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New York Drone Film Festival Is Meant to 'Fight Stigma,' Creator Says

In the last few years, awe-inspiring photography made possible by drones has opened up a new genre of filmmaking. The first-ever New York City Drone Film Festival will take place this weekend. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.
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NBC News is the headline sponsor of the first New York City Drone Film Festival, an event celebrating the art of drone cinematography. According to creator Randy Scott Slavin, the festival -- which will feature short films that were shot at least in part with drones -- is meant to fight the "negative stigma" and public misconceptions around drones.

NBC News interviewed Slavin, a director and aerial cinematographer, ahead of Saturday's festival at the Directors Guild of America Theater. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the New York City Drone Film Festival?

There's so much negative stigma around drones that I wanted to fight back with a show in an amazing place with respectable films that use drone photography. I came up with the idea and wanted it to be the Cannes, the Sundance, of drone film festivals.

We accepted submissions from August 11 to December 28, and the videos had to be five minutes or less and be shot at least 50 percent by a drone. We got 150 submissions, but honestly, a lot of them just weren't worthy. It was people trying their hand at aerial photography for the first time and they just weren't up to standards. A judging panel and I voted to pick the 35 films that made it in the festival.

Did any moments or scenes in the film submissions particularly stand out?

Honestly, all of them are excellent. You can throw a dart at anything on the list and it will be great it in its own way. I wouldn't show them [at the festival] otherwise.

There's a film that shows Mont St. Michel in France that is pretty spectacular. Another one, The Ridge, shows a trick biker riding along this ridge in Scotland. OK Go did a video all done in one shot using a drone.

What do drones add to the cinematography experience?

We've had aerial cinematography for a long time. Kubrick opened "The Shining" with a helicopter shot. But drones let us get to spaces you never could with a helicopter. They let you get close to a subject without risking chopping it in the helicopter blades.

That said, it's just one tool in a filmmaker's arsenal. I'm a director by trade -- commercials, music videos, stuff like that -- and I've always looked for what's on the cutting edge of technology. But any given technique or piece of equipment is just that. If it's not a quality film, it's not a quality film.

There's something about drones that are totally punk. They're robots, really. But they've become so controversial that there's something awesome and subversive about them.

Given that controversy, where do you see drone cinematography going?

Truth be told, the [filmmaking] industry was really scared about what the Federal Aviation Administration was going to do with the drone laws. The FAA has made it more difficult in a lot of ways because now people are paying more attention to us in a judiciary way. And now we have all of these drones, toys almost, that let people fly them out of the box.

But the trained filmmakers or other people using drones for commercial use are not going to be the idiots flying drones recklessly in midtown Manhattan. The same way that we don’t let any moron drive a car, I think you should need a license to use drones, at least commercially.

As for the drones themselves: As the tech gets better, the drones get more aerodynamic and the batteries let us fly longer, we'll see better and better cinematography. People's piloting skills will get better. The whole field will grow up, and it'll let us tell stories in a way that offers lots of possibilities.