Here comes the drone

Drones are soaring in popularity and are used in shoots for property launches, weddings, movies and corporate videos

Last month, social media went gaga after Zhang Ziyi's boyfriend, rock star Wang Feng, proposed to the Chinese film star with a 9.15-carat diamond ring in a basket delivered by a drone.

No thanks to his high-profile stunt, drones seem to be enjoying what entertainment pundits call "a moment".

Although they are usually associated with sinister military operations, drones these days - including the one used in Wang's proposal - also come in the form of remote-controlled mini-helicopters and are used for civilian purposes.

In Singapore, drone-assisted footage has been used in movies, property launches as well as corporate and wedding videos.

Insiders say the advantage that a drone has over traditional filming methods is that it is cheaper and captures better footage than, say, rigging a camera to a crane or hiring a helicopter.

Popular models used here are the DJI Inspire 1 and Phantom 2, which cost between $2,500 and $6,000, including the cost of the attached camera.

Drone photography is sought after especially in the use of wedding videos, where couples are filmed against stunning backdrops such as natural landscapes, giving their footage an epic and cinematic sweep.

Photography and cinematography company Ideal Films, for example, says aerial shots have been included in its wedding video packages for the past two years. It has done about 50 projects to date.

There is a demand for drone shots by local show producers too, says Mr Darick Yeo, 45, creative director of cinematography company Infinyte Media. Among his clients are media companies MediaCorp and Lucasfilm.

Remote control enthusiast Kenny Chua, 42, built his own drone five years ago and filmed Kranji War Memorial with it. He uploaded a 1.5-minute cut of it onto YouTube and also set up K.Kopter, an aerial photography and videography company.

A few months later, Singapore director Jack Neo came a-calling. Mr Chua ended up shooting the opening sequence for his film We Not Naughty (2012) and also did drone work for Ah Boys To Men (2012) and its sequel the following year.

Mr Chua was also responsible for some shots in the Hong Kong drug-themed flick The White Storm (2013).

Besides movies, his company has also been engaged by public organisations, private oil and gas companies and construction industries. "They want me to film things such as their ships, shipyards, oil rigs and 'before and after' construction views of the land," he says.

But drones have not always been so cheap and convenient to use.

Firewerkz Films producer Sean Seah, 39, recalls trying to get into drone videography four years ago. Those were dark days. His drone, a $12,000 German model, was heavy, hard to fly and loud. He eventually sold it.

But now, drones are so compact that packing one into his luggage for overseas wedding shoots is a breeze.

Mr Stanley Oh, 31, a partner in Ideal Films, remembers some painful trial-and-error moments in the early days.

Once, he tried to fly the drone indoors, but interference with other signals within the building resulted in the drone flying straight back at him. To prevent it from crashing into the wall, he swiped it with his arm and got cut by the propellers.

Undeterred, he tried again, but lost control of it again. This time, he was cut in his leg.

Although drones can be programmed to return to the operator, there is a chance that they can go off-course and crash land somewhere - or on someone.

Although people whom SundayLife! interviewed say their drones have never injured anyone, there have been instances of drones crashing into buildings or foliage.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore regulations state that model aircraft, including drones, are not allowed to fly within 5km of an airport or airbase. They also cannot fly above 61m.

To go beyond these limits, permission from the authority is needed.

Operators say permission is not always granted and that approval, even if given, usually takes about two weeks.

But the green light from the aviation authority is always worth the wait.

"You get epic footage from a fresh perspective that you don't get to see often," says Mr Yeo.

His client, film director Lum Chee Kin, 55, agrees. The duo worked together on a marketing video for Gardens by the Bay, capturing a good view of the venue's size, its two conservatories and its Supertrees.

Another happy customer is airport operations manager Chua Ching Hock, 30, whose wedding video incorporated drone shots by videography company d'ZIGN for you. He was filmed from the top kissing his bride-to-be in their wedding car and dancing with their team of groomsmen and bridesmaids.

"We called the drone a wasp and kept laughing every time it was overhead," he says. "We ended up being very relaxed during the shoot and looked really happy on camera."