drones

Q&A with New York Film Academy Australia Alum Leroy Button

New York Film Academy Australia alum Leroy Button started his professional career even before graduating the Filmmaking program in 2018. He’s worked on several professional commercials and television shows as well as multiple blockbusters, including Aquaman, Fast & Furious 9, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold.

Button has found a niche in state-of-the-art drone cinematography, but has had a passion for all aspects of filmmaking since he was a child. His first (but not his last) success was his award-winning short film Sense, made while he was still in high school.

Leroy Button

NYFA Australia alum Leroy Button

New York Film Academy spoke with NYFA Australia Filmmaking alum Leroy Button about Sense, his work on multimillion dollar film sets, and the best advice he’s learned from both school and his fellow crewmembers:

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy Australia?

Leroy Button (LB): I’m 21 years old and hail from Cairns, a small city in Far North Queensland, Australia. The origins of my interest in the industry really started as soon as I was brought into the world,—well, that’s at least what my dad claims as he recorded my birth on his brand new Hi8 camera. I’ve always had an interest in cameras, acting, and entertaining people—my dad was a frustrated filmmaker and he always had the latest digital camcorder, film camera, DSLR… you name it he had it, so naturally I was either in front of a camera or behind it as I grew up. We were always avid film goers, with Dad, my older brother, and myself always attending the latest blockbuster release—if it involved spies, sci-fi, superheroes, or a car chase we were there.

I really enjoyed all of my primary and secondary school years, I wasn’t really a math or science guy, I just loved working with my hands making things and was considered by my teachers to be very artistic. Throughout high school I fell absolutely in love with movie making and film class, which was part of my curriculum from Year 9 at Cairns State High. 

My film teachers, Mr. Clyde Williams and Ms. Greta Evangelista, said that I had an eye for filmmaking and perhaps I should pursue it as a career. My teachers encouraged me to enter my films into film festivals and that ultimately brought me to what jump-started my career—my first short film, Sense. I entered Sense into the Understory Film Festival, which is a local festival in Cairns that had a student film category. I entered that film not knowing the freight train of success I was going to receive from it. 

On the night of the film festival, Sense won three awards—Best Student Film, Runner Up, Best Film, and the Audience Choice Award. To cap off a lovely evening, I also won $1000 prize money (of course I spent that on film equipment right away) and was filled with a feeling of elation that propelled me into pursuing a career in the film industry… With Sense winning the Understory Audience Choice Award, this led to its inclusion in another festival—winning the KickArts Curator Award, Cell Art Space Energy Exhibition Award, Creative Generation Award, and later ‘Best Sense Film’ at the Stuffit Film Festival. Because of the Creative Generation Award, Sense was put on display at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane where it was shown on a screen loop for six months for the 2017 student exhibition.

These awards opened the doors at a number of universities and film academies and certainly helped secure my position at the New York Film Academy Australia, where I started my Diploma in Filmmaking. At NYFA Australia I continued to pursue my craft and the feeling of recognition and success that I craved. I shot both good films that won me more awards and some pretty questionable film—films I hope are never seen again, haha. I was loving every moment. I really started to hone my skills as a cinematographer and learned how to manage my own business by filming weddings, corporate videos, and promo events.

Leroy Button Sense

NYFA: What have you learned at NYFA Australia that you apply to your work today?

LB: I’d say the biggest thing that the New York Film Academy Australia taught me was that networking was everything.

For one of our cinematography lectures, we had the choice of going to Panavision Queensland at Village Roadshow Studios. I knew that this was an opportunity to mingle with the people who work with the biggest and best of what the Australian Film Industry has to offer. So I was there with bells on. It happened to be the one day I actually packed my lunch box and brought it with me—and that ultimately allowed me to stay behind whilst the rest of the class went out to get a feed during the break. So here I am, one-on-one with the manager of Panavision Queensland, Pat Auge. I had the opportunity to ask him anything I wanted to know. What do I need to do to get into the industry? This question, amongst many others, was asked in hopes of figuring out what I was going to do after I completed my diploma.

All I wanted to do was get on set and work on a major motion picture. Pat answered every single one of my questions, and told me “it’s all about who you know.” In addition to that, the biggest thing I learned from the New York Film Academy Australia was that networking is very important—this is an industry where who you know goes a very long way.

Pat contacted me the following week and said that he was impressed by my attitude, eagerness, and professionalism towards him and wanting to get into the industry. He asked if I would be interested in doing some work experience with them and initially got me in for three days—I was incredibly dedicated while there, as has always been my work ethic, drilled into me by family, and this lead to an offer of part-time work while studying at the Academy. 

During this time, Aquaman was filming at Village Roadshow Studios and the camera department contacted Panavision asking if they knew of anyone that could help out on set. They put my name forward and I jumped straight into the camera department on one of Australia’s biggest feature films. Frankly, I was scared and crazy nervous but also really excited.

Leroy Button

NYFA: Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing and what your responsibilities have been on the sets of films like Aquaman, as well as Dora the Explorer, Fast & Furious, and others?

LB: I kept my cool with my head down and bum up. They had me camera assisting, splintering with second and third unit, slating scenes with Nicole Kidman and her stunties, on location at Hastings point for the lighthouse scenes—it was wild, some of the most unforgettable weeks of my life. I turned into a sponge metaphorically (and sometimes physically, thanks rain machines), absorbing as much information and technique as possible from the camera department. At the end of each day we wrapped and I felt like I could sleep for a week. Long hours, hard, stressful work—but I loved it. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

I continued to juggle work for Panavision, Event Cinemas, and studying at NYFA Australia and I resigned from the Cinemas pretty soon after as I was asked to start working 5 days a week 9-5 at Panavision. Now that leads me to working for XM2—work after Aquaman slowly dried up, I was getting on commercial jobs and the odd TV show here and there as a 2nd AC, but things weren’t looking too good…

One weekend I was returning some film equipment I had borrowed from Panavision to shoot a music video when Panavision called asking how far away I was. They told me that there were two gentlemen at the office right now and they wanted to talk to me—Stephen Oh and Aidan Kelly, the CEO and COO of XM2. I rushed into the studios knowing exactly who these guys were and well, Panavision opened another door for me. XM2 were looking for a young gun to join the team and manage their new office on the Gold Coast. I was pretty shocked. They asked if I wanted to help out on Dora the Explorer and there was no hesitation in my mind. I had just landed one of the coolest job opportunities that the industry has to offer.

A little background for you—XM2 specialises in aerial cinematography, lidar scanning, and VFX—catering to the major motion picture industry. As the only drone operator in the world with complete design, manufacture, build, and operational capabilities, XM2 can adapt and incorporate custom payloads onto aerial and ground-based platforms, creating constant advancements in performance and capability.

XM2 CEO Stephen Oh

XM2 CEO, Stephen Oh

The team is comprised of pilots, camera operators, engineers, and creatives allowing for a unique service environment, taking care of all aspects of the operation. Constant technological developments combined with a deep understanding of on-set work-flow creates a highly-skilled, precise, and efficient unit that is able to produce any creative vision. We continue to demonstrate the ability to operate in the most technically, logistically, and environmentally demanding locations around the world. This is achieved while applying thorough risk mitigation and a safety-first culture that meets and exceeds international standards. I don’t want to toot my own horn but… yeah, a pretty cool job. 

I completed those days with them on Dora, worked my ass off, and must have impressed them because they now have me working full time managing our Gold Coast office here in Queensland. I get to travel extensively between our other bases around the globe helping on productions wherever they may be. Two of our teams and I have just returned home from Georgia in Europe, Thailand, and Scotland after finishing principal photography on Fast & Furious 9 and the next James Bond film, No Time to Die. I am literally living the dream and I couldn’t be happier with what I have achieved at my age.

On our latest project, Fast and Furious 9, I was a drone technician on second unit while also managing our custom VFX array head. We developed the “MANTA” stabilised remote head to hold three Alexa Minis in a toe-in position to achieve 220 degrees of stich-able horizontal angle. This rig ultimately became my pride and joy as I worked on Fast 9. Due to the shooting schedule I had to pull it apart and put it back together half a dozen times. The VFX department could use this rig to reframe shots, recreate reflections, and project the surrounding environments onto blue/green screens in studio sound stages. I was working one on one with the VFX supervisor, while camera operating this platform from an ATAV for the off-road portions of the film. 

I was also on splinter unit where I was camera operating our smaller drone. Those shots were my first shots on a feature film—a pretty awesome accomplishment. This was all thanks to my boss and mentor, Stephen Oh, for trusting my skills as a camera operator. Thanks to XM2 I get to travel the world doing what I love, working on major motion pictures.

These are the productions I have recently worked on (not in any particular order):

  • Aquaman (Feature Film) (2nd AC, Truck Loader)
  • Fast and Furious 9 (Feature Film) (Drone Technician, Drone Camera Op, VFX Array Op, and Technician)
  • Dora the Explorer (Feature Film) (2nd AC, Drone Technician)
  • Westworld Season 3 (HBO TV Series – Airing) (Drone Technician)
  • Kong vs Godzilla (Feature Film – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Monster Problems (Feature Film – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Bloody Hell (Feature Film – Post-production) (Drone Technician & Drone  Camera Op)
  • Reef Break (TV Series – Airing) (Drone Camera Op)
  • At Last (Chinese/ Australia Co-Production) (2nd AC)
  • The End (TV Mini-Series – Post-production) (2nd AC)
  • Leaving Neverland (HBO Documentary) (Drone Technician)
  • QANTAS 2020 International Commercial (Post Production) (Drone 
  • Camera Op)
  • Halifax Retribution (TV Series – Post Production) (Drone Camera Op)
  • Hyundai VENUE, USA TVC (Drone Technician, BTS)
  • KIA Telluride, USA TVC (Drone Technician, BTS)

leroy button jane

NYFA: What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed working on a blockbuster film set as opposed to an indie or student film set? What are some of the similarities?

LB: The biggest differences I’ve found between blockbuster features and indie/student films is obviously the budget.

Being on big sets is an interesting experience. It’s fascinating and truly unbelievable how big some of the sets are and the lengths people go to get the shot how they want it—or how they compromise to achieve it another way. These crew members are truly professionals of their respected craft. Watching hundreds of people work for a common goal of completing the shot list for the day is like working in this complicated factory of cooperation, task mitigation, and frantic timed execution. 

Everyone has a role and that role is important in one way or another. There are literally hundreds of different jobs on set and they all matter and keep the production flowing. The PA that stays back to make the production coordinator a coffee might have just kept him/her awake an extra hour to recheck the SFX budget so they can afford to blow up an extra car the next day, which allows the director extra freedom with the cut and the rest of the crew get to see an extra explosion—thumbs up all round. 

Every role on set matters and they all affect the flow of production—no matter the size. The men and women on big sets usually have many, many years of on-set experience and this really shows when there’s half an hour left in the shooting day and there are still five shots to get—as you can imagine, someone like me stepping in with the “big boys” was very daunting and quite nerve-racking. I learned pretty quickly to present yourself professionally, act older than you seem and keep your head down, mouth shut, and ‘bum-up’ as is always a good idea when trying to fit in and impress the varying crew.

The cool thing with crew on major feature films is that oftentimes once the working week had finished, a lot of the crew would split into their respected friend groups and shoot passion projects, music videos, or short films—a lot of the time asking anyone and everyone if they would be free to help out. In an industry where a good word and who you know goes a long way, these opportunities are sometimes just as good as the production you may be on. Yes, you might only get paid in pizza, but you might just get a chance at focus pulling or helping with lighting or branch out from your usual role to try something different. These guerrilla style films are a great way to make new friends and test your abilities, learn new skills, and have a good laugh outside of the pressure that big productions put on you.

On the other hand, the biggest similarity between big and small budget productions is passion. The passion for filmmaking is always there whether it’s a low-budget indie or a multimillion-dollar action flick. One of the things I love about working in the film industry is the on-set etiquette. No matter the production, people are generally more than happy to lend a helping hand and impart some of their knowledge on to you. A lot of what I’ve learned about on-set lingo and practices has been through conversation between setups or while on lunch. The more time you spend in those environments with those varying levels of experience, the more you’ll learn.

Leroy Button

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on, personal or otherwise?

LB: Unfortunately, I can’t say what I’m working on with XM2 at the moment; however, I’m currently writing a sequel to one of my short films I shot while at NYFA Australia. It’s being filmed with a bunch of fellow NYFA Australia graduates and alumni.

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA Australia?

LB: The best advice I could give to students starting out at NYFA Australia would be to get your films into film festivals. No matter how good or bad that film is, get it into a festival circuit and put your name on it. The more people that see your film, the more contacts you’re connecting with—people talk and word spreads; if it’s positive, then you’ll become known and people will start calling you, it’s that simple. 

Absorb as much as you can. Do research online and ask questions (even the stupid ones) because at the end of the day you’ll either be none-the-wiser or know exactly what you’re talking about. Finally, keep creating, every single time your camera is rolling you’re learning something new—nine times out of ten it’s because you did something wrong—learn from that and you’ll become a better filmmaker.

Things to remember and be ready to answer:

  • Never “burn your bridges.” It’s a big industry, and everyone talks.
  • What is your attitude?
  • How are you different from the guy next to you?
  • And why should they get you on set?

NYFA: Anything I missed you’d like to speak on? 

LB: The film industry is a brutal beast – it can be so incredibly hard on you one day, yet so very rewarding the next—it’s not for the faint-hearted. With short films and personal projects, I learned pretty quickly that you can’t impress everyone. I decided to stop trying to impress others and began simply trying to impress myself and this worked out pretty well for me. I am very humbled with the opportunities that I have been given and I thank everyone for the part they have played in my story. Never forget to thank those who got you to where you are.

New York Film Academy thanks NYFA Australia alum Leroy Button for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his burgeoning career on-set, and wishes him the best of luck moving forward!

Drones And News Gathering: How It’s Changing

Drone with GoPro digital camera

The idea of using drones for news gathering has excited journalists since the unmanned flying machines became popular a few years ago. In 2012 Congress passed the FAA Modernization Act, requiring the FAA to regulate commercial usage of drones. Commercial organizations (that includes TV stations and other for-profit news organizations) have to apply for permission to use drones in their endeavors, and currently the FAA hasn’t granted more than very limited permission to any media organizations.

CNN Aims to be the First

According to a May Business Insider article, CNN partnered with the FAA to “test” and “research” drone usage in news gathering efforts. The news giant volunteered to research using a drone within sight of populated areas approved by the FAA, although the extent of their research is not known.

Why Drones are Important to Journalists

As much as broadcast reporters love to prove their enthusiasm for the job by standing outside in a snowstorm, struggling through a crowd to nail that perfect shot, and enduring less-than-ideal travel conditions, there are some places journalists just can’t go, due to safety or regulatory reasons.

For example, drones can gather bird’s-eye video of forest fires or other natural disasters in areas to dangerous to traverse. They can also take aerial shots of crowds at events that a reporter on the ground couldn’t collect. Additionally, the technology offers opportunities for stations in smaller markets—while large-market stations sometimes have a helicopter for traffic reports and breaking news, smaller stations often can’t afford to rent a helicopter for the occasional story that would benefit an aerial view.

Drones aren’t cheap—a good quality one can cost from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. However, those costs would be small compared to the price of a helicopter—not to mention the cost of hiring a pilot to fly the helicopter and shelling out for insurance. Drones could also be sent to some locations faster than news crews could arrive during heavy traffic.

The Fight for the Right to Fly Drones

A Motherboard article from May questioned whether the FAA even had the right to stop news organizations from using drones. It cited a coalition of media companies, including the New York Times, Associated Press and Washington Post that came together last year to pen a legal brief for the FAA. In this brief, they took the position that the First Amendment prevents the FAA from blocking news reporting—which, in this modern age, could easily include drones. It went on to note that if individuals could use drones, surely the First Amendment-protected press should receive the same permission.

A Way Around the Problem?

Since hobbyists can fly a drone and take video, why can’t they just sell their video to the press? According to the FAA in a Media Use of UAS memo from May, individuals flying drones can give away video they capture, but not take video so they can sell it. Theoretically, a news station could get lucky and receive video from a viewer’s phone for free, but realistically, that isn’t likely to happen.

The FAA was also questioned about whether a person who happened to accidentally take video of a newsworthy event with a drone could later decide to sell it. The same memo goes on to say that if hobbyists don’t intend to capture news for the purpose of selling to a news organization, selling any video they do capture later is probably acceptable. Obviously, it’s difficult to prove what someone intended to do, so there’s a little room for interpretation.

Going Forward

But in the long term, the only real solution is for TV stations to use their own drones. While there are genuine concerns—hobbyists flying drones recently got in the way of firefighters trying to put out California forest fires—there’s no reason that the FAA can’t simply regulate the commercial use of drones for safety. In recent weeks, the FAA has grown increasingly tough on the use of drones, even slapping one aerial photography company with a $1.9 million lawsuit for flying through crowded airspace in New York City and Chicago without permission. In addition, the FAA has just announced new plans to require the registrations of drones for both businesses and hobbyists following the rise in incidents in which civilians’ safety has been compromised by drones.

What can reporters do for now? Not much, other than writing to your Congressperson and familiarizing themselves with the legalities of drone filming. News organizations can apply for permission to use drones, but the FAA has been stingy with granting it to commercial organizations and slow in processing requests.

Learn more about the School of Broadcast Journalism at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Legalities Of Drone Filming

Establishing shots have gotten a lot easier, grander in scope and, moreover, inexpensive thanks to the advent of drone filmmaking.

Long gone are the days that you’d have to hire a helicopter to get that perfect aerial shot, but the laws regarding drone filmmaking are yet to catch up. Given it’s a topic that comes up frequently amongst our filmmaking school students as they embrace drone technology, today we’re going to delve into the specifics.

Drone legalities

And the overview is quite a snappy one. In a nutshell:

– Do not fly above 400 feet
– Give way to all other aircraft
– No drones weighing more than 55lbs
– Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport (without first getting approval from air traffic control)
– No flying near people or stadiums

All well and good, and really, the above constitutes common sense (and as far as we know, there aren’t any filmmaking drones that weigh anywhere near 55lbs—the heaviest we could find is the $150,000+ Phantom 4K Flex drone clocking in at around 30lbs).

But one line that the FAA issued in recent times has caused quite a bit of head scratching and frustration:

“The aircraft should be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use and not for payment or commercial purposes.”

Huh?

Obviously, this is of concern to a filmmaker looking to produce a movie that they’ll ultimately sell or show for profit. So what gives with this little rule? Why does your financial situation have any kind of impact on drone flight safety?

Section 333

There’s a lot of literature issued by the FAA on this topic, but to boil it all down, the authority has deemed it necessary to draw a line in the sand when it comes to commercial drone piloting—i.e for-profit filmmakers—because that would come under “civil operating,” and unless the distinction is made there, it means that anyone and everyone could technically self-certify their own unmanned aircraft and commandeer the skies without limits.

Essentially, it’s to avoid unregulated chaos but this does add some extra red tape to us as filmmakers since a Section 333 exemption is required. Applying for one is a rather lengthy process and the average reviewal takes around 120 days—not hugely practical when you’re trying to get a production in the can.

The good news is that there is a lot of pressure being put on the FAA to relax its rules when it comes to filmmaking, and the recent news that it has just granted a blanket exemption to a handful of Hollywood companies suggests it’s considering this.

A Note on Locality & Privacy

As you can probably imagine, locality plays a big part in what is and isn’t permitted. You can fly a drone at 100ft in the middle of Death Valley to your heart’s content and not get into any trouble, but flying in around The Mall in Washington is prohibited and comes with some hefty fines for doing so.

Also, as a responsible filmmaker you’ll want to observe social etiquette and respect the privacy of the public i.e. no flying or filmmaking over or near private property (and even some public land prominently displays ‘no drone zone’ posters, which should be observed.)

Recent Developments

However, the landscape seems to be quickly changing, with two recent developments occurring this month. Firstly, the FAA issued a hefty $1.9 million fine against an aerial photography company that had been flying drones through crowded airspace in New York City and Chicago without permission. And just this week, the Obama administration announced plans for the FAA to start a drone registration program just as the holiday season begins, when drone sales are expected to rise significantly. While details of the plan are still being ironed out, it will effect hobbyists as well businesses.

In conclusion, as the regulation of drones continues to evolve, be sure to keep up to date on all drone-related news, always exercise your common sense, and look up local FAA guidelines and prohibitions where you are (and adhere to them!)

Learn more about the School of Cinematography at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.