Jay Bulckaert and Pablo Saravanja, better known as the founders of the Artless Collective production company and the Dead North Film Festival, have spent the past few years branching out into the world of drones with their company Aerials North.
Today they're working with $10,000 drones and $4,000 cameras, but it didn't start out that way.
They attempted their first aerial drone shot in 2012, well before commercial drones were widely available.
“I think the first aerial shot was when we tied a GoPro to helium balloons,” said Bulckaert. “The plan was to get a BB gun and shoot it out of the air.”
The following year the pair finally purchased their first drone at Radio Shack.
“Immediately we could see how cool it would be,” he said. “We had been shooting cameras for a decade at that point and hadn't seen anything like it. Even though it was a toy and the image quality was terrible, we could immediately see how that fluidity of motion would be useful to us as filmmakers.”
At that point the pair were hooked. Reliable drones at an affordable price were hard to come by at the time, but they decided to start incorporating drone shots into their work.
In 2015, Bulckaert travelled to Vancouver and took a lengthy course to obtain his Special Flight Operators Certificate (SFOC) to fly drones commercially and Aerials North was born.
Now the pair use a range of smaller drones such as the DJI Mavic Air Single Red up to larger Inspire 2 drones which, with a full kit of accessories, can cost well in excess of $10,000.
They often use drones to produce creative footage, not just typical overhead shots, said Bulckaert.
“Everyone has got a drone shot in their production for no reason, so I think for us we like to consider why we're using a drone shot. We might fly it one foot from the ground laterally for a dolley shot, or slowly rising up from one foot to ten feet. It's not always about getting shots one hundred feet in the air.”
Cutting down on bulky equipment allowed the pair to more easily access remote places for filming the in the North, which is their specialty.
“Because of the nature of our business and how we work, we try to be as compact as possible,” said Saravanja. “We're doing a lot of field work, a lot of documentary stuff in the high Arctic where bringing unlimited cargo and supplies is not an option. So the drones have eliminated so many other tools from out kit.”
From struggling to reach remote areas to dealing with extreme cold, using drones for Northern filmmaking has not been without it's challenges.
“The weather has always been a problem,” said Bulckaert. “I've been on shoots where it would just not take-off, or it will start shaking violently. This technology is not really tested for colder than -30C. We've run into situation where there's icing on the propellers, just like there would be on a plane. I've had a drone fall right out of the sky because of that.”
Safety is something the pair take very seriously.
“I'm the certified pilot, I have the SFOC, and it comes down on my head if I make the wrong choice and the punishment is quite severe if I make the wrong choice,” said Bulckaert. “If you don't follow the rules and regulations and you crash these things into another person or God forbid another aircraft, you are in deep trouble.”
But adapting to the unique challenges of the North and gaining experience is what sets Aerials North apart from other drone operators.
“We started getting contracts with outside productions where it just made more economic sense for them to rely on a company that works in these conditions all the time,” said Saravanja. “A normal camera operator might not realize you can't shoot in -30C weather and take your camera inside to a warm place because it will be covered in condensation. We don't make those mistakes because we've been working in the Arctic so long and we ended up getting good references.”
Their company has earned a reputation for high quality work, which has landed them contracts with CBC, other film companies, diamond mines, the Giant Mine Remediation Project and commercials for large international brands like Volkswagen and Mercedes.
They also spent over a month last summer operating drones in Nahanni National Park for a yet to be released production called River of Forgiveness.
The pair had to learn how to launch their drones by hand while on a raft in the middle of a river, but they were successful.
“It was the recreation of the moose hide canoe journey that Indigenous people from that area used to take,” said Bulckaert. “So they got some moose hide, made a massive canoe and travelled down the river to the falls. That was a unique one because we were singularly there to do drone work.”
Over the years, the par flirted with the idea of expanding their drone services to include land surveying and infrared work, but that's not their specialty.
“We realized what we really bring to the table is our film and television experience,” said Saravanja.
Now, as Transport Canada regulations for flying drones are about to change on June 1, Aerials North will be preparing to adjust their protocols as they keep expanding.
“I think where we're headed one day is to get a larger drone that can fit a proper film camera on it,” said Bulckaert. “You need to be able to put a $30,000 camera on a drone and fly that around and so you need a $100,000 drone to do that.”
But until then, they will continue doing what they love and working towards creating television and film productions of their own.