Not exactly Cannes, this film fest is Fargo...with drones

DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. - Spencer Kuhlman was playing junior hockey in Canada when a knee injury wiped out his hopes of playing in college. With time on his hands, Kuhlman turned to another passion — aviation — and soon lost himself in the pleasures of drone photography.

Kuhlman is a finalist in a surprisingly popular first-year film festival that aims to highlight the possibilities of art from above. The festival, part of an annual drone conference that attracts hundreds of participants to a state that has invested $40 million in the unmanned aircraft industry, drew 42 entries from 21 countries.

Kuhlman’s loosely scripted “Across The World” entry relies on clips from travels to Norway, Canada, Hawaii and across the continental U.S.

“There’s a lot of gliding over locations at the beginning,” he said. “As soon as the beat of music picks up, it’s more like people jumping and a lot more activity going on.”

Kuhlman and other entrants will find out how they did Thursday, when winners are announced at the two-day Drone Focus conference. It’s the third year for the conference, which this year counts Labor Secretary Elaine Chao among some 50 speakers.

“Apparently there’s a bigger appetite for film festivals in the drone space than we even imagined,” said Greg Tehven, executive director of Emerging Prairie, the nonprofit that sponsors the conference.

The festival is nothing like those put on for traditional film. Entries had to be 5 minutes or less, with at least half the footage from drone cameras.

Categories included narrative, landscape and architecture, showreel, lifestyle and work by students. Conference attendees will also vote on a people’s choice award.

One of the judges, longtime professional photographer John Borge, said the learning curve for filming with drones can be steep. When he started using drones about four years ago, it was a fairly crude process and he needed to think differently about using light, movement, composition and flow.

The strongest films he judged were the ones “where you felt you were involved with it and it took you somewhere.” He said there are times that an irresistible shot needs to be cut because it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the piece.

“Sometimes there is such a cool shot but it doesn’t fit, but you can tell they just had to use it. It was so great, it was so stunning, it was so beautiful, but it didn’t tie together,” Borge said. “The tricky thing, I think, is to make great video that isn’t just great because it’s shot from the air.”

Kuhlman, who plans to attend Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall, said he had a great time making his film and expressing his creativity. He and a friend started a clothing line six months ago, and they plan to use drone video and photography to promote it.

“Flying the drone really made me forget about my injury,” Kuhlman said. “Editing videos and doing that was truly an escape. It would be quite an honor to win, to be honest. It would give me a ton of joy.”