We spent time with British freelance aerial filmmaker Danny Cooke, the creator of a stunning showreel showcasing his best work including a rare aerial view of Pripyat, the city evacuated shortly after the Chernobyl disaster.
Welcome to Skytango’s new series of interviews focused on showreels of professional drone operators. Danny Cooke’s showreel is the first of this series!
Drones in filmmaking are at an all-time high and across the world UAVs are helping people tell stories visually in ways we wouldn’t have imagined a few short years ago.
There are parts of the world that are popular for drone enthusiasts to film from the air both recreationally and commercially, cities like New York and London, popular parks, coastlines and recreational areas that are beautiful from an aerial perspective. As drones become more and more popular, tighter regulations and restrictions are being put in place, limiting access on safety and security grounds.
Danny Cooke brought his drone to a place that very few have access to: Pripyat, a city sacrificed after the Chernobyl disaster, evacuated and practically untouched since 1986.
His showreel juxtaposes the calm devastation of Pripyat with the adventures of areas thriving with life. We were delighted to put our questions to him and gain some insight into his work.
See Danny’s showreel for yourself.
- Hi Danny, thanks for the interview. Can you tell me about what you do, your background and when you started using drones?
- As a freelance aerial filmmaker, how did you get the ball rolling in terms of finding work and getting recognised in the market?
- What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome as an aerial operator?
- What’s your main area of business, ie commercials, tourism, real estate, documentaries etc?
- Your showreel is really spectacular and even in that small amount of time you manage to inject something of a narrative, which I love. What locations did you use and was that your intention?
- The scenes involving the close range aerial filming of the car races was quite something. Did you shoot many takes before you got the outcome you were looking for?
- The aerial scenes showing the Chernobyl disaster’s sacrificial city of Pripyat was mesmerizing to say the least. Could you tell me more about your experience filming and taking part in that project?
- What was the most enjoyable aspect of filming the scenes featured in your showreel? What impressed you the most?
- How do you deal with local authorities for aerial filming permits when filming at home and abroad?
- How do you deal with landowners when you launch on somebody’s property? Have you ever had issues? Do you usually seek permission from government and local authorities managing specific sites?
- What drone/s do you operate? Do you favour a specific drone/camera over another?
- How do you find dealing with high contrast scenes and getting the exposure right?
- What future do you see for drones in filmmaking and visual storytelling?
- What one tip would you give to a UAV pilot starting out?
I am a Freelance Filmmaker based in South West UK, encompassing most areas of production from Directing to shooting content, both on small and large projects.
From a young age, I’ve always been fascinated with filmmaking. Every project I do I consider both the cinematic feel and also the emotion of the viewer. I aim to send everyone on a journey and hopefully, after my film, they feel emotionally moved and better for watching!
I started with Drones much later in my filmmaking career. I started experimenting during the Phantom 2 era with GoPro’s and it’s certainly amazing to see how much technology and reliability has changed since then!
I was fairly established before I even started using UAVs. My main port of call has always been having a well-curated online portfolio. I use Vimeo as a platform and have found this invaluable to my audience reach.
UAVs on my part was born out of necessity, it is still a very new market and I wanted drones to be part of my tool set.
Permission is always a hurdle when flying UAVs. It can take weeks and quite often people are uneducated and turn you down straight away. I have recently had an issue with a local council who have banned drones from their parks even for commercial use. This, in my opinion, is wrong and licensed pilots shouldn’t be persecuted for other people’s stupidity!
I keep an open mind on what type of projects I take on. They have ranged from small to large businesses, corporate, commercial, factual and non-factual productions. Each discipline I try and inject my style of filmmaking into the production. But this isn’t always possible!
Editing has always been an important part of my process. Much of the narrative comes from the simple placement of clips in the right order!
All the footage I used was from other films and not specifically shot for the showreel so I was lucky to have such a diverse range of locations both local and worldwide. There was so much more I wanted to put in, but couldn’t due to it turning into something too fragmented.
With an interest in video games, the controls are very much similar to how modern gaming works. It wasn’t long before I was able to translate my knowledge of this and fly with a good amount of technicality. These shots were filmed during a live drifting event on a circuit and there were no options for second takes!
7. The aerial scenes showing the Chernobyl disaster’s sacrificial city of Pripyat was mesmerizing to say the least. Could you tell me more about your experience filming and taking part in that project?
The project was much of a game changer for me. CBS News flew me over there to film the city. I found Pripyat both interesting and haunting at the same time.
See the full version of that video from Pripyat below:
I always default back to my local practice spot at Paignton Pier (Devon, UK). I often test new drones here. I have just received a DJI Inspire 2 and can’t wait to test it by the pier to see what images can be captured.
Every location is different. I was recently filming with the BBC in Malaysia and we had to get a JUPEM permit to fly a UAV (NDR: the JUPEM permit for commercial aerial operations is released by the Department of Survey and Mapping of the official Malaysian Government).
As long as you do your research and planning ahead of time you can make flights possible in pretty much any location. I have had more trouble getting permission locally in the UK than in many other parts of the world.
I have always attempted to contact the owner before any flight apart from on my home turf. Recently, I tried to get permission in a very large council owned park to take-off in order to demonstrate safety procedures to university students, but the council denied me, even though I have a PfCO and liability insurance (NDR: PfCO is the Permission for Commercial Operations granted by the CAA, the UK Civil Aviation Authority).
In my opinion, this approach is wrong and will not prevent uneducated drone pilots from just turning up and flying without even considering asking for permission. I was able to take my flight indoors into a controlled airspace and use my experience with the council as a teaching point with the students, many of whom didn’t know that you even needed to ask!
In the past I have built my own s900 which was a great craft however, I found prosumer drones able to create as good results as my GH4/s900 combination, so I ended up going down the DJI Inspire route.
Today, I have several drones for different applications. My favourite at the moment is my DJI Mavic for its quality vs size and stability – it is outstanding! I have only flown my Inspire 2 a few times now, but I am looking forward to its first commercial outing! The 5.2k CinemaDNG quality is jaw-dropping.
With great difficulty! For starters, I try and use ND where possible and consider flight paths to minimise the possibility of a large dynamic range of light. At the end of the day, If I have to shoot with the worst case scenario, I think I would favour exposing the sky over the ground.
Drones as a visual storytelling tool are here to stay. They provide a new way of capturing complex and dramatic shots for a fraction of the cost. The only thing standing in their and the operator’s way is government and aviation authority legislation.
Buy one of those cheap £30 mini quadcopters and practice flying it around the living room. If you can fly one of those well and annoy your partner/family by hovering over their heads constantly, then handling a bigger drone with additional assist like GPS and vision positioning will be a piece of cake.
We thank Danny for giving us insight into how he works and we look forward to seeing more from him in the near future!
Follow Danny Cooke:
- Website: Danny Cooke’s website
- Vimeo: Danny Cooke on Vimeo
- Twitter: @dannycooke
- Facebook: Danny Cooke on Facebook
(Image credits: © Danny Cooke)