Directing, Building Drone Film Festivals, and Flying Drones on the Tonight Show: An Interview with Randy Scott Slavin, Founder of the New York City Drone Film Festival
BY Zacc Dukowitz30 May 2018
Randy Scott Slavin is an award-winning director, photographer, and aerial cinematographer. He’s also the founder of the New York City Drone Film Festival (NYC DFF). He’s worked with big brands like American Express and AT&T, and his photography has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and Gizmodo, among others.
We’ve been attending the NYC DFF for three years now, and this last year we became one of their media partners. Given all the different kinds of work Randy does, we wanted to sit down and pick his brain about flying drones, directing, and what it takes to put together an event like the New York City Drone Film Festival.
Randy Scott Slavin, NYC DFF Founder
You recently flew a drone on the Tonight Show, when Will Smith was on as a guest. Was it scary to fly so close to people while being filmed live?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about flying in front of Jimmy Fallon, Will Smith, and a live studio audience.
But I’ve been flying and working professionally with drones for a long time, and I’ve been in a lot of stressful situations, especially as a festival director.
So as nervous as I might get, I just try not to think about all of the stressors—the audience, the live set, and all that. I try to block all of that noise out and just be really zen when I’m flying in that kind of scenario.
Here is a clip from the Tonight Show—you can see Randy flying at :48
To make sure I felt really prepared I asked them if I could just do a lot of rehearsals. Once we established the route they wanted me to fly I flew it about 30 times, just going over and over it to get the path into my muscle memory.
We also did a live rehearsal, and Jimmy and Will were both really nice, so that helped calm any additional nerves I might have been feeling.
With all that preparation, when it came time to actually do the live shoot I wasn’t really nervous anymore—I was excited, actually.
There was even an ad libbed part—the whole thing where they’re scared of the drone and protecting each other wasn’t originally planned at all. It just happened on the spot.
Tell us about your background. How did you get into directing?
I’ve always been into cameras and camera gear—even before American Beauty came out, I was that guy who was always walking around taking pictures of everything.
A surrealist photo by Randy entitled Sanctuary
And when the mini DV camera came out then I was the guy with the video camera.
All of my friends were in bands and I really wanted to be close to them and participate in what they were doing, and filming them gave me that way in. Through that interest I ended up doing some work at MTV, when I was still finishing school at NYU.
After that work, I got into editing reality TV because it’s one of the best ways to make a living in New York City if you want to work in the film industry.
While I was doing that work, I was also directing music videos for friends’ bands and people in the scene that I knew, really just anything I could get my hands on.
And then in 2008 I won the special jury award for a music video at South by Southwest, and that really helped me launch my work as a director.
Randy’s award winning video from South by Southwest
When did you start using drones in your work?
Around the end of 2013 a skateboard film made by Ty Evans came out called Pretty Sweet, and it starts with this single shot that just blew me away. It just told the story so well—really, it made me kind of jealous. And it was shot with a drone.
The shot Randy’s talking about starts around :22 in this video
That got me so inspired, and made me want to start working with drones. Since then we’ve had Ty Evans as a guest at the NYC DFF, and Robert McIntosh—he was actually the pilot who built the custom rig they used to make that shot, and who flew FPV to film it.
Ty is amazing, and Robert is a true artist, a real innovator in his field. Robert has been building custom drones and doing creative things with them for a long, long time—he’s won at the NYC DFF and at the LA Drone Film Festival, which I also head up, many times because of his creativity. And he’s been doing this since way back when he was just attaching a crappy E-Case camera to a sponge on top of a drone that was made out of a Tupperware container, using open pilot and the first few kinds of flight controllers they had. Things like that, just super innovative.
Robert McIntosh’ award winning film from NYC DFF 2018
After seeing that shot in Pretty Sweet I started doing research, and bought my first drone. This was around the time that the first DJI Phantom and the DJI Flame Wheel came out as well as the WooKong flight controllers. It was just the very beginning of all this stuff.
I started watching a ton of drone videos online, which were still very few and far between, and I started shooting a ton. When I first started shooting with a drone I had to hard mount my GoPro on the bottom of my drone. It was a totally different experience just trying to get through shots in that kind of way, but it really trained me to be a good pilot, to really rely on the style of flying and not just on the gimbal being smooth.
A lot of my director friends saw the things that I was doing with drones and had me get on to their sets and shoot stuff for them. And that’s how Yeah Drones, my production company, was born, and it’s also how the New York City Drone Film Festival was born.
Tell us more about the creation of the New York City Drone Film Festival. Where did the idea come from?
had an aerial video that went viral called Aerial NYC—it was featured on Fox News and Time Magazine, and got lots of attention. It was crazy.
And I was thinking it would be great to send that video, or other drone footage, to a film festival that highlighted drone work. But there weren’t any festivals around that had that kind of category.
So I figured I’d start my own.
Randy’s Video Aerial NYC
What goes into organizing the festival?
It takes a ton of work. For the most part we’re a very small team—for most of the work it’s me, my event producer, my technical director, and my wife.
I think people might have a view of the festival that it’s huge and super successful, but the reality is that it’s a very small team of people who really care making it happen every year.
But for me the hardest part is making sure we’re just doing something that’s interesting, that the films we select are the best films in the world, and that we’re choosing things that are going to be extremely entertaining for the audience when they’re screened.
But yeah, we’re not the Tribecca Film Festival, where you have a team of thousands of people. I work directly with all the filmmakers, all the submissions, all the press, all the social media, all of the sponsorships, and I’m constantly toeing a line having enough sponsorship money to pay for things.
And there’s always a tension between work on the festival, my work as a director, and my obligations to my family. I have a four year old, and I want to make sure I’m taking care of her, and also still pursuing the work that really inspires me, which is directing. So it’s definitely a balancing act, and sometimes it can feel like just way too much, but we always manage to pull it off.
This year a number of the winning videos, including the Best in Show winner, were paid for by big companies with large budgets. Do you consider budget or production quality when you’re judging videos for the festival?
No, we don’t really consider either of those things in our judging.
I don’t care about who made a video, or how much money they have, or the production quality in terms of how the video looks.
My judging—and this is also guidance I give to our guest judges—is really just based on the creative merit of the piece.
Quattro 2, the Best in Show Winner at NYC DFF 2018
So just because a video was made with a huge budget, if it was boring, it’s not going to make it in the festival. This year Quattro 2 won Best in Show, and they had a ridiculous budget that let them go to all these amazing locations, use great gear, and all that. But last year the Best in Show winner was the Mixed Motion Project which was shot by two Bulgarian guys flying a Phantom 3. And that video is really incredible. So yeah, it just comes down to creativity.
Mixed Motion Project, the Best in Show Winner at NYC DFF 2017
Even if it’s a good concept that’s terribly executed, there’s a good chance it will still get into the film festival. To me, the winners are the ones that have great concepts that are also well executed.
But I would never look at someone’s video and be like, “Oh, that has a great concept but they shot it with a Phantom so I don’t want it at the festival.”
Robert McIntosh is another example. He’s won several times, and he’s never shot with anything better quality than a GoPro. He puts a ton of time, thought, and effort into his concept, and he really knows his camera gear and how to shoot, as well as the post process to make his footage look great.
It’s really a mix of creativity and taste that we’re looking for when we judge. Everything else—budget, production quality, overall appearance—all of that is secondary.
We heard you’re getting a big rig drone for the first time. What led to that decision?
Yes, I’m really excited. I have a Freefly Alta 8 coming my way.
I’ve never gotten into the heavy lifters before because I’ve just been so crazy about being able to have a lot of gear. But I’m excited because the quality of the drone and the quality of the flight controller is very high. Through my work with the New York City Drone Film Festival I get to talk to some of the best drone pilots in the world, and they all say that the Alta is one of the best drones out there for high end work—it flies amazingly, it’s waterproof, it’s extremely reliable, and it’s outfitted to carry world class cameras like the RED and the ALEXA.
Also, when you show up on a commercial shoot it’s nice to have a big, serious-looking drone, instead of a drone that looks like a toy—like a Mavic or even an Inspire. There is something real about the impression you make on the other crew members with the equipment you bring, and a big rig drone can help create the impression that you’re working with professional gear.
I’m also just tired of all the firmware updates required on DJI drones. As a professional who uses drones in his work, it’s annoying to have to answer a dozen questions every other time I turn on my drone, and I know a lot of other professionals out there feel the same way. Of course, I understand that as the biggest commercial drone manufacturer in the world DJI needs to provide this kind of accountability, but at a certain point you just want to go with something more professional. And I should also say that I love DJI’s gear and I don’t plan to stop using it—but yeah, I’m really excited to get the Alta.