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‘Orville’ flies media firm to new heights

Local production company takes 12-pound drone around the continent to shoot video for Fortune 100 clients.

September 1, 2017
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Orville
Steve Kohn, director of photography and videography, said the drone is capable of shooting up to 60 frames per second. Courtesy Cynthia Kay and Company Media Production

Just a few years ago, media companies had to rent helicopters to get aerial shots — a hefty expense for a small firm. Drones have changed all that.

This summer, Grand Rapids-based Cynthia Kay and Company Media Production marked a milestone by acquiring its first in-house drone. The 31-year-old firm previously hired freelance pilots who built their own drones.

Dubbed “Orville” in a nod to the younger Wright brother, the company’s new 12-pound, 1-foot-by-1-foot drone is a DJI Phantom 4 Pro that costs about $2,000. The model shoots up to 60 frames per second and produces high-definition and ultra high-definition images, according to Steve Kohn, director of photography and videography.

“It’s got a powerful camera for its size,” he said. “A lot of the time, we’ll shoot 4K, shooting 60 frames, because it allows us to do smooth slow motion, and the overhead shots in slow motion are just gorgeous.”

“They’re sweeping,” said Cynthia Kay, the firm’s owner and president.

Kay said her company, which has six employees, started getting requests for drone footage a couple of years ago after commercial drones first gained traction. At the time, it wasn’t cost-effective for a small business to own and maintain a drone.

“There wasn’t a lot of call for it, but every once in awhile, we’d get someone who would want that kind of video,” she said. “It came into play specifically with customers who have very large facilities where getting up and getting a good view gives you a good feel for the scale of their operation.”

Eventually, Kay concluded having an in-house drone and a licensed pilot could enhance her company’s storytelling capabilities and add to its suite of communication and marketing services.

Cynthia Kay and Company’s customers include global Fortune 100 and 500 outfits such as Siemens’ Infrastructure & Cities sector, as well as local clients such as Herman Miller, Kids’ Food Basket and Catholic Central High School.

Recently, Kohn used the drone to capture aerial footage of a West Michigan landmark people usually only see from the ground.

“We just did a job for Blandford Nature Center and their acquiring of the old Highlands Golf Course,” Kohn said. “The view of The Highlands and its proximity to the nature center are something you might not catch right away. We went up a good 400 feet in the air and showed how close the two are.

“It’s a cool perspective. It’s a bird’s-eye view, and years ago, you couldn’t get that. You’d have to rent a helicopter.”

Kay said requests for drone footage still aren’t frequent enough to justify a dedicated full-time employee. Kohn was certified as a drone pilot so he could focus on standard videography and do drone work on the side.

So far, the company has taken the drone all over North America to places such as Atlanta; New York; Sacramento, California; and Monterrey, Mexico.

Kohn said the drone can fly about 2 miles away from the operator before it starts to lose its radio signal, meaning pilots must work on-location.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the use of drones, limits commercial drone flight to 400 feet above ground level. It stipulates that drone operators do not fly over people or certain designated areas or in the same airspace as manned aircraft. Regulations also prohibit night flying.

Despite the safety regulations and the drone’s anti-collision technology, Kohn said drone flight still makes some people nervous. He said Cynthia Kay and Company tries to alleviate concerns via safety precautions.

“One thing a lot of people don’t think about is when you’re on the ground flying a drone, 250 to 300 feet in the air, perception is difficult to judge. We won’t fly without having someone on-site to watch and communicate with the pilot, as well.”

Kay refers to the observer as a “spotter.”

“They just have to be visually aware of where the drone is,” she said.

Another Cynthia Kay and Company employee is studying for certification to help when Kohn is unavailable.

Kay and Kohn agree the technology is going to stick around.

“For some people, drones are a fad. For us, it’s not,” Kay said. “It’s applying this useful tool in a way that helps our customers.”

Kohn said he feels privileged to be a drone pilot.

“It’s just such a joy to use,” he said. “The shots we get — these are things you would see in an $80-million film, these vast sweeping shots of our country and the world. It’s not something you can easily replicate. It’s being able to see the world from the eyes of a bird. It’s not something many people get to do.”

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