Between the Scenes
We Love What You Do - With the king of drones Phil Harris
There's a famous saying in the industry, 'If there's a drone in the sky, then Phil Harris is nearby'......
OK, that's maybe not true, but it should be. When we need drones, we call Phil.
As part of our weekly blog, we wanted to dedicate one of those weeks each month to shouting about creators who are out there, smashing it every day, month and year. We’re calling this section ‘ We Love What You Do’ (working title – haha).
This week we caught up with our good friend Phil Harris for a chat about all things drones. We loved it, and we hope you love it to.
What do you do? “I’m a drone Pilot” isn’t allowed – haha!!
In short, I fly drones around trying to get cool shots and convince people to pay me for it. That’s essentially my business model and somehow I’m getting away with it… 🤫
I’ve been flying drones commercially within the TV and film industry since about 2014. So when a production requires aerials shots from a drone, either they or another drone filming company will approach someone like myself to provide that service.
What does a day in the life of a job look like to you?
Like you guys know all too well, shoots vary dramatically which I like as it means no two days are the same.
Prior to a shoot day I will have already completed risk assessments, permits and prepped the kit – this is something that often goes unnoticed but is key to a smooth and safe shoot.
Shoot days usually kick off with an early call time, so it’s a case of setting 5 alarms, eating a good breakfast (you never know when you’ll next get the chance to eat) and getting to location promptly.
As I’m often working with different crews, I usually make a point to put names to faces by saying hi with the key people I’ll be working with before the day gets going. This is often when things are least hectic and people are less stressed so I try to make the most of it!
I’ll then assemble the kit and standby until the drone is required. When it’s go time, I communicate directly with my cam op who controls the onboard camera to achieve the shots that the director or DP is after. We have a client monitor so that they can monitor the camera feed live and give feedback on the fly (no pun intended!). Like I said earlier, every shoot varies, so sometimes we are only required for one shot where as other times it can be dozens and we just keep flying all day. The one shot shoots are usually on commercials or dramas where things are a lot more choreographed and planned out. Whereas when filming for TV or branded content you’re often just left to your own devices to hoover up as much good content as you can.
We basically do that until we’re wrapped, get the media off to the DIT to be backed up then pack up the gear before hitting the road to do it all over again.
What have been some of your favourite jobs you’ve done?
Way too many to mention! I’m so lucky with work to have done so many projects that I’ve genuinely loved being a part of. Some of them I’ve loved for the subject matter and some of them for the people you get to work with. The best are when those two merge!
Doing a series of branded content/marketing films for TUI was bit of a dream job. That was the perfect combo of filming cool stuff (travel videos essentially), with a really nice crew that felt like family and in enabled us to travel all over the world.
Talking of countries, international shoots are always fun but my favourite I’ve visited must be Iceland. I’ve had the privilege to go a few times but April 2016 was possibly my favourite. Filming a music video of a dancer doing her thing on a freezing cold and pretty remote glacier.
I’ve had the pleasure of filming for Top Gear a fair amount over the last few years as well which has been surreal as although the presenters have changed, it’s a show I watched a lot of as a kid.
We’ve loved seeing you mess around with the FPV during lockdown. Tell us a bit more about what it is, what it can do and what you’ve been up to with it?
Oh I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them! I’ve had such a blast playing with them. For anyone reading this that have no idea what FPV is, it stands for First Person View as that’s the method of operating these small drones. As the pilot you wear a pair of video goggles which displays a live feed from the onboard camera of a drone. In addition to this different way of flying, the style of flying is a lot more ‘free’ than traditional camera drones as they allow you to perform more acrobatic moves, fly faster, lower and closer to things which makes can make shots feel a lot more exciting and gives you bit of an adrenaline rush while doing it!
It’s not a new technology but it is something that requires a lot of time which, until covid hit the UK, I didn’t feel I had enough of. Come lockdown, work pretty much dried up over night which left me with all the time in the world so I dedicated a large portion of it to FPV. I built my first couple of drones then I began a series of videos that I began posting on Instagram every Friday called #FPVfriday. This was initially meant to be a creative outlet and a form of accountability to keep me flying and filming regularly. However I am weak and without the stamina of Zach and his daily snippets, I didn’t have the discipline to maintain that, so now it’s more of a ‘every now and then’ fpvfriday. Oops!
Also, we’ve loved seeing some of the rigs you’ve created and messed around with. Tell us more about this one above?
Where did you get to use it? + If this isn’t, what’s the wildest rig you’ve built – the geekier, the better.
This is the Freefly Tero. Essentially just a gimbal mounted on a remote control buggy so that you can get smooth, low angle shots. I thought it was a good idea a few years ago to get one but sadly it never really became a hit on productions as they’re just a bit too niche and fairly limited to the types of shots your can achieve. It looks cool though and is a novelty too so it’s an interesting albeit expensive bit of kit to have in the arsenal haha.
Apart from that, other ‘non-standard rigs’, I’ve flown a bunch of heavy lift drones for carrying large cameras, messed around a bit with 360 filming on drones and one time flew a drone carrying a massive beer bottle at the Portugal Masters while golfers would try to smash the bottle while it was hanging under the drone about 50 yards away. That was fun… and a little scary!
Someone comes to you, and says they want to be a drone pilot, what do you say and why?
Get involved!! Like with anything, if you’ve got a passion for something, pursue it! Of course I’m bias but I find it such a fun and rewarding job. The people you get to work with are great, you get to film all sorts of things you otherwise may never have been aware of and you get to travel around the country and abroad (when there isn’t a global pandemic wreaking havoc).
In terms of steps you can take, practice flying, practice your camera work, build your portfolio and get licensed through the CAA. If you want to fly commercially, you legally have to take that last step. There’s enough rogue operators out there already, take the time to educate yourself to become a safe, proficient and bad ass drone pilot!
Where are you going for Inspiration at the moment and how have you survived lockdown, I guess both creatively and worksite?
I’d say my main draw of inspiration is from Instagram. There’s so many talented individuals out there, it’s an endless source of content that I find interesting and motivates me to try new things as well. As of just a few days ago I downloaded TikTok! Late to the party I know but I’m intrigued to see if it can provide any value.
Outside of social media, I live in the Peak District so I’m often out of walks and find myself thinking ‘oh it would be cool to fly through that, or dive down that’. For me, being outside also pulls me away from the allure of binging through social media and refreshes my mind. A balance I’m frequently battling, especially with lockdown and living by myself!
Your dream collaboration or project?
I’m not really a man of setting goals but I think for the most part I am living the dream on a bunch of projects I’m already doing! They’re usually automotive related and just working with great crew. Of course once Covid clears off, hopefully those jobs will come around more frequently and it will be amazing to travel again.
In the more immediate future though I do feel I need to actively seek the opportunities to film the things I want to film and not just wait for the phone to ring, hoping it’s one of my bucket list shoots.
You’re closer to it than most, but where do you think the drone industry is going from a film making point of view, and what are you excited about or scared about?
I’m pretty engrossed in the FPV side of things at the moment which is rapidly developing. People are pushing the limits creatively as well as technically which is why I think it’s an exciting time and it’s hard to keep up with what people are coming out with now let alone what is around the next corner!
Drone technology has come such a long way and it’s proven itself as a valuable asset on productions so we at least know it’s here to stay. Camera quality and drone performance like speed, flight time, reliability and precision are always improving so with the combination of that and the level of skill some FPV pilots are exhibiting, we’re opening up a whole new realm of creativity for drone filming. Expect to see these FPV rigs flying small cinema rigs like the Red Komodo or Alexa Mini through the smallest of spaces at crazy speeds and silly angles, getting shots we didn’t even know were possible!