Custom Drones that Carry People, VR, and Top Aerial Cinematography: An Interview with Droneworks Studios
BY Zacc Dukowitz22 May 2017
We first heard about Droneworks Studios through their work with Casey Neistat for his HUMAN FLYING DRONE video.
Elaine Lozano and Justin Oakes, the co-owners of Droneworks Studios, were the ones who built the custom drone that lifts Casey Neistat into the sky. Justin is a former drone racer and, in addition to building the custom drone used in the video, he was the pilot for the project. He’s one of only a handful of people in the world who could have flown the monster drone—nicknamed Janet—used to make the video (learn more about how the video was made here).
Justin and Elaine build custom drones in order to do aerial cinematography for some of the coolest drone projects in the world, as well as doing work with Virtual Reality. We recently saw them in another YouTube video helping Casey Neistat on his latest project, in which YouTube stars will be making videos using only a smartphone.
Hard at Work—Elaine Lozano and Justin Oakes, Co-Owners of Droneworks Studios
We wanted to pick their brains on how they got started in the drone industry, the custom work they do, and what it takes to create high quality aerial cinematography. Read on to see what they had to say.
Note: Some of the questions were answered by Elaine or Justin individually. Unless otherwise noted, the question was answered by them both as a team.
UAV Coach: We were really wowed by you two in the HUMAN FLYING DRONE behind-the-scenes panel at the NYCDFF. You’ve built such an amazing business, where you get to build, fly, and shoot with custom drones, and it’s clear you’re both doing work you love (and killing it, we should add). How did it all start? Tell us about the creation of Droneworks Studios, and how you got from there to here.
Droneworks Studios (Elaine Lozano answering): Droneworks came to be very organically. Neither of us had any idea that our little passion project would turn into what it is today.
Justin has been building, flying, and racing RC cars, planes and helicopters since he was a little kid. I, on the other hand, was tired of having RC and drone parts on the dining table! I told Justin he had to turn this into something or I was going to go nuts. So Justin threw a camera on a drone for me to operate, and I stopped bugging him.
We basically combined both our passions and decided to take the chance at seeing what it could be, and then bam, Droneworks was created.
UAV Coach: Justin, you were the one responsible for flying the huge drone that lifted Casey into the air. Was it scary to have so much responsibility? What was it like to fly a drone that lifted a person off the ground?
Justin Oakes Piloting a Droneworks Custom Drone
Droneworks Studios (Justin Oakes answering): Not scary at all! So much time and effort was spent in testing that we had COMPLETE confidence in the aircraft. We had three people responsible for operating it and covering all the safety checks—the pilot (me), the person monitoring the ground station, and a visual observer watching for obstacles in the sky.
We also had the top stunt team from Hollywood dedicated solely to making sure Casey was rigged safely.
UAV Coach: Elaine, from what we understand you’re the one with a vision on set, who has a big picture you keep everyone working toward. Can you share your background (photography/cinematography, business, all of the above?), and tell us about your approach to turning a client’s ideas into a unified visual narrative?
Elaine Lozano On Site
Droneworks Studios (Elaine Lozano answering): The funny thing is you’d think I would have a background in film, but I couldn’t be further from it.
When Justin and I began the company I was pursuing medical school. Cinematography was really just a hobby. Neither of my parents approved of it as a career until well after we had already started the company. They thought I was nuts to leave medical school to start a drone company!
I might have thought the same thing at the time, but I just loved it so much that I had to find out where it would go. (My parents are now unbelievably supportive and completely understand why I chose to drop everything for Droneworks—they can see how passionate I am about it and how that translates into the work we create for our clients.)
I think the most important thing for achieving a client’s vision is being really flexible and staying on your toes when it comes to creating a shot. It’s hard for many people to grasp, but it’s important to be really fluid and know that sometimes a fully planned, storyboarded shot may not always be the right shot.
However, with aerials you never really know until you get up in the air! So I’ve seen that our biggest successes are not really in the execution of an exact shot, but being able to execute the meaning or story behind a shot.
UAV Coach: You do aerial cinematography and you build custom drones (as well as VR, which we’ll talk about in a moment). Can you tell us a little about your division of labor—how do you juggle the two operations? Is there overlap between those two aspects of your business, and if so, what does that look like?
Droneworks Studios: Droneworks doesn’t sell custom drones or custom drone accessories. We only build for our own use, and provide everything as a service. So we have a team dedicated just to making the finest aircraft possible.
Our creative team focuses solely on the execution of the client’s vision. The only overlap is when our creative and tech teams meet to brainstorm solutions for specific clients needs. So it’s not really an overlap, but more of a collaboration. There are 13 people who work at Droneworks. It’s definitely a major team effort!
Here are some more shots of the Droneworks team on site:
UAV Coach: Tell us about Droneworks VR. Is this an initiative in partnership with Samsung, or your own venture? What kinds of projects (other than Casey’s) have you worked on, and why did you start this new offshoot of Droneworks?
Droneworks Studios: Droneworks VR, Droneworks Aerial, and Droneworks Industrial are our primary operating arms. We are privately owned.
Our relationships with clients are more like partnerships than actual equity interests. We’ve filmed VR, aerials, and industrial projects all over the world for a long list of clients.
Droneworks VR was started to give the market a clearer way to understand what we offer. We do a lot more than fly drones. Droneworks VR was set up to make it easier for clients to understand the difference between the different aspects of our work (post-production, handheld, custom mounts, etc.).
UAV Coach: At :50 in the reel on your homepage there are two guys cutting a huge metal tube with circular saws. What the heck was that used for? A drone the size of King Kong?
Droneworks Studios’ Reel (referenced in the question above)
Droneworks Studios: That’s actually aerial footage from one of our industrial clients (haha!), not behind the scenes at Droneworks. I think they were making oil and gas pipelines. We haven’t updated our reel in a long time—that job was so many years ago!
UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly, and what cameras do you use?
Droneworks Studios: We fly all custom Droneworks platforms. We fly literally every camera on the market. We also fly all lenses and FIZ systems, in addition to LiDAR, thermal, infrared, etc.
Everything is custom made so we can fly anything our clients need/want. We like to tailor everything we do to our clients’ needs. If we don’t have a rig that can do what they need—like lift someone into the air while riding a snowboard—then we just build one!
Want to learn more about Droneworks Studios and their work? Check out these awesome videos to get a taste of the range of work they do.
This video of pro motocross/supercross racer Vann Martin is a lot of fun. The Droneworks team had to fly at speeds of up to 50 mph (through trees!) just to keep up with Vann.
Drones, Dirt Bikes & Pro-Moto/Supercross Racer Vann Martin
Droneworks Studios had one of the first aerial teams allowed to shoot within a state park. The video below shows the making of a video about the USS Texas, which is permanently situated in the San Jacinto Park, and is the world’s only remaining WWI era dreadnought battleship.
Behind the Scenes with the USS Texas (BB-35)