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New York Drone Film Festival Aims to Win Over Skeptical Public

NEW YORK — For most Americans, hobby drones are about as welcome in their neighborhoods as car alarms.

A growing chorus of drone enthusiasts has been fighting an uphill battle for public acceptance for years now, but the victories have been few and far between.

Related: Next Battleground for Drones: State and Local Governments

The New York City Drone Film Festival, which held its second annual screening and awards ceremony Saturday night at the Directors Guild Theater in midtown Manhattan, could change that.

The festival showcases the remarkable creative possibilities of aerial cinematography.

"It's a forum to progress the art form," said Randy Scott Slavin, the festival's director.

Part of the event's charm is the wide spectrum of subjects, techniques and perspectives in its 44 short films, each less than five minutes long.

Some of the entries were clever. Others were silly. A few induced vertigo. But many were so breathtaking that they drew gasps from veteran aerial cinematographers in the audience.

True to its millennial spirit, the film festival kicked off with a bang. Jaws dropped across the theater as the lights dimmed and a stuntman on screen dived off a cliff and literally flew across a canyon, a speeding drone hot on his heels.

And that was just a commercial — an ad for an aerial videography company called Reel Steady before the main event.

Dizzying reels

The categories this year included Narrative, Architecture, Landscape, News/Documentary, Freestyle, "Dronie" — basically a video selfie — and Extreme Sports, with a few shots so dizzying that Slavin warned the audience of the potential for nausea.

In "Harness the Sun," a drone glides low over a sea of solar panels, their silvery frames glistening in the desert sun. The drone then ascends to reveal a white tower at the center. From that height, the layout resembles a giant industrial sundial.

"Nostalgia" is a haunting, post-apocalyptic meditation on loss. There's an underwater drone, another one making an unmanned expedition into previously uncharted, subterranean caves deep inside a Vietnam jungle. There's a film in which a set of drones trails a group of cliff jumpers as they free-fall thousands of feet into the base of a canyon.

"1500' TV Tower" was an unexpected crowd-pleaser with a hilarious twist at the end.

One of the most visually stunning entries, which won its Extreme Sports category, was "Afterglow," a mind-bending ride down a snowy mountain on the trail of extreme night-skiers glowing in the darkness as they descend just ahead of an avalanche.

Watch 'Desert Fortress,' a NYC Drone Film Festival Nominee 2:17

"Desert Fortress" is a mini-documentary about Masada, the ancient mountaintop fortress in southern Israel built by King Herod, which is one of Israel's most cherished geological treasures.

'Greystone Rising'

In "Greystone Rising," videographer Jody Johnson chronicles the demolition last year of New Jersey's infamous Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, a sweeping complex of buildings built in the late 19th century.

Originally built to accommodate about 350 patients, the population grew to nearly 7,700 in the 1950s. It was finally shuttered in 2008, and despite years of efforts by preservations to halt the demolition, Greystone was torn down last fall.

With eyes in the skies, Johnson filmed from above as the massive steel claws of bulldozers gnawed away at the crumbling foundations of the 190-acre site, snapping pillars like brittle bones and scooping out the insides of the facilities in bursts of debris.

And then she played the video in reverse, and "Greystone Rising" was born.

Johnson captured nine hours of film over the course of months, and with the help of editor Lisa Marie Blohm, she cut it into a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Johnson had driven by the New Jersey facility all her life, and eventually began to fly her hobby drone on the grounds of the hospital. Last summer, she started filming the demolition. She was soon approached by the construction crews tearing down the buildings, who wanted to know what she thought she was doing - a reaction all too familiar to drone hobbyists.

Related: U.S. Will Require Drones to Be Registered

But when she showed them her footage, "they thought it was the coolest thing in the world."

She would show up most mornings along with the demolition crews, unpacking her drone as the demolition teams cranked up the bulldozers.

At night, she would go home and review the day's film, and as she and Blohm pieced together the footage, an idea began to take shape.

"I intended to put the video together, but in the back of my mind, I really wanted to see it built back up."

When she reversed the footage, "I was blown away."

Watch 'Greystone Rising,' a NYC Drone Film Festival Nominee 4:37

When the film won its category, Johnson said, "my heart was pounding."

Sitting beside her when she won was Mike Casale, her live-in boyfriend. The couple met last year while Johnson was filming.

Casale was one of the demolition crew foremen.

First-person view

Drone cinematography is just one facet of the booming consumer industry that includes drone racing — imagine drag racing in the sky with obstacle courses.

The festival also grew from the film screen alone to a weekend-long event, replete with drone races, first-person view (FPV) demonstrations, outdoor flies and panels on everything from legal and policy issues to pushing the creative boundaries of aerial cinematography.

The number of sponsors grew over last year, as well, Slavin said. NBC News is among a group of corporate sponsors of this year's festival, which also include General Electric and the camera store B&H.

"Last year, we had 155 submissions from 19 countries," Slavin said. "This year, we have 355 from 49 countries."

The drone market is booming. An annual forecast by the Teal Group predicted that the global market for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs - which includes military, commercial and consumer drones - will triple over the next decade, from $4 billion to $14 billion annually by 2025. About a quarter of that market is consumer drones.

From hobby drone pilots, the most exciting innovation in the world of UAVs is the growing use of FPV systems, which are finally cheap enough for mass consumer use. As a result, more submissions coming in are shot with FPV, Slavin said.

Watching aerial cinematography on a movie screen in a theater with surround sound is a unique experience new to most audiences, but now even novice pilots can strap on a pair of wraparound goggles and fly as if he or she is in the cockpit of the drone itself.

"They're gaining in popularity fast," Slavin said of FPV systems.

"A year ago, there were maybe 2,000 FPV pilots in the world. Maybe barely even that. This year, I am hearing estimations of over 150,000 worldwide. That's in just one year."