Phil Pastuhov

How to get a job in Hollywood as a drone pilot: Phil Pastuhov shares the secret

Want to get a job in Hollywood as a drone pilot?

Phil Pastuhov is one of the pros, having served as an Academy Award-winning aerial director of photography with over 120 feature films and hundreds of commercials to his credit including “Lord of the Rings,” “Matrix,” “James Bond,” “Spiderman,” and “Mission Impossible.” He is also an ambassador for DJI and juror for the 2017 Skypixel Video Contest.

And he’s sharing his skills this year via a drone cinematography workshop called Drone Aerial Adventures, taking place this October in Utah.

He chatted with Drone Girl on getting a job in Hollywood, what your drone reel should look like, the future of DJI and more.

Drone Girl: Let’s start with the basics. How did you get into aerial photography and then drones?

Phil Pastuhov: My whole interest in aerial photography happened quite by fluke. I started as an assistant cameraman, then became an operator. From there, I was involved in a documentary that got me involved in skydiving. Several weeks after that, I got a call from a guy asking if I could help him with a project which turned out to be “James Bond: Moonraker.” That was my first opportunity to start working in aerials and it happened to be a Bond movie.
Drone Girl: Of course, that was before people were using drones.

PP: All of my aerial photography had been through helicopters primarily. But in the last 2-3 years, drones began starting to knock on the door of commercial film making.

DG: So when did you pick up your first drone?

PP: 2015. In a helicopter I can’t do stuff close to the ground or in a city. I can’t do many aerial shots from a helicopter because it creates too much rotor wash or it’s unsafe because it’s too close to people.

Often, the first thing producers look at is, “how much will this cost me?” They can save money by using a drone.

DG: What are some drone shoots you have done recently?

PP:  There is a Netflix series out called “Sense8.” They wanted to do some shots with a helicopter in San Francisco over some houseboats on a channel.
I said, ‘Guys, where you’re going and what you want to do is not going to work. Let’s use a drone.’

Fortunately, the director, Lana Wachowski loves drones. That was a perfect example of the correct use of a drone rather than trying to put a helicopter in there, which would create all kinds of noise and rotor wash. With  the drone, I was 40 feet from the actors. It was the right kind of look they were going for rather than being 100 feet away. There is a lot more intimacy.

DG: If someone wants to work in Hollywood as a drone pilot, what should they have in their reel?

PP: Just shooting scenic shots of cities and beautiful beaches — that doesn’t really showcase your talent. We have an expression in the helicopter world called “high, wide and stupid.” Avoid the “high, wide and stupid.”

Showcase your skill. Learn how to make a reveal of something. And don’t make it static — show some type of dynamic imaging.

I did a short film of our rowing club. It’s the perfect showcase of what a drone can do. I found a pilot to execute it. As a result, I have a nice little three minute film that sells people on what I can do with a drone.

Also for your demo tape, work out a script to work from so you’re not just making it up as you go. Come up with a story. Create that story. Fly it. Tell it. That’s a good way to showcase your work and what you can do.

DG: Once you have a solid reel, what’s the next step to getting in the door?

PP:  You’re probably going to have to come in as a team, not just as an independent pilot. There are 100s of guys out there that are pilots. You need to show you can bring the package to the table.

Independent production companies, whether it’s high-end corporate work or for TV commercials — and they can be local commercials — is the best way to start. As you gradually build up your reputation and your skills and your reel, that’s how careers are built. It takes a while. It doesn’t happen overnight.

DG: That’s so true!

PP: I find so many people who expect their careers to start tomorrow. They just got out of film school and did a cool short for their thesis, and then they wonder why no one is hiring them. It takes a long time. For four years, I had been digging in the trenches just trying to get recognized. Then I found this specialty — aerials — and that propelled me into people’s viewpoint.


DG: So what are you working on now?

PP: I just worked on Fathom, the next Godzilla movie, with a drone. We did cool stuff in a plaza in Mexico City. We had all these extras and we’re flying a drone around them next to a cathedral. It was great because no one was getting debris in their face like you would with a helicopter.

DG: That’s a good point! How do the actors respond to the drone?
PP:  The actors are a little skeptical, and it all depends on the drone you’re using. If you have an Inspire 2, it’s not intimating. It’s small. If you have an Alta 8 with a RED Epic hanging under it, that makes a lot of noise, it’s big and it’s scary. The actors are much more leery of those bigger drones.
DG: So are you willing to sacrifice a RED Epic camera to make the actors more comfortable?
PP: I’m a DJI Global Ambassador, and I can say, keep your eyes on DJI. They have some exciting things they’ll be announcing in the next few weeks. The issue of a RED and big Alta 8 o a big gimbal might not be an issue in the future.

drone aerial adventures phil pastuhov

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