An Aerial Wander During One Endless Summer: Q&A with the Filmmaker

October 20 2014

Solstice from STURGEFILM on Vimeo.
When filmmaker Ben Sturgulewksi set out for a few summer weeks in his home turf of Alaska during solstice, he decided to do what he does best, what comes naturally to him: to capture some of it on film. The final product quickly drew the attention of fellow filmmakers, adventure junkies and the staff of Vimeo, who snatched it up as a Staff Pick in no time. We can't help but agree with the general consensus: this short film is stunning. It captures Alaska in a way that few of us would ever be able to see with our own two eyes, and the film does so with a crispness, speed and elegance that only a filmmaker like Ben could master. We took a few minutes to talk to Ben about how he caught this all on film, and what it was like during the process of filming. Here's what he had to say: 

Klean: How did you capture all of this aerial footage?
Ben: All of the footage was captured using the DJI Phantom 2. It's a small quadcopter that can easily fit down into a pack, with a stabilized camera mount (gimbal) that holds a GoPro. I love going on hikes while I'm up in Alaska, so I'd usually just throw it in the pack and march out to somewhere cool, and start flying! Before buying the Phantom, I had trained on a small $35 throwaway drone, the Syma X1. It has the same controls and everything, so it's a great learning tool. But putting a camera on it totally changes the game, and requires you to fly in a very delicate and controlled way. When I got to Alaska I had just picked up the Phantom, and was still largely learning the ropes, trying to line shots up through the video monitor (attached to the remote controller) and figure out what looks good, finding the right speed to fly at to get a desired effect, things like that. So I tried to experiment with a lot of different locations and camera moves, to see what looks good in the end. A whole lot looked terrible and was thrown away, and the stuff that ended up in Solstice were those that I thought worked out well. For me the allure of the drone in favor of a full-size helicopter (outside of the astronomical price difference, of course), is the drone's ability to get shots that helicopters can't. Flying through tight obstacles or very close to the ground, for example, where a helicopter's propwash would destroy everything. This opens up a whole new world of shot possibilities, and for me is perfect for my filming style. I like to get in tight with the subject. It just feels a bit more intimate. Drones, especially these smaller ones, allow you to do that in a way never seen before, and it's really exciting to explore all of the possibilities that opens up.

Klean: Is piloting a drone through tight places as tough as it looks?
Ben: Piloting the drone through tight spaces is actually pretty easy, but it takes a lot of confidence in both yourself and the ship. Usually I'll just line myself up at one end of the 'corridor' I'm flying through, and make sure the 'line goes', I guess, by seeing that there is a good line of sight path down it. Then I know that if I just throttle the drone forward and don't go side to side, it shouldn't hit anything. Of course this is all in theory, and I did take out some foliage for sure, but in the end it really is incredible how stable and controlled these crafts are, and it's surprisingly simple and easy to pilot it out again. Line of sight is the key though, and its not like you can be standing anywhere. If you were to try to pilot through the same scene from a profile perspective, you'd have zero depth of field and would immediately crash into something.

Klean: What was your inspiration for filming all of this footage?
Ben:  I had just picked up the Phantom and was going on a June trip to Alaska, and thought I'd fly it around and learn how to use it. Ultimately the goal was to get lots of practice and be dialed in time for a ski-filming trip to South America I had in August. But over the month I was in AK, I guess I became obsessed with going out and trying to get all these different shots I had in mind... I was constantly thinking about things that might look cool, and exploring the system's possibilities, trying to get cool shots just to see what it was capable of. When I started to get some of the footage back in the computer and fiddle with it to make it look good, I realized that, whoa, this little thing can actually make some pretty impressive images. That only fueled the fire more, as I wanted to see how much I could really pull out of the machine. By the time I left, I had a big library of cool 'test footage', some of which I thought people would think was pretty cool, and it seemed like a shame not to do anything with it. So I started editing, and Solstice came together... the name inspired by the many hikes I took through the high northern June light that ended up being the basis for the video.

Klean: What was your favorite part of making Solstice?
Ben: Definitely my favorite part of making the piece was all the awesome places that it took me. I really became inspired to try to seek out the most beautiful locations I could, in the finest light, and show them in a unique way. It was an awesome excuse to get out and find yourself in an incredible place during magic hour. I'm addicted to sunsets and sunrises, and I found myself in a ton of them during the making of this. Ultimately these days I find that film has a wonderful way of getting me outside and doing some really fun things, whereas I might otherwise be inclined to sit inside and drink a beer and watch a movie, or sleep in. Having that drive to see and capture wonderful images has really made my life so much more satisfying, and while sometimes that drive can become a bit obsessive and ridiculous, I'm very happy I have it. At the end of the day, even if you miss the shot entirely, you're out there and doing it and internalizing it, and that, for me, is way more important than the end video product. But if other people can enjoy it after the fact in a well put together video, that's a great bonus!
Klean: What other film projects are you currently working on currently with STURGEFILM?
Ben: I've currently got several projects in the pipe. The biggest at the moment is a four-part skiing short film series in association with DPS Skis, Outdoor Research, and Gore-Tex, called The Shadow Campaign. They were shot in Mount Baker, Argentina, Chile and Baldface up in British Columbia. They're launching this fall, so I'm deep in the editing cave finishing them up, but we're hopefully going to be starting up a season two that should bring me to some more awesome locations. That was primarily shot on Red, but next season the drone will be in tow, and now that my skills are a little more dialed, I hope to incorporate it into the program quite a bit. Capturing ski action and a quickly moving subject is a whole new challenge that should be fun to explore. Otherwise, I'm involved in a bunch of freelance shooting and editing work. I'm currently involved in a really cool project with Rush Sturge's production company River Roots, which is working on extreme adventure sports films for the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. So getting some great experience there shooting a huge array of sports. A ton of fun! Lots more in the pipe as well, and I'm really looking forward to getting back up to my home state of Alaska to make some more projects happen up there.