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Just a few years ago, filmmakers had to spend a ton of money on long, continuous, sweeping shots. It required cranes, helicopters, CGI or a combination of all three. Because of the hassle, these techniques were relegated to the Hollywood elite. Those days are nearing an end though. Now, affordable drones have leveled the playing field by allowing aspiring filmmakers to steal some of Hollywood’s magic.

Nowhere was this potential more realized than at the first Flying Robots international Film Festival (FRiFF). With a submission fee of just $5 and a $15 dollar admission to the festival, accessibility is the name of the game. Sponsored by a slew of drone companies, it was clear that FRiFF felt that they had something to prove – and, for the most part, the submissions inspired.

Held at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, each film at FRiFF lasted less than ten minutes, and each took a different approach to how drones can be used. As it turns out, there’s a lot you can do with aerial cinematography that doesn’t include sweeping shots of beautiful vistas. One of the night’s categories, “Drones for Good,” explored uses of drones outside of photography, including category winner “The Syria Airlift Project” which documented how drones can be used safely to deliver medical supplies for those in need. On a less serious note, the category “WTF LOL” explored the depraved fantasies of marketers in “Targeted Advertising” and some seriously impressive light painting in “Hello World.”

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Even with everything you wouldn’t expect from a drone festival, there was quite a bit of everything you would expect, including a slew of films highlighting the landscape photography most associated with drone cinematography. One of the most impressive films at the festival was “Office Space” in the “Ariel Sports” photography category. In this film, you followed the drone in, out and around an office park. With near misses left and right, it truly felt, as an audience member, like I was in a fighter jet. Everyone was enamored. Another special kind of skill that was showed off was in the film “Compilation Bart Jansen” from the category “I Made That!” In his film, Jansen turned dead cats and alligators into flying drones. It was hilarious, completely messed up, and one of the most unexpected films of the night.

Shining brightest out of all the submissions was the “Cinematic Narrative” category and, especially, the category’s winner “All Away.” Following a couple through a complicated dance number in one long take, director Colin Solal Cardo showed the audience that a drone could create shorts that we’d expect to see in a multi-million dollar music video. It was the most aspirational moment of the night, and went on to win best in show.

While there was some of what you’d expect at FRiFF, the impression I left with was that drones can do so much more for so many people. A drone is, at the end of the day, just a tool, and it’s up to creators to use them in interesting and refreshing ways. Luckily, as exemplified by FRiFF’s multitude of diverse categories, drones are a very powerful tool that should inspire many more FRiFF’s in the future.

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