Drones and the eye-in-the-sky perspective they offer aren’t novelties anymore. Once a cutting-edge technology, these hovering cameras are now being regulated by the FCC, drone selfies are in development, and the "wow factor" of floating filmmaking has dissipated with a flood of cliched videos. But that doesn’t mean amazing films aren't being made with these devices; the competition has just gotten a little steeper. From March 5-6, the second annual Drone Film Festival comes to New York, showcasing dozens of short films by amateurs and pros that show the medium’s potential. Curbed spoke to two of the competitors in the architecture category to learn more about their entries and what it takes to elevate drone filmmaking.
Jody Johnson: Greystone Rising
How did you become a drone director?
"I’m a hobbyist, and fly under the radar, so to speak. Director is a bit of a strong word, my film just got noticed. I just think it’s the coolest thing to be able to fly above a building and get shots and angles you couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m really exciting that this year, myself and my editor are the first women to be in the Drone Film Festival. I’m part of the Amelia Dronehart group, and the only women that appeared in the festival was in a video, wearing a bikini holding two beers. We said, we really need to put our heads together and get someone’s film in next year."
What led you to film that famous building, and how you filmed it?
"I actually grew up in the area and passed that building a millions times. I’m in the NY Drone Users Group, and one day, a bunch of us went over to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital and shot some footage. When I got home and looked at the footage, I was blown away by what I got from the drone. I realized there were details that you just couldn’t get any other way. That’s when I decided to go back and get drone footage of the demolition. I wanted to document it."
What was the reputation of the building when you were growing up as a kid?
"Every parent would tell their kids they’d be dropped off there if they acted up. The more I learned about it, it sounds like it was done for the right reasons, to help those with mental illness, though they would handle patients in ways we wouldn’t now. I remember when people escaped, sirens would go off and we’d have to stay indoors."
Why play the demolition footage in reverse?
"You watch aerial movies, and after the first 20 seconds, they get pretty boring. I thought this would make it more exciting. It’s a lot more interesting. Normally with drones, since you’re so high up, you just see the same thing over and over. I also shot in reverse because it’s what everybody, especially preservationists, wanted to see anyways."
Todd Thorin: 1500’ TV Tower
How did that particular shoot come about?
"I’ve been watching the development of multi-rotor drones, thinking that would be the coolest way to capture the tower climbers. I’ve worked in the industry most of my life, as a climber and a safety guy, and video production is a hobby. When the cost of a drone came down to my price level, I got one, and one of the first thing I wanted to do was capture someone climbing a tower. The opportunity arose when my friend Kevin Schmidt went up there to change a lightbulb. Drones are a lot better than GoPro cameras in this situation, since the helmet cam doesn’t give you the feeling of being right there with someone. There’s a certain intimacy with the drone camera, getting up in their air and looking right above his shoulder. "
I love how you caught him taking a selfie on top of the tower.
"Every time he goes up there, he takes a selfie and sends it to his wife, so I’m glad I caught the tradition."
Can you tell me more about that tower, and what area it covers?
"That tower is actually an obsolete tower now. The lightbulb is literally 1,500 feet above ground. It was built for a television station KDLT. They built a new tower close to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, back in the ‘90s in anticipation of the digital changeover, so the old tower went off the air in 1997. It’s now an obsolete tower, and isn't doing much of anything, other than holding a few cellular antennas down near the bottom. That’s why you can go on it, since it’s not broadcasting. But since it could get in the way of air traffic, they need to change the lightbulb every so often and keep it painted."