Can you tell us a bit more about your work as a surrealist photographer and what informs your aesthetic?
Can you tell us a bit more about your work as a surrealist photographer and what informs your aesthetic?
I’ve always been into photography. And the surreal photography thing just came out of my desire, willingness, to amuse myself and play around with photography and keep finding things that were interesting. I’ve always enjoyed playing around with photography, but only when I started getting into 360 photography did the warped perspectives really start to turn me on in a way where I felt it was necessary to continue to pursue them. I’ve always been an MC Escher fan since childhood, so I think it’s something about the ways the perspectives are warped in an equal rectangular photograph that really gave me the bug to continue to move down that wormhole, so to speak.
I enjoyed watching your Documentary Commercials Montage. It showcases your versatility with shooting people - doctors, scientists, dancers, athletes, chefs - as well as notable individuals you’ve worked with like Diane von Furstenberg or Whoopi Goldberg or well-known brands. What was the process like for putting that together?
Well, the process of shooting that has been many years in the making of my directing, my documentary commercial directing career. And it’s been quite fun, and challenging, and interesting to deal with that, in the same way you’d prepare for the interview we’re doing right now, my job as a commercial director is quite similar. Because it’s commercial, it’s not as much investigative journalism, but in a way, it is - it’s investigative journalism without the hard “edge” of looking. We’re trying to understand what these people are going through, the purposes of their work, without trying to unearth some kind of nefarious intention. I’ve always enjoyed doing that kind of work, it’s enjoyable to sit across from people who are interesting, and have a conversation about what motivates them, why they do the things that they do. And one of the things I enjoy most about directing, aside from the creative aspects and the challenges that come with that, is the fact that these subjects will open up their world to you. And that’s something you have to be very respectful of. Because it’s not that common, nor does it happen that often, that people will say “come into my life, I’ll answer any questions you have, I’ll show my personal world and my professional world.” They let me peer in with almost unadulterated access. It scratches an itch that’s very interesting. It’s fun, and interesting, and needs to be respected. Because then instead of opening, the flower closes.
That’s a good question. You know, I personally really like taking projects from concept to execution. It’s probably the most difficult thing to get done in the commercial world, because there’s more often than not a lot of people who are scrutinizing your work, and when it’s for big brands there’s a lot of people who have eyeballs and opinions on it. So it’s difficult to get that process to happen. That being said, when you work at it long enough, you happen to stumble across some of those. The Meow Mix EDM was one of those! The Cheetos Pet was definitely one of those. I came up with the idea for it, that was something we shot for an extremely low budget. When you have a lower budget project, people don’t care as much, and then it winds up being good, and then they care. The Cheetos Pet thing, I was working with a great company at that particular time, and they had this client, they didn’t really care about what it is we were doing, and myself and the producer made this piece, and then they saw it and it went quite viral. It was quite a while ago, but we went out, bought Chia Pets, and then glued Cheetos to them. It worked out! A lot of ideas I think just come from experimentation, and trial, and spitballing stupid things, and then all of a sudden something hits, and the hardest part is getting the brands to hit as well. I love doing that stuff, and I hope it happens more often, but the stars have to align.
Now onwards to the subject of drones which is what brings us here today. I first got to know your work through the New York Drone Film Festival, which is absolutely amazing. What inspired you to get that started and off the ground?
As a director, my job is to look for new and interesting visual elements, camera gear, figuring out how to use new things, experimentation. When it came to drones, it was really all about this one skateboard video that I saw in 2013 called “Pretty Sweet.” It starts out with an amazing shot that I just couldn’t figure out how it happened.
And basically, I started doing some research online, I found out about drones, and drone cameras, and the fact that cameras could now fly - very very early days - and I immediately started building one. And that took me to where we are now, which is that after years of tinkering with these, building and buying and modifying systems and more playing with them, that now I’m shooting a lot of TV shows, movies, commercials, things like that. In 2014, one of the videos I was shooting around NYC - “Aerial NYC” - went really viral.
And when that went viral, I thought “I should submit this to a film festival.” And I looked around, and realized there was nothing around. No film festivals had categories for me, and no festivals were dedicated to it. So I decided to start my own. So that was it.
And we just finished our fifth year.
Congratulations on the amazing success of the New York City Drone Film Festival. As someone who was fortunate enough to attend the 2018 showcase, I was blown away by the work I saw there. As the first film festival celebrating drones coming up on your sixth year, what have been some of the changes you’ve seen around the field over the years?
As to be expected, there’s been an evolution of the work that’s been happening. People have been getting better at actual use of the drone themselves, the actual complexity of the shots, the films are getting better as people become better at using drones, but also as the people using drones have become better filmmakers - just because you can use a drone doesn’t mean you are a filmmaker, necessarily. In the beginning, we were getting beginner filmmaker type films, and as these filmmakers get better and better, we’re getting more “advanced use” shall we say.
I love that the NYCDFF does so much educational work in the field of drone photography, videography and creativity. Besides your Learn section on the website, what are some good resources you’d recommend those who are curious about drones visit?
Well, I think that if people are interested in learning how to use drones better, the most important thing is to get a drone and start playing around with it. I think the through line throughout my career is the willingness on my part to play around with cameras, to play around with technology, to explore things and see how it goes. I think it’s really important to keep expectations low, and youthful exuberance high. Play around with things, enjoy them, and then you’ll be able to figure out what turns you on and what you enjoy. And then you can figure out how to get a professional image, to take the pieces to the next level. And when you do that, you’re talking about a recipe for success, a recipe for something new and interesting.
How can aspiring drone filmmakers enter their work for potential consideration for next March’s NYCDFF 2020 event? And how can people get more involved in the event in general - do you accept volunteers or general public attendees?
The call for entries usually happens around August. And I suggest that anybody that’s interested in submitting to the festival extensively goes through all the previous winners of the festival - you can find all their links on the website - to understand what the competition is like. What’s the level of filmmaking that’s winning the competition? And also people should understand what makes a drone film in general interesting, and differentiates itself, because that’s what’s going to be a winner. As far as getting involved with the film festival itself, people reaching out, letting us know what their skillsets are, we definitely have a lot of room for people that can help, especially when it comes to press and getting the word out there. We’re a small team, and it’s always important for us to get the word out as best we possibly can.
What are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about drones that you or colleagues have to address around the space?
I think the most challenging aspect of using drones in general public understanding is that drones are tools for spying, or nefarious uses of drones. And while drones can be used for things like that, the majority of people are just trying to enjoy themselves with a hobby, shooting beautiful images. Anybody who’s had any issues with drones, as soon as they start using them themselves, those melt away. Drones aren’t great tools for spying. They are really fun, and there are many amazing aspects of them that are overlooked. It’s a tech tool, and therefore when you learn to use it, you’re enriching yourself. It’s a creative tool. It’s a tool you can use to make money. We can never quell people’s fears, because people who are fearful will always find a way to feed that beast in themselves, and because drones are so new, they will be on that list, but people have already started to forget about that sentiment.
Your reel as seen on YEAH DRONES is incredible. How have drones opened up previously out-of-reach creative possibilities? When you watch films from the 80s or 90s and you see what’s clearly a helicopter panorama, or a shot from a crane, how would those scenes differ now with what’s available thanks to drones?
That’s an interesting question. What drones really do best is they open up the space between where a crane can reach and what a helicopter can do. Helicopters can only go so low, and cranes can only go so high, so there’s a space in-between. And drones navigate from the ground to about 400 feet really poetically. So filmmakers are starting to understand they can get a lot of bang for their buck with these tools, to tell something that’s quite complex, not a shot from 100 feet just looking down. I think a lot of shots from the past would be different if they’d had drones. If you see the opening shot to THE SHINING, where the helicopter is following the car deep into the Rocky Mountains, I’m sure that Stanley Kubrick would have used a drone for that now.
Some of your recent projects as listed on YEAH DRONES include The Twilight Zone, Ray Donovan, and even an interview with Will Smith on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. What’s been the most surreal project you’ve worked on thus far with your drone photography and why?
Because I’m a director, I’m a bit jaded, I’ve spent a lot of time with pretty amazing people. So I wouldn’t categorize any of my drone work as “surreal” per se. But for sure flying with Will Smith and Jimmy Fallon was amazing, and a really cool and fun project. It was the first interview done by drone on the Tonight Show, and what was fun about that, being the pilot that flew it, at first it was quite nerve-racking to fly a drone so close to 2 huge stars, but when we got into it, it was fun and enjoyable, and I was using it almost like a puppeteer. So I took the creative license to interact with them AS the drone. And it was really fun and enjoyable. I think sometimes when we’re put in high pressure situations, it’s easy to stick to the rules sometimes. But I think that with experience comes the comfort to do what you think is necessary and use your judgement in these various situations. And ultimately a lot of the biggest creatives in the business want that. They don’t want you to go off script necessarily, but they want you to come to the table with something. And luckily I came to it from a director background, and when I get onset with directors who are way bigger than I’ve ever been, they want your creative input for the most part, and more often than not they appreciate when you come to the table with ideas. You’re making a creative dialogue, as opposed to “You tell me what you want.”
You’ve been to so many awe-inspiring places and experiences: where do you hope to take your work in the future?
I think for me I’ll always try to find the most fun and creative ways to make projects interesting. That being said, there are a lot of places around the planet I’ve never been I’d like to go. Some places in Asia I’d like to go. I think more than just even locations, for me, I’m always more interested in pushing the limits. Doing things that are really interesting, and expanding my creative horizons, and even though that sounds lofty, what that really means to me is always progressing in some way or another. Don’t get me wrong -t here are times when a plain old day on set is just fine. Using your drone to direct or shoot a commercial, I live in NYC, I have to pay my bills. But my pie in the sky is always to work on cool projects that are interesting. As I mentioned before with the Cheetos Pet thing, you get to work on really creative projects, but more often the really creative projects aren’t really well-paid. So there’s a balance between doing those and doing things that are more run of the mill, so you can make money to afford to do the other things.
What’s the best way to stay updated on what you’re doing?