drivers from the US. I was seeing it for the first time in real life. It’s quite impressive, a sports car coming down at full speed, crashing into another car, flying through the air and rolling. We were quite nervous because once the guys had crashed the car we could hardly ask them to do it again!
Do you ever see the day when the likes of Amazon will make deliveries by drone?
No, for the simple reason that it’s unsafe. Imagine that thing flying down to your front porch and then your five-year-old goes out to touch it – what’s going to happen? The technology is certainly there to be able to fly these drones, but not to be able to track hundreds of them flying around the sky all day, avoiding people, buildings and helicopters. Great idea, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
Finally, if you could go back in time, where and when would you like to have filmed the action from a drone?
Good one! I’d love to have been there for JFK’s assassination because we could then settle the whole ‘plot’ theory. Another would be the D-Day landings in France. And Sir Edmund Hillary ascending Everest.