Flyover Country

Travis Diehl at the 1st New York City Drone Film Festival

Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, Superman with a GoPro, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 2 minutes 53 seconds.

“THE QUESTION is not who are you wearing, but what were you flying?” my neighbor in the press corral floated his drone joke for the nth time.

“Turbo Ace Matrix.”

“Aibot X6.”


“Uh, the cameras?”

Yes, of course the cameras—why else would you be one of thirty-five teams of filmmakers standing there on the red carpet, boom mic stuffed in your face, speaking to your fans before a backdrop patterned with the logos of NBC News, DJI Global, something called Yeah Drones, and the six-rotored emblem of the first-ever New York City Drone Film Festival?

“I was just a little kid flying a drone around, you know?” said Randy Scott Slavin, the festival’s manic founder, crossing the step-and-repeat. “The footage was…OK.” Today, according to the DFF program, Slavin is “an award-winning director, aerial cinematographer, and surrealist photographer”—one of the lucky few living out his drone-lofted passion at the cutting edge of dronespace. “It’s like everyone’s got a drone now, man!” he said.

Drones—some more threatening than others—are in the air. John Cale performed a “drone opera” at the Barbican in London. The current Nora Schultz show at Reena Spaulings includes drone-based videos. Fans in Los Angeles celebrated the Kings’ Stanley Cup win by taking down a quadrocopter with championship T-shirts. The list goes on. Hollywood, too, has drones pretty well in its toolkit. Harry Potter, The Expendables 3, and The Wolf of Wall Street all use drone footage. There’s even a drone moment in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. If Kubrick had made The Shining in 2015, instead of a tricycle, Danny would run circles through the hotel by drone.

The parameters here, though—entries to the NYCDFF had to be under five minutes, and more than half shot by drone—mostly exclude high-budget efforts. High-concept efforts, too, were few. If aliens landed at the NYCDFF, they might think the state-of-the-art of drone cinematography was limited to high-end vacation footage—circling around cruise ships anchored in azure bays or across a tropical patio, threading tiki bars and beach umbrellas—or (truly stunning) feats of extreme sport: for example, in Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, a guy rock-hopping his bicycle on the pinnacles of the Isle of Skye. The sound tracks had two speeds: cheesy dubstep and overwrought opera. The FPV/Proximity/Technical category mostly consisted of people flying their drones really close to things without hitting them. Watch any UAV blooper reel to get an idea of how hard this is—and how much editing went into these crashless entries. Though to his credit, after weaving his rig at high speed around banyan trees and collapsing warehouses, pilot Carlos Puertola ends his clip with a wipeout.

Danny MacAskill, The Ridge, 2014.

Films in the Narrative and X-Factor categories took greater advantage of the drones’ conceptual mobility. A music video by Los Angeles–based band OK Go, directed by Morihiro Harano, definitively outclassed the field—perhaps unsurprising, given that the quartet is known for their avant production. Over the course of an intensely choreographed, long single shot, the drone cameraman pulls back from the band’s routine on gyroscopic stools, through Busby Berkeley–like swirls and worms of umbrella-toting Japanese schoolgirls, up into the lower atmosphere as hundreds of opening, shutting umbrellas form the pixels of a Jumbotron. Then, something truly artistic happens: The camera drifts up, into the clouds, executing a slow pan across the now tiny city, and, with a nod to Antonioni’s The Passenger, the drone loses interest in human drama...

But wait, aren’t drones supposed to be the deathless, lustless, sleepless avatars of our dystopian controllers? The darkest vision by far at the NYCDFF came courtesy of Alex Cornell’s Our Drone Future, in which a bloodthirsty security bot is kept in check by its human operator. (“Am I weapons free?” “Uh, negative…”) When the drone ends up disobeying orders, descending into a warehouse district to investigate a robbery, some kind of cyberpunk vigilante quickly guns it down. Even bearing in mind that the whole festival could be considered pro-drone propaganda, Future seems eager to put our fears to rest—by force, if necessary—as if, when the tool flies amok, we might still have a chance to stop it.

Yet the message was largely upbeat. For every flyover of Chernobyl, there were three life-affirming sweeps across rock faces and a pass by Mont Saint-Michel. Late in the long evening, the festival presented Patrick Meier of—an organization dedicated to promoting the humanitarian potential of drones “before disasters, during disasters, and after disasters.” One slide, for example, showed villagers cobbling together an RC airfoil out of scrap plastic. In another, a drone snaps a photo of the word HELP roughed out in wreckage in a Philippine slum. “What if to solve our problems,” goes the group’s slogan, “we simply have to rise above them?”

New York City Drone Film Festival founder Randy Scott Slavin. Photo: Travis Diehl.

Between each group of films, Randy Slavin took the stage to raffle off his sponsors’ pro-grade drones. Walk in liking drones, walk out owning one. Each winner a convert.

“S900 Cinema.”

“Inspire 1.”

“Always use your drone in a positive way,” said Slavin.

Which is slightly more evangelical than what drone maker DJI’s Jon Resnick said shortly before the screening as we stood outside the venerable Directors Guild Theater on Fifty-Seventh Street—a venue that, it was mentioned more than once, lent the night’s proceedings an air of legitimacy.

“We fought it at first,” he said. “We called them UAVs, flying cameras, but nothing caught on. Finally we just said ‘Uncle’ and called them drones.” Still, something chilling about every shot of smiling children running on a crumbling jetty or a clay-colored rooftop after—you know—a drone.

“I mean there are planes,” said Resnick. “There are F-14s and there are Cessnas.” And with any luck, people are smart enough to know the difference.

Under the theater’s red awning, folks formed a line in the bitter cold hoping for spare tickets to the sold-out screening. Behind us, mounted to the building’s black granite cladding, was the Guild’s bronze seal: an eagle, wings spread, talons gripping a banner, either taking flight or landing.

The first New York City Drone Film Festival took place Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Directors Guild Theater.