Flying Into the Volcano: Technology Could Herald New Filmmaking Revolution

Drones filming volcanos
Explosive talents: drones filming volcanos is the next technological revolution after the ground breaking use of digital cameras by Thomas Vinterberg. Cristobal Saavedra/Reuters

Imagine a volcano spewing red-hot chunks of lava. Hovering next to it, you watch as it coughs up the Earth's fiery innards. You then fly straight into the trajectory of the half-liquid rocks. Miraculously, you do not get hit.

Such images may sound like the stuff of dreams. Yet recently filmmakers posted spectacular shots on the Internet that showed exactly that: an eruption filmed from the top. Neither did they have to risk their lives, nor invest vast amounts of money. What would until recently have been prohibitively expensive and far too dangerous to accomplish was made possible by cutting edge gadgets: drones.

Meanwhile, another technology is set to revolutionize filmmaking on the ground. Gimbals are portable harnesses into which cameras are strapped. Any wobble caused by walking with the camera is canceled out by tiny motors. These mounts might soon replace labor-intensive and costly devices such as dollies and steady cams. Just as drones have become cheap enough for the consumer, it is only a matter of time until gimbals, too, will be available to the general public.

These inventions might herald the second phase of a revolution that started in the 1990s, when digital cameras were introduced.

Filmmakers then sensed that a new era had dawned and, in a keynote speech at the 2000 Cannes festival, a young director, Samira Makhmalbaf, predicted that cameras would soon be as readily available as pencils. This would unleash new auteur filmmakers who, in the days of expensive celluloid, had not had access to the means of film production.

Today, there is a digital camera in every mobile phone. Filmmaking has become totally "democratic" in the sense that anyone can afford the necessary equipment and distribute their clips to a worldwide audience.

Yet has Makhmalbaf's second prediction come true, that digitalisation would allow more talents to emerge? There is at least some evidence for this. A whole wave of directors splashed out of Denmark in the 1990s. They cleverly marketed the limitations of low-budget digital filmmaking as an artistic statement, declaring wobbly, hand-held shots as part of a cinematic "dogma."

Within the space of 10 years, some of the world's most renowned auteurs emerged from that little country, including such international stars as Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and Thomas Vinterberg.

Yet could the Danish caper be repeated today? With audiences accustomed to high-end imagery everywhere from glitzy advertising to computer generated animation, this seems questionable, and, to me at least, it just does not feel as if there are more great films out there now than in the pre-digital era. Professional equipment does not make every man the next Spielberg or von Trier.

More craft than art, the nuts and bolts of film production require commitment to be fully mastered. If one is not able to hold the attention of an audience for 90 minutes or so, neither a digital camera nor a glossy drone shot will remedy that problem.

It may well turn out that the number of people with a certain knack for a visual alchemy of images and sounds is always stable. If that is the case, the unfolding second wave of "democratization" will mainly benefit those few who have talents anyway.