In the modern dystopian imagination, the menacing shadow of the drone looms large. Unmanned aerial vehicles have already transformed warfare and surveillance in alarming ways, and many worry that the bleak, not-so-distant future will be one in which drones rule our ordinary lives — policing our streets, peering through our windows, delivering our mail and God knows what else, as their mechanical buzzing replaces the chirping of birds and the laughter of children.
For documentary film viewers, sometimes it feels like the dronepocalypse is already here.
Over the past few years, shots taken by drone — steadily gliding images looking down at houses and cities and fields below — have become epidemic in documentary, no matter the subject. You’ll see them in Alex Gibney’s Theranos exposé, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” as the camera hovers repeatedly over Theranos labs and other tech businesses in the valley, presumably helping make some point about the start-up culture that led to the company’s crooked practices. You’ll see them in Werner Herzog’s “Meeting Gorbachev,” as the camera drifts over the former Soviet leader’s impoverished home village of Privolnoye. They’re in Amazon’s “Lorena” as well, lingering over cities, making some point (I think) about the American dream. You can certainly see some drone use in last year’s Oscar winner for best documentary, “Free Solo,” about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes — though there’s some debate over which scenes were shot with drones, since they’re illegal in Yosemite.
For those of us who watch documentaries on a regular basis, the temptation to yell, “Make it stop!” can be overwhelming. But it’s also worth remembering that not all such footage is created equal. The technology has revolutionized nature documentaries by allowing filmmakers access to worlds they could not previously enter. Herzog opens his remarkable 2016 picture “Into the Inferno” with an astounding aerial sequence that soars up a mountain and then into the volcano at its center. For “Planet Earth II,” drones helped capture footage of rare pale Araguaia River dolphins in the remote jungles of Brazil. And you can’t not have drone shots in a movie about drones, like Sonia Kennebeck’s “National Bird,” which follows whistle-blowers on the American military’s controversial use of drones in combat. There, eerie bird’s-eye views of ordinary streets and homes weave an appropriately paranoid atmosphere.
And even some of those documentaries that don’t seem to need a sky-high point-of-view can have their own, fascinating internal logic. The copious drone shots in Dan Reed’s “Leaving Neverland,” about two men who allege that the pop singer Michael Jackson raped them when they were children, help offset the excruciatingly intimate interviews about sexual assault. Such techniques also make a thematic point: Reviewing the film for New York Magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz observed that “the majestic gliding rhythm of the shots evokes the flights in J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan,’” suggesting both that these men’s childhoods were stolen at Neverland Ranch, and that this documentary represents their final flight from Jackson and his legacy.
In Ceyda Torun’s “Kedi,” about the street cats of Istanbul, dreamy aerial views of the Turkish city work in tandem with the ground-level shots following the felines. The high angles add an additional, perhaps necessary perspective: Torun’s thesis is that the street cats provide a vital sense of caring and connectivity in a city that has become fragmented as it’s transformed into what the government hopes will be a gleaming, Dubai-like metropolis of the future. “Kedi” shows this conflict playing out over Istanbul’s skyline and the competing cacophony of its architecture, thus introducing a subtle political edge to a work that otherwise avoids directly addressing topics of a sensitive nature.
But even when such footage is used well, or interestingly, it can still contribute to an overall sense that the technique has become something of a cliché. Writing in Film Comment magazine last year, the critic and curator Eric Hynes argued that watching drone imagery was “like watching everybody play with the same new toy.” He added that “if your film’s currency is intimacy, is access, is humanity, why are you floating above everyone’s heads?”
The documentarian Jeremy Workman, who utilized them sparingly in his 2018 “The World Before Your Feet,” likened the ubiquity of such shots to wallpaper. “So audiences can now spot them,” he said in an interview. “That takes them out of the movie, which has the opposite effect of what the shot’s intention was.” When considering the technology for his film, about a man named Matt Green who is determined to walk every street in New York, Workman set strict parameters for himself: “Every drone shot had to include Matt,” he recalled, “and say something more than just, ‘Look at New York.’ It had to say, ‘Look at this guy within this city.’”
At the same time, Workman, who also edits trailers, admitted that he often found himself including drone footage in trailers because it gives the clip a larger scale, “cuing the audience that this is a bigger story and translates beyond one small character.” Aerial imagery, he added, once prohibitively expensive for the average documentarian, has gone from being a rare luxury to something of a stylistic crutch, there to give even the lowest-budget film visual pizazz and instant gravitas.
That speaks to the weird dichotomy in viewers’ opinions of drones right now. Do a search for “Drone shots” and “Documentary” on Twitter and you’re likely to find as many people complaining about their overuse as people marveling at their beauty, even presenting footage of their own experiments. The technology is just new enough to dazzle some, and just old enough to annoy others.
Filmmakers struggle with this dilemma, too. Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17” last year told the story of an Arizona town reckoning with its history of copper mining and class warfare. He said in an interview that while he mostly hates drones, he was drawn to them as he raised money for his film. “We went to the town of Bisbee for 10 days to shoot and cut a short trailer, for investors,” he recalled. “And of course it opens with these drone shots! Because they add, quote-unquote, production value.” Greene said he also used them to capture footage of off-limits slag heaps and chemical waste around the town.
But as a teacher of documentary journalism at the University of Missouri, Greene also finds himself regularly advising students against drones. “When you’re making documentaries, you’re so hungry for something that works,” he said. “People are so fearful when making nonfiction: fearful about being boring, or not important, or misrepresenting the subject. You’re worried your close-ups might be out of focus, or your sound isn’t as good as you wanted it to be. The drone shot is the answer to fear. It’s something that works. It’s epic, and it’s easy.”
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