Flying High with the First Annual New York City Drone Film Festival

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Last Saturday saw a new kind of movie experience fly into the Big Apple: the first annual New York City Drone Film Festival, featuring short films shot with the use of drones. That's right, friends. They're not just for spying, murder and delivering your bulk purchase of toilet paper. Fest founder Randy Scott Slavin, not to mention the many talented filmmakers who had their work on display at NYCDFF, want to let you know that there's more to drones than negative hype.

When I first found out about the fest, I was a little bit skeptical, not because I doubted the potential of drone-mounted cameras to shoot some awesome material, but because the idea of a whole festival devoted to the medium seemed a little.... weird. I'd never even seen one drone film before. I was a complete novice. Throughout the festival, drones were given away as raffle prizes (no, I didn't win), and as the rest of the audience would oooooooh at the models being given away, my thought process was more like "The DroneScape Supercharged Dragon Breath Five Thousand [note: that is a completely made up drone]... I guess that's a good one." 

The more I looked into the fest, though, the cooler it seemed. These drones are able to get shots that filmmakers never could have gotten before. Sure, a helicopter can shoot aerial footage, but getting a bird's eye view of an erupting volcano from what can't be more than a few dozen feet away--well within range of smoke and lava confetti--is out of bounds, because... people could die. With a drone, it's possible.

So I decided to check it out, schlepping out in the slush and freezing temperatures to the Directors Guild of America theatre. Slavin started off by talking about the importance of a sense of community in the drone world and the novelty of seeing drone-shot films--which more frequently than not featured absolutely breath-taking visuals--on a big screen rather than on YouTube. Then it was time for the films: 35 of them (out of over 150 submitted) in seven categories, all of them five minutes long or shorter, all of them at least 50% shot by drones.

The first category, "X-Factor," was the undeniable highlight of the festival for me. It started off with Eric Sterman's Pipeline Winter (available on Vimeo here), featuring footage of surfing gorgeous enough to make any fan of Endless Summer burst into tears. Next up was the aforementioned volcano video, Shaun O'Callaghan's Yasur Volcano, and the later eventual Audience Award winner Mexico City International Airport from Above by Tarsicio Sañudo Suárez. Two videos, Danny Macaskill: The Ridge (cameras operated by Stu Thomson and Scott Marshall, drone pilot Lec Park) and 100% Extremely Drone (drone pilot Guillaume Bocquet, produced by Topview Shoot), challenged anyone in the audience who may have been fearful of heights by shooting athletes engaging in death-defying fun at extreme heights. In the latter film, among my favorites from the festival, two underwear-clad crazy people (only explanation) climb up a vertical surface to the Brevent summit (2,525 meters high) in France's Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, aka "the death sport capital of the world," to engage in some tightrope-walking, handstands and mid-air hammock relaxation.

The X-Factor winner was perhaps the best-known drone film, OK Go's music video for "I Won't Let You Down," which upped the whimsy to 11 with scores of umbrella-wielding dancers and drone-enabled aerial pointillism.

Next up was the architecture category, won by the chilling film The Fallout by director/producers Jeff Brink and Brian Streem, who in their acceptance speech noted they had to do some heavy-duty wrangling with the FAA to be allowed to shoot in Chernobyl, the site of the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster. Also in that category were director Federico Creatini's Tiny Boston, which used tilt shift-esque photography to make Boston look like it never has before; Mike Gisselere's Mont St. Michael, France, featuring the Benedictine abbey in Normandy; and A Birds Eye's Graffiti City, a tribute to Montreal's stunning street murals.

The Best in Show award winner hailed from the narrative category, where Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer's Superman with a GoPro gave the audience a first-person perspective on zooming along like the Man of Steel. The dronie category (that's "selfie with a drone," Slavin informs us... good luck getting that one to stick) was won by a trio of innovative shorts from Florian Fischer and Michael Kugler. The pair also had a film in the travel category, which more than any other made me want to abandon my mortal cares and go country-hopping. Fischer and Kugler's Above and Below Galapagos was a standout in that category, as were Eyes In Air's African Flight and category winner Philip Bloom's Koh Yao Noi, which zoomed a drone around a remote island in Thailand, where it was chased by curious children. The last two categories were dedicated to showreels and what Slavin called "rockstar" camera operators--the technical name for that last one is "FPV/Proximity/Technical," which they might want to change by next year. Just spitballing. The winners there were Cinedrones Are Awesome (yes, they are!) by drone pilot Daniell Philip Ashby and produced by Antimedia, and MMM/Santa Monica Airlines by Robert McIntosh.

There were a bit of growing pains to be found; though the films were all short, there were a lot of them, so if you add in the red carpet time the entire affair lasted a whopping four and a half hours on a Saturday night. By the time four hours rolled around, I could feel attention in the room start to wander as people fantasized about their next meal. That said, with such an amazing medium to promote, judges like "MythBusters"' Adam Savage and such substantial corporate support--NBC News was the headline sponsor, with big names in drone tech like DJI, Yeah Drones!, Adorama and New Era also contributing, among others--you can't blame Slavin and his festival co-runners for being enthusiastic. With drone cinematography sure to become more prevalent over the next year, I for one look forward to whatever the second annual New York City Drone Film Festival will have to show me.