Eddie Codel transmits his love of drones into the Flying Robot International Film Festival, a celebration of aerial cinematography.
A live DJ spins infectious funk tunes in the backroom as Eddie Codel fidgets on a laptop in his movie-set-turned collaborative workspace in San Francisco’s Mission District. He’s eager to edit fresh drone footage shot at this year’s Burning Man Festival.
“Drones are super fascinating,” he said. “They’re robots, but in some way they’re extensions of our souls.”
That wide-eyed, open-minded approach connects him to an expanding community of drone cinematographers, racers and enthusiasts.
That fascination is fed by the out-of-body feeling he gets flying a drone. It’s a sensation that strikes at the heart of all humanity. Floating above it all, seeing what a drone sees, locks him inescapably in the moment.
“Maybe humans have always wanted to be birds, to have that perspective of flying,” he said. “Drones do that in a way that really couldn’t be done before.”
Not many people can fly airplanes or helicopters, but relatively inexpensive drones let anyone experience the sensation of flying. Codel said drone innovation is lowering barriers to entry, so enthusiasts don’t have to hack together an ultimate filmmaking rig. Gradual price drops are making it easier for more people buy a camera-equipped drone that shoots HD or 4K video.
So far, he’s lost four drones. It was painful at the time, but carries no regrets.
“If you don’t lose a drone or two along the way, you’re not doing it right.”
The Ultimate in Remote Control
Codel’s path to drone geekdom started at an early age, when he was into remote controlled cars and helicopters then model rocketry. After college he worked in IT and learned about data networks before becoming a shutterbug, digital videographer and go-to-guy for livestream events.
Today, the quintessential jack of all trades, tech tinkerer, bohemian artist and visual storyteller is rapt by drones. So much so, he founded the Flying Robot International Film Festival (FRiFF), held each November at San Francisco’s historic Roxie Theater, just up the street from his workspace.
The ah-ha moment for Codel came in 2012, when he saw a friend shoot a video using a first-generation drone at a pool party in Palm Springs.
“It was the first time I had seen somebody with a quad copter, and the brilliant seven second video he created blew me away,” he said.
The idea of doing something creative and original drove him to buy his first drone in early 2013. It was a DJI Phantom 1. Soon after, he bought a gimbal, GoPro camera, video down link transmission system and monitor.
“All that stuff had to be wired in and soldered,” he said. “It was all very piecemeal at the time. Today, all that stuff is integrated in a little package. You can just use your phone to see what’s going on.”
That second ah-ha moment hit in 2013, after bringing his first drone to Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. He captured steampunk and space age tribal scenes, making the gathering even more surreal from the sky. It wasn’t until he got back home and reviewed the footage that he realized “it was epic.”
He compiled the best shots into one video and uploaded it to YouTube. It went viral, attracting a couple million views within the first week.
“That made me realize I should pursue drone videography more seriously.”
Since then, experiencing that bird’s eye, drone’s eye, that aerial view as he calls it, is an almost constant state of mind.
He returned to Burning Man this year with several drones, ranging from the small DJI Spark (with artificial intelligence powered by Intel’s Movidius) to a very large cinema rig that holds cameras with interchangeable lenses.
“I was more deliberate about what I captured. I knew the best time to shoot was at sunrise and sunset. In past years, it was mostly about waiting until the wind died down so I could fly.”
Flying Robot International Film Festival
Improving skills and better, easier-to-use tools are driving an explosion of high-quality drone cinematography. Seeing a rapid rise in creative drone videos sparked the idea to found FRiFF in 2015, which celebrates drone storytelling from all over the world.
“I love making drone videos and photography, but there are a lot more people better than I am,” he said. “I wanted to provide a place for novice and experienced filmmakers alike to come together.”
Twenty-five nominations from 11 countries are competing in the 2017 FRiFF on November 16. Host of the third annual event, “the internet’s” Justin Hall, will announce two winners for each category: Cinematic Narrative, Epic Landscape, Drones for Good, FPV Racing and Freestyle, WTF LOL, Student Films, and Promotional. Films must be five minutes or less.
Last year, the festival received 180 submissions from more than 40 countries. The 2016 Best of Show winner was Moon Line, a night time skiing short by France’s Frédéric Rousseau.
One of his all-time favorite films was the 2015 FRiFF winner All Away by Colin Solal Cardo of France.
“It was about two lovers dancing, and the drone becomes part of the choreography,” said Codel. “The drone is as much an actor as the actors are, and it’s all done in a single shot.”
Initially, Codel was only interested in photography and video, but now he uses drones to do 360 image capture. For example, he flew his drone above the iconic 1910 World’s Fair building on Treasure Island to capture about 100 photos that he stitched together using his laptop to create a 3D model. He enjoys messing around with the building in the digital world.
— Eddie Codel (@ekai) June 24, 2017
His Johnny-on-the-spot good karma often leads to an unexpected bonanza of eye candy. This summer, a walk downtown to get a close look the construction of a new skyscraper resulted in Codel becoming one of the first to fly a drone from the top of the Salesforce Tower, now the largest building in San Francisco.
The skyscraper is just a few blocks up from his favorite place to fly, the waterfront overlooking the Bay Bridge.
“Flying along the waterfront, where moving water and land intersect is super compelling.”
Beyond aerial cinematography, Codel sees the potential for drones helping humanity. They can deliver blood to hospitals or medicine to far out places; assist with search and rescue; help fight fires; or map areas that have been affected by hurricanes.
“People call them many different things: Flying lawn mowers, eye in the sky, flying robots, UAVs, UASs,” he said. “But in the end, I think drone is the right word and I’m sticking to that.”