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Flying High: My Chicago Drone Day


Nick Ravich, producer of the Chicago hour in Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 8, describes a day of filming the city with drones:


April 15, 2016 — D-day. My long-awaited drone day, shooting sky-high footage of Chicago. I’ve got an ambitious schedule with just ten hours to capture both general birds-eye-view cool-ness, and evocative particulars in our Season 8 Chicago artists’ neighborhoods. All under the constraints of a limited battery supply and the city’s completely arbitrarily enforced drone regulations. Let’s do this.

Landsat 5 true-color image of Chicago, taken September 10, 2010. Courtesy of NASA.

6:34 AM — Microwaved egg and cheese on an English muffin in my Chicago Loop hotel coffee shop. You gotta be willing to sacrifice if you want the money shot of rosy-fingered dawn illuminating the skyline.

Adler Planetarium, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

7:02 AM — I meet up with the crew at the lakefront Adler Planetarium: husband and wife team Chris and Leslie Morrison, AKA Robo Aerial. Ground zero for Chicago 4K drone footage. A bright, clear, windless day. Thank god.

Lake Michigan, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

7:23 AM — We’re up in the air. It’s a two-person operation with a DJI Phantom drone.  Chris is flying and Leslie is operating the camera. I have to switch off the “just push play” and “let it roll” part of my brain, and remember that we’ve got a maximum of twenty minutes shoot time per flight. Seconds are precious. We get the Miami Vice meets Lake Michigan tilt up from the water to the city skyline. Feeling like a total b-roll baller.

Grant Park, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

8:14 AM — Chris is nervous. We’re on the edge of a METRA commuter line at the southern end of Grant Park, and notorious drone-hating train police could be around. We’re listening attentively to Chris’s handheld radio turned police scanner. But all goes smooth when we’re up in the sky for the smack-in-the-middle-of-downtown tracking shot. And for an extra bonus we get a local skater shredding it up.

North Avenue Beach, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

9:37 AM — Jump in the Subaru and the next location seems likes an old drone reliable for Chris and Leslie: North Avenue Beach, along the Gold Coast just north of downtown.  But we have a hiccup. On its first flight, the drone starts wigging out, skimming along the sand and then crashing. Something about electro-magnetic interference. Win some, lose some.

Stolen from internet.

10:12 AM — One thing becomes really clear when you’re flying really small unmanned helicopters: power is key. So we have to take a break to charge the batteries at Robo Aerial HQ so we’ve got enough in reserve for later in the day. Leslie walks her dogs.

Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

11:43 AM — Grand Crossing, South Side. Artist Theaster Gates’ territory. We’re set up across from Theaster’s Stony Island Arts Bank for what I’m hoping is the final shot of the Chicago hour. Pressure is on and a private security cruiser is just a block away. Chris clears some too-close-for-comfort trees. He’s creeping up on the Bank building, braving busy Stony Island Blvd below. And you know what? It actually did wind up being the last shot in the hour. Thanks Chris.

12:10 PM — Lunch at Robust Coffee Lounge.  I recommend the Herbie.

Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

1:47 PM — I’m trying hard to avoid the inevitable post-lunch energy lag. A couple of aborted flights doesn’t help the mood. But after a long search of the Grand Crossing neighborhood for the right combination of public space, low population density, and minimal surveillance, we hit pay dirt.  An old school Catholic church without a roof! It’s the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. The team’s spirits are buoyed. And I’ve got an almost comically over-determined drone shot of the South Side circa 2016—an empty & charred Catholic church, in a University of Chicago-encroaching and art-gentrifying neighborhood.

Stolen from internet.

A quick word about moire. It’s that weird, vibrating effect that’s happens when recorded real world fine lines hit the scan lines that make up a video image. And it totally sucks. It’s a constant threat when shooting with these small sensor drones over dense urban spaces. ART21 spent a lot of time and energy combating its pernicious effects in dark, cavernous edit rooms. But apparently there are measures you can take, in the field, to help lessen the pain later. Peep them here.

Chicago River, Chicago. April 14, 2016. Cinematography: Steve Delahoyde.

2:50 PM — We head back up to the city, shooting over the Chicago River in Tom Ping Memorial Park in Chinatown. We get a fly-by of the irresistibly industrial St. Charles Air Line Bridge, a (I think) inactive train bridge.  The hope is to evoke the architectural aesthetic of Season 8 artist Barbara Kasten, whose studio is in the next door Pilsen neighborhood. But now that we’re here, I gotta mention something else that doesn’t have anything to do with drones but can’t go totally forgotten. Just the day before, along the river just south of this park, we shot the above-GIFed American Ninja warrior badass waterskiing on a still profoundly polluted river. And then him being rescued by his support crew. #HonoringOurHeroes. Sometimes all you need to do is just show up with a camera.

Trains in Pilsen neighborhood, Chicago. April 15, 2016. Cinematography: Robo Aerial.

4:13 PM — Trainspotting time. I’m ready to wrap up the day but Chris sold me on a spot where he’s shot before. Picture this: south of the city in the Pilsen neighborhood, commuter trains and low rise apartment buildings in the foreground, Sears Tower skyline in the background. I’m down. We get a bunch of variations. Which of course we don’t end up using in the final show. Maybe just a little too Michael Bay for ART21?

Photo by Jonathan Munar.

5:22 PM — We’re wrapped! Ten hours and ten locations got us an hour and thirty minutes plus of footage. All living on some absurdly tiny mircoSD cards. God those things makes me nervous. Oh, and no police confrontations or drone confiscations. OK, I’m starving.

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