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Film festival showcases the soaring power of drone cinematography

Updated March 11, 2015

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In The Fallout, a drone was used to shoot haunting footage at the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.—The Washington Post
In The Fallout, a drone was used to shoot haunting footage at the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.—The Washington Post

NEW YORK: The dawn of drone cinema is upon us. And the views will blow your mind.

Inside a storied Manhattan theatre on Saturday night, the New York City Drone Film Festival, billed as the first of its kind, debuted to a packed house.

Thirty-five finalist films were screened — each shorter than five minutes and bracketed into nine categories between blessedly short award speeches. Most freshman indie festivals tend to be grab-bag affairs and can range wildly in quality. Despite blistering sound levels and a few edit glitches, the festival was a wild ride straight on through. For two hours, hushed cries and whispered expletives rang out in the Directors Guild of America theatre on 57th Street, punctuated by random gasps here and there.

“Oh my God!” Gasp.

“That’s in-sane!” Gasp.

Drone shorts have spread virally through social and traditional media recently, but seeing high-quality point-of-view drone films on a theatre screen was an entirely new experience for most of the audience, way beyond the scope of Imax films.

When the lights dimmed, viewers sailed bird-like above the spires of Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel, plumbed azure seas in the Galapagos archipelago, roamed ghost-like through Chernobyl, surveyed shelves of rice paddies in Bali, dipped into an active volcano mouth, stepped off cliffs, walked tightropes and raced down dizzying inclines on the handlebars of a mountain bike ridden, apparently, by a madman.

In bursts of colour reminiscent of Michael Mann films — lush greens and gunmetal grays, rusty reds and piercing yellows — the films opened windows into worlds rarely seen from such majestic angles.

Among the dozens of finalists, The Fallout, which won the Architecture Award for AeroCine, most artfully showcased the potential cinematic power of drones. Producers said they travelled through Ukraine last spring amid violent conflicts in the region, smuggled by fixers through street riots in Kiev, eventually reaching the now-remote abandoned nuclear facility, where they shot aerial footage of the plant’s shell and the ghost town on its snowy border. The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown has been deemed the worst nuclear disaster in history.

For the most part, though, the films were bright-hearted, sometimes funny, and uplifting. The festival drew an eclectic mix of aeroplane pilots, bearded film-school grads, publicists, producers and a handful of beautiful women in four-figure gowns, some on the arms of young aviation lawyers in tailored suits — men like Paul Fraidenburgh, whom organisers identify in festival literature as “rock star drone lawyer Paul Fraidenburgh.”

Drone film-makers and aerial photography firms are artistic outliers among a handful of more-utilitarian industries (like pipeline inspection) chosen by the Federal Aviation Administration to beta-test an evolving American marketplace in the sky.

Last month, the FAA issued long-awaited draft regulations governing the incorporation of commercial drone use into US airspace — targeted for the end of this year but probably at least another year or two from full implementation, experts say.

But the draft regulations include a key exemption, known as “333” for its section number, which allows pilots with small commercial drones under about five pounds to complete an equivalent, but far less onerous demonstration of drone flight aptitude. The FAA has begun reviewing about 200 applications and has granted a few dozen exemptions.

Still, every new innovation generates fresh waves of drone enthusiasts, oblivious to the developing legal structure.

“Well,” says Dave Mathewson, an industry veteran who helped launch a “Know Before You Fly” campaign just before Christmas, “we feel these new enthusiasts ... don’t know that the FAA exists, let alone the national airspace.”

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2015

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