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A Conversation with the Director of the First-Ever Drone Film Festival

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

This drone could be filming the next Oscar winner. (Thinkstock)

In March 2015, New York City is set to hold its first-ever Drone Film Festival, where amateur and professional drone pilots-cum-directors will have a chance to show off the fruits of their hard-practiced hobbies.

The event is the brainchild of Manhattan-based director Randy Scott Slavin, who realized that there was no official venue for drone cinema after having one of his own drone-shot films go viral last year. Slavin set to work assembling an aerial videographer community, collecting between 100 and 150 films to show at the festival, and he officially announced the event in August. As the festival approaches, I spoke with Slavin about pending Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the future of drones in commercial filming, and his personal filming equipment.

Randy Scott Slavin

How’d you come up with the idea for the festival?
I’ve been a commercial director in Manhattan for the past 15 years. And I’m always looking for new and interesting camera toys. I think it’s a male thing: my inherent need to constantly buy bigger, better toys.

When I first saw my first drone shot in early 2012, it just blew me away. It was a skateboard video called Pritty Sweet that was actually directed by Spike Jonze [and Ty Evans]. I saw this shot and I was like, “How the hell did they do that?” It really just blew my mind. So I watched it over and over again. And then I wound up seeing a shadow. And I was like, “I must find out what that is.” I started really researching it, and the whole world of drones really opened up to me.

“Pritty Sweet intro. full take.” from Robert McIntosh on Vimeo.

I bought one instantaneously, and I’ve been flying ever since. I wound up shooting a bunch of footage and putting it online. This video called Aerial NYC. That wound up getting tons of traction in the media. I was totally psyched. My training always dictates that whenever you have something that’s a viral hit on its own, to submit it to festivals. I looked around and realized that there were not only no drone categories in bigger festivals, but there were no exclusive drone festivals. So I was like: I should start one. And the event is just shaping up to be bigger and better than I ever imagined.

When you first floated the idea to the film community, what was the response?
The response has been amazing. Based on the submissions that I’ve seen, some of them are people who just bought their first drone recently; you can kind of tell. Some of them are seasoned professionals. And some of them are new drone users, but they come from a background of seasoned professional.

It’s interesting you’re having this film festival just as the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to come out with official regulations later this month. Are you worried that’ll hinder this genre?
There’s a big delineation between what the FAA wants to do and people’s fears of terrorism and spying. So let me just address the FAA first:

I think FAA regulation is a good idea. The FAA as an organization is here to protect commercial airspace. They’re here to make sure that people aren’t doing bonehead things and intersecting with civilian-carrying aircraft. I totally understand that, and I respect it. Nobody wants a drone flying into any kind of aircraft and hurting anybody. Every single drone operator, even the most stupid bonehead, would agree that they do not want to be responsible for killing people.

That being said, we see a lot of people doing bonehead things. As long as there are people, they will do stupid things. I think that the majority of drone users are conscientious folks who don’t want to ruin the hobby for themselves and others. So I personally look forward to FAA regulations. Hopefully the film community is going to be lobbying to make sure the drone regulations are fair and not completely ridiculous. Every drone user I speak to who wants to do this commercially wants to be responsible. They have no desire to be flying near airports or airplanes or anything like that.

Do you feel that there would be any sort of special exception for people using drones creatively?
I think the FAA should be more stringent with hobbyists than they are with professionals. Anyone who has a financial stake in the game will want to do their best to make sure they’re regarded with respect and not hurting anybody. I personally think that the bigger danger is people who are flying drones — who just get one from the holidays or something like that — and don’t know how to fly it or know the rules. 

One of the examples of drones for good are in humanitarian efforts. We just partnered with a company called UAViators. This guy Patrick Meier is doing his best to help align people that fly drones that take pictures and videos and things like that to help first responders with humanitarian issues. Let’s say there’s some kind of tsunami. One of the biggest problems for aid services is figuring out what’s going on on the ground and where the problems are. This is an example of something that drones can be used for that’s very positive. Not just some bonehead who’s flying a mistletoe around a TGI Fridays.

What ways have you seen people push the boundaries of filmmaking using a drone?
We’re in our infancy, really. There’s been a few entries thus far that have just been mind-blowing. There’s a company called Corridor Digital from L.A. They submitted a film that’s called “Superman with a GoPro.” That’s a perfect example of using drones to tell an amazing story that you wouldn’t have been able to tell otherwise.

There’s tons of ways to use the tool right now aside from just really nice aerial shots. I think that that’s the low-hanging fruit when it comes to using a drone. Part of the excitement of this festival, to me, is to be able to show the community what everybody has been up to. Every day there’s a new and exciting film. One day it’s the drone porn (NSFW), the next day it’s somebody shooting whales, the next day it’s somebody flying into a volcano. What I’d like for this festival to be, for those that are really skilled, is the place to see and be seen by others. 

Do you imagine that drone shots will soon be casually integrated into everyday TV shows and movies?
Within the next five years we’re going to see the integration of drones within every film, TV, and commercial set. As somebody that’s been a director in this world for a while, everybody is always looking for a new perspective, something interesting, and not just that aerial shot. In the last James Bond movie, for instance, there was a really interesting chase scene that was shot with a drone. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese used a drone to shoot the house in the Hamptons. There are just many, many great possibilities for dynamic camera work and more exciting shots. Once the FAA regulations come down and the market need for drones is being met, we’re going to start seeing them all over the place.

From your experience shooting with a drone, what are the challenges and surprises?
To see a shot as it’s unfolding on a monitor is really exciting. This is the most exciting cinematic invention we’ve had in probably about 40 years, when it comes to camera movement. You can put this camera anywhere in three-dimensional space with one huge caveat: if the pilot is good enough to get it there. That’s one of the things in the festival that I’m most excited about, seeing those pilots really come to the forefront. Who can really control these little flying robots well enough to get these cinematic shots?

Finally, give me some tips. What do you personally use to shoot?
When it comes to drones, there’s the right tool for the right job. I started out with the DJI Phantom 1; it’s like the Volkswagen Beetle of drones. It’s small, easy, and carries a GoPro. Then I have more of a cinematic drone, which carries a larger camera, called the DJI S900. It’s the luxury SUV of drones — stable and takes really beautiful cinematic shots. Then I have my Lamborghini of drones, which is my Lumenier QAV400. That one is for going fast and using first-person view, more of a racing setup. I’m currently trying to find a place to put it all. I live in Manhattan, so my wife wants to murder me.

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