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Swimming with Sharks: An Interview with Dronie Master Florian Fischer

BY Zacc Dukowitz
9 June 2017

Florian Fischer has won the “Dronie” award at the New York City Drone Film Festival for three years in a row.

And it’s no wonder. His work elevates the dronie from a simple selfie shot via drone to something that is both artistic and technically impressive.

FAMILY ISLAND - 2017 New York City Drone Film Festival DRONIE Category Winner

This year Florian won for a long, continuous shot from a backyard, through a house where family members are scattered about lounging and reading, and all the way outside, until we get a view of the house from the sky and see that it’s situated on an island, one of the only structures in sight.

We wanted to talk to Florian to learn more about his process, and what made him so interested in dronies. We also wanted to hear about his work with Behind the Mask, where he does filmmaking documenting marine life, including sharks, dolphins, and sea turtles.

Read on to learn more!

Begin Interview:

UAV Coach: You’ve won the Dronie category at the NYCDFF for three years now. How did you become the master of the dronie? Was this something you were doing before the NYCDFF started, or did the film festival spur you to start creating these amazing videos?

Florian Fischer: We actually created our first dronies before we heard of the festival.

I first got hooked on the concept of a dronie because it’s a very, very simple concept. And it’s also a very geometrical concept. I think it has a lot to do with visual design, and could even be seen as an art form itself.

Really it just got our attention the first time we filmed one of us floating in the water, and made our first dronie. When I saw that, I immediately thought it could be very interesting. We shared that first video on the internet, and later on when we heard about the festival we submitted that video, and ended up winning.

FLOATING - NYCDFF 2015 DRONIE WINNER

Florian’s dronie video that won at the 2015 NYCDFF

UAV Coach: The dronie video you made for this year’s NYCDFF is an incredibly smooth, symmetrical shot that goes through a house and ends up hovering over the ocean. What challenges did you face in creating that video? Did anything unexpected arise that made it extra hard to pull off?

Florian Fischer: I was a bit surprised that this dronie won, because it was really hard to do but it doesn’t look that way.

I could see how someone who isn’t into drones and aerial cinematography could even think that this video would actually be easy to do. But for me it was a big technical challenge. One of the challenges was that there were no sensors stabilizing the drone, and so it wasn’t really suitable for indoor flying. Also, it was a bit windy there in the Bahamas, which made flying that much more difficult.

The dronie is called Family Island because I was there with my family on holiday, and because the islands where it was shot are called the Family Islands, or the Out Islands.

Details about making the video:

I used a Phantom 2, a Futaba remote control, and an analog video transmission signal, which went off at 700 meters (2,300 feet) in the air. After flying above the ocean I lost video signal so I had to fly blind, just doing my best to imagine where the drone was until I got the video signal back.

The idea was to have a perfect, symmetrical shot, flying backwards with a lot of things being revealed in the course of the video. The people sitting in the house are symmetrically situated (the first people you see are my parents, left and right of the camera, on sunbeds). I also wanted to have a little bit of a story, so you start the video with someone sitting in front of the camera, and then you’re wondering—what’s coming next?

The most challenging thing was to actually get that smooth, straight line without any sensors to help. There was a long discussion on the internet about how the dronie was done, so I want to clarify that there is no camera facing forward. I didn’t even look at the screen at all, and I only looked at the drone going backwards. There’s no trick, it’s just the way it is, with the drone flying backwards.

UAV Coach: Your dronie video winner for last year’s NYCDFF (“The Shark Dronie”) features you calmly treading water while sharks swim all around you. Can you tell us about making that video—What were some challenges we may not be aware of? Was it as dangerous as it looks?

THE SHARK DRONIE - 2016 New York City Drone Film Festival DRONIE Category Winner

Florian Fischer: This dronie was insane for us. It took us six months to come up with the concept and figure out how to actually do it.

The reason we decided to do this is because there was some discussion on the internet after our first video that won at the NYCDFF that maybe the video wasn’t a true dronie, because the person in the video wasn’t actually controlling the drone.

I personally disagree, because there are a lot of interesting and creative things you can’t do if the person has to be controlling the drone. But we decided, as a reaction to the online argument, to come up with an idea that you actually couldn’t film with the actual remote control in the frame but still give the person in the frame control of the drone.

So we thought it would be great to have a dronie that would, on the one hand, speak for Behind the Mask and everything we love to shoot—the water, sharks, and nature—and that would also be a dronie we could send to the festival, which would prove that we can do something kind of impossible with a drone.

Details about making the video:

It was clear we would have to operate a drone from the bottom of the ocean to pull this off.

It took us six months to make and test everything needed—there’s a quick release if the shark’s biting the camera, and a long pole sticking out of the water, which is about 55 feet long.

The drone was above water, but the pole was reaching into the water. I was controlling the drone with a remote control attached to a wire that went up to the boat, to the real remote control. The remote under water only had one knob I could turn, which made the drone go up and down, and that was it.

The divers brought the drone and the pole into the right position, then we started the drone. From the boat Christian [from Behind the Mask] flew the drone over the pole, and then the drone was attached to the pole with a magnet. Once attached to the pole, I could move the drone up and down with my remote from underwater.

It was very, very challenging because there were sharks that needed to cooperate, which required feeding them bait, and which only created a window of about 45-50 minutes. The bait was also right next to my head, which added another layer of complication. In addition, we had the sun and the current to deal with, and waves and wind.

We took a week to make this video, and we didn’t get the perfect shot until the last day.

Watch the video to learn more about how the Shark Dronie was created

UAV Coach: Of the three dronie videos you’ve won with at the NYCDFF, which is your personal favorite and why?

Florian Fischer: The first one is special, because it’s the beginning of all our dronies.

But my favorite is the Shark Dronie because it was unclear until the last day if we’d be able to pull it off, and because it took so long to actually plan, test, and create it.

UAV Coach: How did you first get involved with aerial cinematography?

Florian Fischer: I’m not a drone geek. For me, a drone is a tool that I can use for filming, and a tool that is as important as any other tool—a slider, a microphone, a tripod. It’s all about stabilizing your shots and moving the camera to have a nice feeling for space and time.

For me, it was never a question about whether I would use drones, it was more about when it would be available and affordable.Once there was the chance of having a camera you could move in 3D space, I knew I’d have to use it.

UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly, and what cameras do you use?

Florian Fischer: Right now I fly a Phantom 4 Pro+ (we have two of them), and an Inspire 1, as well as some other smaller drones. Most of the time we’re traveling so we need a transportable drone, and the Phantom 4 Pro+ is perfect.

When we shoot on land the cameras we use are the GH5 and a RED Scarlet-W.

We rely on drones that we can transport easily and that we can afford to lose, because we fly in very harsh environments with unpredictable weather, and almost always over water.

We’ve lost five drones because birds flew into them, or due to pilot errors. We always carry a backup drone.

But when I lost the first drone I wasn’t even sad, because it had lasted for so long. I was actually expecting to lose it way earlier. I’m always amazed by the technology and how reliable it is—we’ve never had a technical problem.

UAV Coach: What are your predictions for aerial cinematography, and the drone industry in general? Please feel free to answer at length (what you see way down the road, what you see for next year, where you see regulations headed in the U.S. and abroad, new applications, etc.).

Florian Fischer: I can’t speak to regulations because I’m not from the U.S., and I’m not really very active in the drone community. I just go out and film things, and use the drone as a tool to accomplish different parts of my projects.

Creatively, I think the drone will find its place as a tool alongside all the other tools you have for filmmakers. I also think it’s something viewers will get used to. I don’t think we’ll see as many videos as we saw in the beginning where all the footage is shot by drone, and the videos are really just about the novelty of shooting with drones. Finding creative ways to use the technology in your projects is the way to go, and where I’m headed—and most filmmakers too, I think.

I think it’s absolutely ok to have regulations in place to make it safer for everyone. I hope that there will be world wide regulations, standardized and requiring some kind of license, just to keep everyone safe and aware that a drone is a potentially dangerous tool that can fall on someone’s head.

In aerial cinematography, I think a lot more functionality will come to drones. Something I don’t like or need, but which I think we’ll see a lot more of, is that there will be more “smart” features that allow less control for the pilot. I prefer to work with the sticks and really feel the drone’s movement, but I understand that these features are important for security and safety.

One thing I hope to see, and that we desperately need, is better battery technology. I’d really like to see batteries that are safer, and have a longer life.

Florian’s work with Behind the Mask has produced some amazing videos about marine life. Here are just a few (you can find more on the Behind the Mask website):

Sharks of the Dark

A Dolphin Day

Above and Below Bimini—Epic Hammerheads

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