Drone Flies Into Skid Row for Documentary

One documentary crew recently took a drone into Skid Row. What they found has got the internet talking.

Footage of a drone camera sent flying through Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles, has the world wide web abuzz. When a camera commanded by documentary crew the Skyecam Drone Crew took flight through Skid Row, it captured some of the toughest streets in America.

And the adventure nearly ended in destruction.

Documentary Crews and Drones

Drones are another word for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Some drones can be controlled remotely by a user, complete with a camera. Recently, they’ve played an increasingly big role in film and TV. For documentary crews, drones could be the technology of the future... or a film industry fad that will soon come to pass.

Last year, drones and film/TV production began to come together in a big way. September 2014 was a crucial moment, as exemptions were made for several production companies. These exemptions allowed for filming using drones on several film and TV productions. The ruling may have opened the door for drone filming in a major way.

Throughout the past several years, drone filmmaking has gained prominence, both for big-money commercial filmmaking and for documentary crews. Films like the 007 Skyfall and the newest Transformers have utilized drone shooting in their productions. “Game of Thrones” has also used drones to capture footage. A November 15, 2014 Indiewire article detailed the upcoming New York City Drone Film Festival. Documentary crews will have the chance to show off their aerial photography at a Big Apple venue. According to the festival’s website, screenings will commence in March.

However, the increase in drone-based footage has not come without its controversy. Like any up-and-coming technology, drones have brought both an interesting new direction and potential hazards in film and TV production.

Drone Dangers and Documentary Crews

Drone filmmaking has been no stranger to controversy. Issues have shed light on difficulties drones could bring to documentary crews. In 2013, David Zablidowsky was commanding a drone around Grand Central Terminal. One thing led to another, and the drone barely avoided taking the head off of a civilian. Zablidowsky was arrested, charged with reckless endangerment. Zablidowsky was done in by his own drone, which captured footage of Zablidowsky at the beginning of the flight-gone-wrong.

No less than Richard Crudo was quoted, in a June 27, 2014 Hollywood Reporter article about the Great Drone Debate, as saying,
“People don’t realize that that these things are like flying lawn mowers." Crudo is no less than the American Society of Cinematographers’ President.

It’s not just, perhaps, a safety hazard for commercial filmmakers and documentary crews to rely on drone footage. It could also be an aesthetic one. Drone footage can be inherently shaky, rough-hewn. However, these things could be virtues if the subject fits. Say, for instance, if you’re a documentary crew going into one of the world’s meanest streets.

A Documentary Crew, A Drone, and Skid Row

The 2000 census found that over 40 percent of Skid Row lives in poverty. The streets, it is said, are in unending decay, with garbage, cardboard boxes, and other detritus along the sidewalks. Crime is a prevalent fact of life.

Two homeless people in their encampment in industrial area of Los Angeles (East LA). Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.

Now, the LA documentary crew Skyecam Drone Crew is taking to the streets of Skid Row. Recently released footage shows the documentary crew flying their camera through Skid Row. It's featured in a Youtube clip entitled "Drone flight over Skid Row LA - See what happens!" We see the trash along the sidewalks. Stray bits of debris lie in the middle of the street. A policeman discusses life on Skid Row.

Then, suddenly, the drone collapses onto the street. Within seconds, it is nearly confiscated.

In a moment, we see an authentic glimpse of Skid Row. We see how even quiet moments can simmer with the tension of danger around the corner. How a single false move can lead to abrupt disaster. And it's all captured on a drone.

Skyecam: What’s Next for the Documentary Crew?

A look at Skyecam’s Youtube channel reveals a variety of aerial drone photography, from footage in Honduras to the Sequoia National Forest. There’s a commercial here, some TV episode footage there. Skyecam’s website includes videos for BMW, commercial property listings, and music videos.

The Skid Row footage could easily be another commercial opportunity, a way to generate interest in their projects. Details on a larger Skid Row documentary project for Skyecam haven’t yet been released. Hopefully, their project won't be an exploitative "Check it out!!!" usage of drones in a notoriously dangerous area for the sake of clicks.

However, if the documentary crew elects to develop a project from this footage, dedicated to showing Skid Row in a way not usually seen, via the drone, their project could leave a lasting mark. They have an opportunity to make a brave work, one that can evolve the usage of the drone for documentary crews as a powerful narrative tool, rather than just a “Cool! Look at this!!!” gimmick with the types of shoddy footage denounced by Richard Crudo.

While Skid Row is notorious for its violence and decay (of which the drone footage undoubtedly showed), countless non-profit groups make efforts to better the area. Services like Volunteers of America, Midnight Mission, and the Union Rescue Mission have homes in Skid Row. A December 23, 2014 LA Times article details how film producer Gary Foster built a relationship with the Skid Row homeless shelters while preparing for 2009’s The Soloist. The film tells the story Nathaniel Ayers, a cello-playing homeless man residing at Skid Row’s non-profit Safe Haven. Foster saw something unique in the people he found on Skid Row, a warmth of community lost in stereotypes and negative perceptions.

The troubled reputation of Skid Row has followed the area for decades. Yet the area could be a powerful site for a documentary crew. Great documentaries should give a voice to those who are forgotten in the mainstream, cast off or made into symbols rather than genuine people. Some of the greatest documentaries have looked beyond the stats, headlines, and stereotypes of crime and poverty-ridden neighborhoods, into the hearts of their citizens. Streetwise and The Interrupters, directed by Martin Bell and Steve James, are two of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen. Streetwise follows a group of teens living in the streets of Seattle. The Interrupters examines former criminals who take a powerful stand against violence in Chicago's toughest areas.

These documentary crews don't shy away from the harshness of their worlds. Nor do they paint their subjects as saints. But they are able to reveal the good where one wouldn't expect. They don't shoddily expose for shock value. The documentaries, indeed, have a humane, sensitive tenderness and sense of authenticity rarely seen in American film.

If a documentary crew could shed light on Skid Row as Streetwise and The Interrupters did to the streets of Seattle and Chicago, they could, perhaps, help change how we see Skid Row. By camera… or, perhaps, by drone.

But, are drones a gimmick of the moment? I'm skeptical myself. Will they come and go, or are there here to stay for documentary crews and other commercial productions? Will drones be used to help further filmmaking? Or is their usage a potentially dangerous hobby?




January 14