This Freelancer & Native New Yorker Produced A Video About NYC’s Lockdown Using Almost Only Drone…
This Freelancer & Native New Yorker Produced A Video About NYC’s Lockdown Using Almost Only Drone Footage
Drone photography is often used to film architecture sites, real estate properties, and breathtaking establishing shots. But one of the things that makes this video from Voice of America so special is that there are only two shots in it that weren’t shot by a drone. Aaron Fedor pitched, directed, produced, and co-shot this project that shows “the city that never sleeps” in hibernation. Just this week, Voice of America told Aaron that they’re submitting this video to the New York Festivals TV & Film Awards into the category “News Coverage of a Continuing Story”. Aaron told us that it’s an honor for his team to get this recognition.
This isn’t all he’s been up to over the last six months. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he’s completed 26 projects on Storyhunter for four different clients. We talked with him about this video that showed the sights and sounds of the new New York City, and the practicality of using drones to capture video during this pandemic.
What is this story about?
“This story is about how the pandemic has changed what cities all over the world look like, New York City in particular. Between the locations that Voice of America set out for me, and some extra ones that my friend Damien and I wanted to film, I think we were able to produce a great video. It was a very collaborative effort, and I was able to take some creative liberties that turned out to be really great.”
You pitched this idea, right?
“Yepp! I came up with the idea because I had been asked by several news outlets, including Bloomberg, for footage of empty streets during lockdown. I pitched it to VOA because I’d already done some stories with them and just I love working with them. So I pitched, produced, directed, and shot the story.”
Did you have to negotiate at all so that your friend Damien could help you out?
“For sure. As I said, they suggested a bunch of locations to film and I had some they hadn’t thought of, so I could tell how much work was needed to produce this. I told Voice of America that it was going to be a lot of work putting this together, so they expanded the budget and I had my friend Damien help me out since I work with him a lot. Damien and I filmed about 95% of that video over one weekend, 6:30 AM to 7 PM on Saturday and Sunday. So we filmed for more than 24 hours over two days.”
When you do days of drone shooting for a project like this, how much of the day is planned out, and how much is improvised?
“All of it was planned out. When you’re doing drone stuff you have to strategize and figure out what time of day you’re gonna shoot. Damien and I worked out a whole map. On Saturday we started on the upper west side in Harlem, then we went down the west side, hitting Columbia University, Columbus Circle, and some other locations. On Sunday we worked our way up the east side. Grand Central Station, Union Square, Washington Square, Park Avenue, just to name a few.
Like with any form of photography, time of day is critical. Luckily we got really good weather because as you can imagine, the weather plays a big part in doing drone work. The other thing is where you launch from. When the streets were completely empty, it was really easy to launch from the street. But since I shoot for a lot of real estate companies and architects, I have access to a couple of rooftops that other drone shooters might not have.”
How did you come to know so much about NYC? Did you grow up here?
I was actually born in Mexico City and I have dual citizenship. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in those days New York City was dangerous, so one had to be careful of which parts of the city one went to. I also spent a lot of my childhood in London, England. My father is British so I went back and forth between London and NYC. Our family traveled a lot when I was young. I’ve been to over 80 countries on 6 continents. But still, after growing up in New York, I know that city like the back of my hand.
When did you decide to pursue film/photography as a career?
I’ve loved photography and film since I was 12 years old. I grew up developing my own film in darkrooms before digital photography was a thing. I miss the darkroom, the chemicals, the paper, and the hands-on feel of working with images. I ended up majoring in film at VCU and after I graduated around 20 years ago, I worked on big-budget feature films in Virginia, New Orleans, and NYC. I was a Camera Assistant, Boom Operator, and I also cast extras. After that, I was a Location Scout for the Virginia Film Commission before deciding to go freelance. And a couple of years back, I decided to get into drone shooting. I love the new and different aerial perspective drone photography gives. It frees up a whole new angle of filmmaking.
Can any drone photographer shoot video like this in the cities near them?
“Absolutely not. I’m a certified FAA drone pilot and Damien and I both got a waiver that allows us to fly over populations. And that waiver isn’t easy to get. Part 107 FAA license is the FAA drone license, it’s the first license that you need to fly. The second license my partner and I have is the FAA Exemption To Fly Over Population. Basically, your drone has to have a parachute to fly over people, so that if there’s any drone failure, the parachute deploys and the drone safely lands and doesn’t hurt anyone. There’s only one company that makes the parachute and it’s not cheap. And then you have to apply to the FAA with paperwork saying that you’ll fly safely.
You need a license just to fly anywhere in America. But when you’re flying over crowds, which obviously right now there aren’t any big crowds. We were flying over Times Square with a couple hundred people below us. You do need that additional waiver called the Exemption to Fly Over Population.”
Did you face any challenges on this shoot? How did you overcome them?
“The biggest challenge was the limited amount of daylight in a given day as we tried to film the entire video in 2 days over one weekend. We started at 6:30 AM and filmed until dark both days. We did add a few pick up shots from one other day to complete the package.
The only area that was really hard to shoot in was Times Square because there’s so much police there and they don’t want any drones. So we did one shot with a steadicam on a truck. That was my friend James. He has a gimbal set up on top of his truck so he did that shot just driving through times square. That was the only shot done without a drone, that and the shot in Grand Central Station. We went there and there were just two police officers there. That’s it. They said it was by far the most empty they had ever seen the station.”
What equipment would you recommend to someone who wants to shoot high-quality drone video?
“For this shoot, I used a Mavick 2 Pro because it’s a small drone that shoots in 4k. It has a bigger camera on it so I usually use that more for architecture shoots, but a lot of the shots were showcasing New York City’s distinguished architecture, so it just made sense.
And you captured the sounds of the city for this too. Whose idea was that and how did you go about recording it?
“That was my idea. The soundscape was such an important element. I brought my Zoom 4 recorder with me everywhere I went. Suddenly the sound of sirens and pigeons and flags flapping in the wind become the main sounds of the city, increasing that feeling of isolation. Ultimately, I wanted to evoke a feeling of hope. We may be living through strange times but the choice to end on the firemen cheering for the nurses and doctors working on the front line is a reminder that we are New Yorkers and together we can make it through this.
I also pitched having Sarah Henry, the curator and assistant director at the Museum of New York, narrate the video. I approached her and they had just done an exhibit on the Spanish Flu which was just over 100 years ago now, so I thought she was perfect for this. She’s also an expert on the city of New York, so she was the perfect person to guide the audience through this video.”
Of all the shots in this video, do any stick out in your mind as better than the rest?
“That’s tough. A lot of this footage turned out so great. I really liked the shot of Lower Manhattan where we started the video. The drone is over Governors Island and it’s looking back at Lower Manhattan. I love the shot of the Empire State Building when the heart is beating. And then the shot of the whole skyline that we end the video with. There were a lot of really great shots that I love. 5th Avenue, Wall Street, the arch in Washington Square. A lot of them came out really great.”
What feelings did you want to evoke with this video? Do you think you succeeded?
“New York is known as “the city that never sleeps.” With everything closed and most New Yorkers staying at home, suddenly there was a feeling of isolation and the enormity of the crisis. The crowded sidewalks, subway trains, and parks that we take for granted as part of living in New York were suddenly gone. We were living through something that would have an impact on the city in the same way as other events such as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 9/11 had. I wanted to convey how it feels to live through this unique, and historical, place, and time.
Drone photography allows you to roam the city with a God-like point of view and see familiar places, such as Times Square, Grand Central Station, Chinatown, and Wall Street in a way we never had before and may never again. I think I was successful in recreating a visceral, experiential story that captures what it is like to be a New Yorker during the pandemic.
As Sarah Henry, of the Museum of the City of New York, says in her voice over, ‘and yet right now people are feeling that the city that never sleeps is at least napping, and yet when you look closer at what it takes to keep this city moving and all the people putting their lives on the frontlines… there are still a lot of people not sleeping in New York.’”
Do you think drone photography has become more practical during this pandemic?
“The beauty of drone flying, and the reason it’s perfect during this crisis, is that you don’t have to be near anyone. The drone doesn’t get near anyone. Do I wear a mask? Of course. Sometimes I fly out of my car though. I launch the drone and don’t even leave my car.”
More and more organizations are asking for drone footage because it just gives you a unique angle that you can’t get any other way. I just filmed a funeral in the Bronx by drone. The families weren’t allowed to get out of the car, so they wanted me to film the coffin going into the ground. That was a really unique story.
I’m getting tons of people who want me to shoot architecture and real estate because now’s the time to shoot architecture in NYC without a bunch of people on the street. When the hospital tents were put up in Central Park, I had several requests for aerial footage of that. I did a story for Bloomberg QuickTake on Storyhunter, about food delivery guys who ride electric bikes all around the city to deliver food, and they wanted me to get drone footage for it.
Drone photography is probably the most low-risk means of shooting video right now, and all of the clients I’ve built relationships with on Storyhunter are asking me to get footage for them since it’s safe, and since they know I can deliver for them.”
What advice do you have for the aspiring drone photographers who might be reading this?
My first piece of advice would be to get your Part 107 FAA Drone license, you can’t fly a lot of places without it. There are then additional waivers that allow you to fly at night and above pedestrians. Having these waivers increase the value you bring to prospective clients. Then get a good 4K Drone like the Mavic 2 Pro or better and practice flying it in places outside cities like a field or parking lot, or even better a tall hill or mountain top. Learn what the drone can and can’t do, and check YouTube videos or tutorials to learn even more. There’s so much information out there at your disposal. Then start telling all your clients you are drone certified and start hustling!
You can find some of the videos that Aaron has produced during the pandemic below. To see the rest of his work, check out his Storyhunter profile.