When working on the open-range settings for Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait, filmmaker Bud Force learned that he could never be too careful flying a drone over a large cattle drive or remuda.

Commercial documentary filmmaker Bud Force of Ultralite Films, in Austin, Texas, has traveled all over the world making films for clients, some of which require a drone to capture aerial shots. He’s filmed everything from ice climbing and skateboarding to organic farming and cowboys. Although he’d used a drone to film flocks of sheep in Ireland and horses and cattle on ranches in Texas, he learned the most about filming livestock during the two years he and photographer John Langmore spent producing the new documentary Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait.

Jeff Bilberry flies a drone at Singleton Ranches in New Mexico
Jeff Bilberry of Singleton Ranches in New Mexico took his turn flying the drone under the guidance of Bud Force (left) and Hank Wisrodt. Photo by John Langmore

“I started flying a drone seriously in 2012 and there were random moments I flew one around livestock,” he says. “But I had never flown a drone around livestock to the level that I have now [since filming Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait]. I flew a drone around a remuda of horses and over the largest cattle drive I’ve ever experienced. There were more than 900 head of cattle on the open range.”

Safety First

Raised with horses and cattle, Force understood the nature of horses and cattle and that he had to carefully maneuver a drone above them to keep the cowboys and livestock he was filming safe.

“We’d talk to the ranchers when we arrived to film and let them know what we wanted to do, and then we’d explain to the cowboys what to expect,” says Force. “The drone sounds like a bunch of bees buzzing, and some of them have a wing span of almost 3 feet. I had to think about wind compression under the drone in addition to the sound. If you’re underneath the drone it’s like standing under a helicopter—the wind is pushing straight down and there’s a lot of wind pressure for about 10 feet below the drone.”

Greg Snow, John Langmore and Hank Wisrodt talk on the back of the truck on the YP Ranch in Tuscarora, Nevada
Photographer John Langmore (center) and cameraman Hank Wisrodt (right) visit with Greg Snow of the YP Ranch in Tuscarora, Nevada, between filming. The crew spoke candidly with the cowboys about what to expect with the drone. Photo by Bud Force

Before launching the drone, Force made sure the scene and situation were conducive to using a drone and warranted the extra time and effort it takes to get the drone in the air, operate it and get it back on the ground without missing other film-worthy footage happening on the ground.

“We really planned out the drone scenes,” he says. “Hank [Wisrodt] or Tito [West] would get the drone ready and then we’d send it up and I’d fly it while one of them was my spotter, making sure I kept the drone a safe distance away from trees and power lines. I concentrated on getting the shots we needed without disrupting the cowboys’ work. As soon as I was confident we had the shots, I’d land the drone and we’d all immediately grab our handheld cameras and film everything we could on the ground to match the drone scene. Sometimes we even had a cameraman on the ground filming while I was flying the drone.”

Force never encountered any problems flying the drone around the livestock, but the more he flew the drone, the more aware he became of their reactions to it. A drone can travel up to 5 miles, but he kept it about a mile away so he could keep an eye on it. The cattle didn’t usually notice the drone, but the horses were aware of it.

Tito West films from the ground on ranches in the West
Tito West, one of Force’s cameramen, often shot from the ground while Force flew the drone. Photo by John Langmore

“From my experience, you have to be more careful filming horses than cattle with a drone because they are more reactive than cattle,” explains Force. “Whenever I’d fly the drone above horses I’d pay attention to any subtle signs that the horse noticed the drone, like tipping an ear toward it, and I’d back off immediately [to avoid spooking the horse]. I flew the drone 3 feet from cattle and generally they didn’t feel the pressure of the drone like the horses did. The whole time I was filming the main thought rolling through my mind was, ‘Don’t interfere with the work going on.’ ”

Cowboy Curiosity

Drones are becoming helpful tools on ranches to check water and locate cattle, and the ranchers and cowboys Force filmed were fascinated by the technology.

“I didn’t meet a cowboy who wasn’t interested in the drone,” he says. “Everyone wanted to see how it worked, and a few of them wanted to fly one.”

The film footage Force captured with the drone adds a dramatic, cinematic flair to the film that isn’t found in other cowboy documentaries. It draws the viewer into the film and takes them across the vast landscape and creates a sensory experience as though they are riding along.  

Bud Force flew the drone for the documentary Cowboys.
Drone pilot and filmmaker Bud Force of Austin, Texas, flew the drone during the filming of Cowboys: A Document Portrait. Photo by Tito West

For the making of the film, the crew visited 10 remote ranches in eight states documenting the seasonal work and traditions on ranches in different regions of the United States. They encountered horrific dust in Arizona, snow and freezing temperatures in Montana, and drizzle in between. That didn’t deter them from flying the drone, however; they just had to land it more frequently to wipe the dirt and moisture off the lens. And weather created some of their most dramatic scenes.

“We were filming cattle going toward a storm and it was an epic experience,” recalls Force. “My thumb started shaking so bad on the controller because I was so nervous of making a mistake and not getting the shots.”

Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait will be screened at film festivals and cowboy gatherings this fall. The Working Ranch Cowboys Association announced that there will be a special screening on November 9 in Amarillo, Texas, during the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo.

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