Maria Stefanopoulos

How Good Morning America’s Maria Stefanopoulos is using drones for TV news

Good Morning America’s Maria Stefanopoulos has had more wild adventures working in drones in the past couple years than many people might have in a lifetime. She has flown over (and through) everything from a volcano in Iceland, to a cave in Vietnam with DJI.

Stefanopoulos is a Production Manager at ABC News, Good Morning America, based in New York. She first got into drones about 18 months ago for GMA’s first drone-related shoot (in Iceland), and purchased her own drone shortly after that.

Here’s her story:

abc gma iceland
Courtesy Maria Stefanopoulos

DG: Let’s start by talking about the first shoot you did with a drone in Iceland. So originally, the plan was to have a drone flying around the studio, but then you decided to just go big and take it to the Arctic Circle. How did that all happen?

MS: February is a sweeps month, so for us TV people that means we like to up the ante. Our senior editorial staff approached me about an idea to have drones take over our studio for a “Game of Drones” series — Wiz by the weather wall, carry scripts to our anchors at the news desk, even drop off a cup of coffee to a correspondent on the set.

We were sold on this idea, until our Senior Producer came across Eric Cheng’s video where he flew a drone into an active volcano in Iceland. I remember the day my boss approached me about production managing this event. She said “Would you mind putting together a budget for another crazy idea? I’m sure it’ll never happen. A volcano. Iceland. Drones. LIVE.” I watched the YouTube video and thought – for so many reasons –  there’s no way this is going to happen…”

DG: But it happened!

MS: 2 ½ weeks later, our small team was standing beside a spewing Bardarbunga Volcano, just under the arctic circle. Everything about this project was extreme.

abc gma iceland
Courtesy Maria Stefanopoulos

Half of our team stayed in a cabin in the middle of nowhere (literally) and travelled in via snow vehicles that were outfitted with massive studded tires, along with Iceland’s search and rescue team while our talent, producer and I flew in via helicopter from Reykjavik. I hired a meteorologist who understood this particular microclimate and was in touch with him multiple times a day for guidance regarding which day we had the best chance of going LIVE. The poor guy thought I was crazy.

He said, “Maria, what you are asking for is a miracle.” On Sunday night, Feb. 1, he called and said “Tuesday is a gift. Take it”. We had a relatively unsuccessful technical test on Monday, Feb. 2, our three engineers broke down all of our equipment, went back to base camp, worked around the clock to tweak some things and prayed that everything worked out on Tuesday morning.

The next day, we waited for our weather anchor, Ginger Zee, to arrive from NY and as soon as we hit civil twilight, our chopper took off. We landed at Bardarbunga Volcano 30 mins before air. The meteorologist was right. Tuesday was indeed a gift. We had a flawless broadcast — one where we rewrote television broadcast history.

DG: Watch what ended up airing on GMA here:

DG: How, that is incredible! Obviously that story is huge, but how else is Good Morning America using drones?

MS: Drones have changed the way we tell stories. They’re a great tool which allows our audience to experience the scope and scale of an event like never before. The damage caused by a hurricane, flood or tornado becomes very clear from 100 feet in the air. This is a hard message to convey by using standard man on the ground crews.

Maria Stefanopoulos iceland drone
Courtesy Maria Stefanopoulos

At ABC News, we love sending drones to places we can’t access. In my opinion, drones provide the most compelling images when they’re used as stedicams, jibs and helicopters.

DG: How did you personally get into drones?

MS: I was bitten by the drone bug after my first trip to Iceland. When I watched the output of our drone pilot’s feed, the surreal images took my breath away. I knew we were onto something big.

I remember standing on frozen ground daydreaming about where we can take these flying cameras next. We were on top of the world, so naturally, I thought we had to go somewhere underground.

That’s where my idea of exploring  Son Doong Cave, deep in the jungle of in Central Vietnam, was born. My goal was never to be a drone pilot or camera op – it was to familiarize myself with the advantages and limitations of this new tool that changed storytelling forever.

DG: Here’s that video of the cave:

DG: What are the challenges for journalists using drones?

MS: As a Production Manager working on LIVE remotes, I get to see television production from both the editorial side as well as the technical/engineering side. Producers see an open sky and wonder why we can’t fly a drone there. They typically say “I need a live shot right now”. Drones don’t work that way. LIVE TV is a monster to begin with and adding a complicated layer like clearances, location consideration, budget and frame rate convertors takes our set up to a whole new arduous level. From a technical standpoint, the biggest problem we face is that we’re taking a consumer based product and we’re trying to make it broadcast friendly.

Maria Stefanopoulos vietnam cave
Courtesy Maria Stefanopoulos

DG: How will changing policy rules impact journalists?

MS: Part 107 will allow some flexibility in who can fly for us. I see drones as a tool in our newsgathering toolbox. To be able to launch a drone quickly, in ideal circumstances, on a breaking news story is a dream for us.

For more complicated shoots, I see us sticking with the pros – ones who are expert pilots, who have a deep understanding of the mechanics of the drone, and who have a cinematographer’s eye. Drones are becoming more autonomous by the day, but the one thing they can’t be, is as creative as a human.

DG: Why aren’t more journalists using drones now? Should they be?

MS: We are all just trying to keep up with the pace of this new technology. 18 months ago, we used a drone on our air for the first time. We have come a very long way since then. With rules changing as quickly as they are, and companies like DJI making their equipment broadcast standard friendly (59.94 vs 60 fps), drones will be integrated in the fabric of  journalism in the very near future.

africa inspire abc gma
Courtesy Maria Stefanopoulos

DG: What have you learned in these 18 months?

MS: I purchased a Phantom 2 after my first remote in Iceland, and a Phantom 4 after my LIVE safari remote in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania a few months ago. I love having a better understanding of what the stellar drone crews I’ve worked with are facing when in the air. I also have a new found respect for all of them. The problem is that some crews are so good, they make it look easy.

DG: What’s next in your drone-filled future that we should be looking out for?

MS: It’s hard to top our epic LIVE drone adventures like the active volcano, Son Doong Cave, glaciers in South East Iceland, an animal haven – Ngorongoro Crater and aerial art, but we’ll think of something. I promise!

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