11 Questions with Director Philip Grossman, First Person to Crash a Drone in Chernobyl

UPDATE: Philip Grossman has wrapped up his 5th excusion to the Zone. Here's a peek at the footage he capturered there.

Filmmaker Philip Grossman has been dazzling us with haunting and revealing images and video from the Chernobyl disaster site, recently adding aerial videography to his repertoire. Videomaker was fortunate enough to sit down (at least virtually) with Philip to learn a bit more about this intriguing multi-year project and what drives him to capture this stunning imagery.

Russ Fairley: Philip, choosing to shoot in Chernobyl and Pripyat is an odd choice, as it has historically been a place people think to avoid. What drew you to the disaster site in the first place?

Philip Grossman: I grew up near Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and lived through that event when I was 9 years old. I believe this started my fascination with Nuclear Energy. Fast forward 32 years or so and I was working at Intercontinental Hotel group as the Director of Global Enterprise Solutions Architecture for about 7 years and just decided to take a break from “corporate America.”  My then girlfriend (Update 6/1/15: now wife :-). We got married in a 300 year old abandoned church in the Chernobyl exclusion zone), Elizabeth Hanson, told me to focus on my fine art photography for a year. At that point, I had a few small gallery shows and met with the curator of the High Museum in Atlanta who said they all liked my work but there wasn’t a cohesive body. So I put on my Engineer hat (I am a graduate of the university of Colorado, Boulder with degrees in Architectural Engineering and Illumination Engineering) and tried to figure out why someone like Annie Leibovitz is more famous than Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, both great photographers and it really boiled to down to content. It's (in their case) who they photographed.

I set out to figure out what I could photograph that would be different, that few people had photographed or could photograph.  And I kept coming back to Chernobyl (my family is from the Ukraine originally), so I decided that is where I would go photograph. I took my first trip in November 2011, thinking it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and went mainly to photograph, but took a small Panasonic TM700 handicam for personal video. Three months after returning to the States, my partner Arek from Poland, who helped arrange my first visit, asked if I wanted to go back and of course I said yes, but only if we spend more then 4 days in the zone. I have now made 4 trips and spent 32 days in the zone with a 5th trip leaving on May 24 for another 12 days. I have also moved from shooting 90% stills/10% video to 98% video/2% stills. I now have a collection of 3,000 photos (I have shot well over 15,000) and about 30 hours of video with 50% being 4K. I was also the first person to fly a drone in the the Chernobyl Region almost 4 years ago.

RF: It seems that your photography and videography has not been limited to traditional means, and you've embraced technology whole-heartedly. How do you think the advancements over the last few years have influenced your artwork, and in particular, how have the changed and morphed the Chernobyl project?

PG: My father is a surgeon and my mother is an artist and I am the middle child, so I have always been pulled both by technology and art. I love how the various technologies allow me to be creative in telling a story whether it be with photos or video. The technology has allowed me to be more flexible in telling the story of Chernobyl. I switched to shooting 4K two years ago with a Sony FS700 and a Convergent Designs Odyssey 7Q. The addition of 4K has added so much detail and texture to the story telling and allowed me great flexibility when posting in HD to do pushes/pulls etc and still maintain the HD detail.

And of course tools like drones — though I hate that term, I prefer remotely piloted aerial platform — RPAP, trademark pending :-). On my first trip to the zone I we managed to get permission and found a helicopter to fly us in the zone. This was a rarity, but after looking at the material I knew I wanted to get closer and a different perspective. That is what started my using RPAP. I went to the local “Drone” dealer in Atlanta, Atlanta Hobby/UAV Experts, who just happen to be one of the largest DJI dealers in the US. Cliff Whitney and team were great. We walked through my needs and as is typical for me, I started with something small, then ended up taking a DJI S800 with a GH3. Since then I have flown the S800 EVO and Phantom 2 in the zone. The next trip will include several days of doing nothing but flying in order to produce an aerial film using DJI Inspire 1 and Phantom 3.




RF: Were the shoots involving a drone specifically for aerial photography and video, or were you shooting with more traditional means on those trips as well?

PG: On the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th trips, the RPAP was just an additional piece of gear to help tell the story.  This next trip, RPAP will be a large part of the first 4 days as I am focused on producing a 30 minute Aerial Film. I am still working on the title but currently thinking about calling it “Vyshe Zony” which means above the zone in Russian.

RF: How would you say the UAV has changed your ability to capture Chernobyl, and art in general. Are you discovering new perspectives, both literally and figuratively, of the historic disaster site?

PG: For me photography and film work is all about perspective — literally.  I actually took an idea I learned from Cesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer) which I started watching when it first hit the air as I had just adopted a rescue dog.  One of the things he said is a dog won’t pay attention if you pull back on the leash, its focused and has a very strong neck, so pulling wont do much.  But if you pull the leash side ways, you pull the dog off balance and it will loose its focus and pay attention to you.  Photography and visual story telling is very similar. If you show someone something from a perspective they expect to see it, you are less likely to get an emotive response. You set the perspective so its something that puts the person “off balance,” you will at least get their attention, then they can decide if they like or dislike what they see.

So for me a RPAP has allowed by to change the perspective on how the zone is viewed which helps draw the viewer into the imagery. And of course, I hope when they are drawn in they find the story being told to be fascinating. I have a friend Cindy Campbell that says “a picture is worth a thousand words, you just hope someone chooses the right thousand words”

RF: Before the introduction of the drone(s), what cameras and lenses did you prefer to shoot most with for video and stills?

PG: I am a technology geek for sure.  My first camera was a Ricoh KR-5 that my uncle gave me when I was 13, My father (and his father and his father’s father) all shot 8mm film and I remember using the camera when I was a kid.  My father got a RCA video Camera in the 80’s (the kind with the recorder that you carried around). That was the first time I became enthralled with video. I think it had a lot to do with being able to experiment and see the results in near real time. I even bought a cheap “video switcher” from Radio Shack in high school to try to do linear editing. All the time I continued to take photos and built a dark room, etc. My first digital camera was an Olympus 1200L (I think that was the model), it was a 1.2 mega pixel with about a 20 second shutter delay!

I was helping with some research with my best friend, Greg Galdino, at Johns Hopkins where he was a plastic surgery resident.  It had to do with digital imaging where a 2 MP SLR was still around $14,000, but I saw the future of imaging and was excited. I purchased my first DSLR which was a Canon 20D, I eventually upgraded to a 30D, then a 5D MKII and now have had my 5D MKIII for several years.

I love experimenting with the various technologies and usually have about 5 different cameras with me it seems for each trip to the zone.  One trip I had a GoPro HERO3, Panasonic GH3, Canon 5D Mark II, Sony FS700 and a Panasonic TM700.  This upcoming trip I have narrowed it a bit. I am taking a Panasonic GH4, Canon 5D MKIII and my newly purchased Sony FS7 — and of course the DJI Inspire and Phantom 3 have their own cameras.

RF: For your first aerial shoot, what did you use for a drone, gimbal and camera setup?

PG: When I first went to the team at Atlanta Hobby, we looked at the DJI F450, then had a DJI F550 built, and before I ever flew it I saw the DJI S-800 and said that is the RPAP.  Its arms come off fairly quickly and can be packed up pretty small and could carry a GH3. At the time I knew very little about Gimbals and couldn’t see spending $2500 on one so I bought an inexpensive model (about $350). That was a mistake, as there was a lot of post processing required.  Since then the Gimbal is the one thing I spend the most time thinking about.


RF: When you made the jump to 4K shooting, what was the change in equipment?

PG: I actually made the jump to 4K pretty early. At the time I was the Senior Director of Media Technology and Strategy for the Weather Channel and was designing their next generation field acquisition model and I knew 4K would be part of it.  So we were the first broadcast company to start using the Sony Z100 4K ENG camera, I then bought a GH4 and was waiting for GoPro to come out with their 4K model that shot at 30P.  I now own several 4K cameras and am waiting for Canon to come out with a 5D MK IV that does 4K ?

RF: Did you receive any help or support from manufacturers for equipment, training, etc.?

PG: I was lucky enough to have the support of Sony Professional Services due to my role at The Weather Channel.  When we went on our 4th expedition the goal was to shoot completely in 4K. At the time one of the only cameras, as we planned the trip, outside of RED was the Sony FS700, F5 and F55. I was fortunate to get to spend a few days at Sony’s Digital Motion Picture Center (DMPC) in LA working through all the various camera models to see what would work best. For me, the main issue was the need for auto exposure and auto focus as shooting in the zone does not provide you a lot of time to set exposure and focus. I was planning on the F55 with Sony’s R5 recorder as it could support the Fujinon Cabrio lens which at least had auto iris capability, but the set up was extremely heavy and awkward.

I was then talking with a company xFoldrigs at NAB about 2 months before the trip and one of their employees mentioned that the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q recorder could record 4K RAW from the FS700. I immediately went over to the Convergent Design Booth and chatted with Mitch Gross and John Schell about the 7Q. I purchased one about 7 days later. 

That led to a working relationship with the Convergent Design team as they were working to get ProRes 4K working on the 7Q, which was targeted to be ready just in time for my trip. Unfortunately they did not make the date, but they were fantastic and lent me several of their SSD’s since I would be shooting all RAW 4K as ProRes was not ready. I shoot nearly 20 Gigs on that trip.

Where I use to live in Atlanta I was also lucky enough to have a great professional camera store, Showcase Camera, and Kenny Crysler, one of the managers, was great at helping get me the gear I needed on time. I ordered a GH4 when they first came out and his team put me at the top of the list for deliveries so it would be in my hands a few weeks prior to the trip.

RF: We have a ton of readers who are at various levels of expertise in operating drones, either for hobby or as part of their production workflow. I think we'd all love to know whether you have had any incidents using yours. Have you had any crashes, did you experiment with brands, have irradiated drones become self-aware and attacked?

PG: I don’t think there is a single drone pilot who hasn’t crashed. The technologies have gotten a lot better over the past few years, so I think the incidents of accidents due to hardware/software failure have become a lot less frequent. I still get a little concerned every time I do a firmware upgrade though. I actually had my first drone crash before I even flew my drone. I had my brand new S-800 on my dining room table and was just experimenting turning on the motors and checking the LEDs, etc.  I mistakenly turned off the remote while the blades were spinning down. The unit thought it lost contact with the remote (which it did), and it went into fail safe, powered up to try to get 50 feet above the highest altitude recorded which was about 3 feet on the dining room table. It hit the celling, hit the wall, then the floor. About $600 in damages to the drone before its first flight. But again the team at Atlanta Hobby/UAV Experts was great. First they didn’t make fun of me for doing something so stupid (laughs). Second they got everything repaired in time for the trip.

Not only was I the first person ever to fly a drone in Chernobyl, but I am the first person to ever crash a drone in Chernobyl. It turns out the 13th day of the trip, the 13th flight of the trip and it was May 13th and just after lift off one of the motors died on the S-800 and it went into an uncontrollable spin and crashed.  The parts are still lying in Chernobyl.

Here’s a link to the crash from the camera:


I have been very happy with the DJI product set and felt very comfortable with their technology. Now that I am doing more aerial work I have started to look at other designs mainly due to my needs. The Inspire is an amazing RPAP, it flies like a dream and the camera unit is far superior to a GoPro, but its still 30P 4:2:0 8 Bit. The S1000 is HUGE and hard to transport globally for an independent film maker.

I was lucky enough to meet Ziv Marom and TJ Diaz of xFly Systems (http://www.xflysystems.com & http://www.xfoldrigs.com) at NAB a few years ago when they were protyping their xFold rig. They have asked me to help out with the company and of course I have jumped at the chance. 

The avionics of the rig are DJI — still think they make the best system. The largest model can be made to be a 12 motor capable of carrying dual RED EPICs. Its is one of, if not the most, transportable heavy lift designs out there. There are three frame sizes and all three sizes can be outfit from 4 motors to 12 motors — so lots of flexibility.

RF: How important is finding a subject matter you're passionate about when creating art, or telling a story through images?

PG: Subject matter is number 1.  Since I don’t do a lot of “gun for hire” work (at least not yet), I have to be very passionate about the subject. Its like a job, if you don’t like your job, you probably won’t be good at it, if you like your job you will work extremely hard to be an expert at it.

RF: And finally, regardless of location, you have done and are doing what many young filmmakers would dream of doing — traveling to a location to immerse yourself in a project you're passionate about. What lessons have you taken away from your many visits to Chernobyl and Pripyat, and what advice would you offer to one such filmmaker, looking to do what you're doing?

PG: The biggest piece of advice I can offer is “research, research, research” prior to going anywhere to film. I was never a big “planner” in the past and just went with the moment. I have learned as I have grown as a film maker, that the more you plan the better the result. That is not to say that happy accidents don’t happen or that you should plan to the “nth” degree, but take time to learn your subject, your location, your tools (camera’s, drones, editor, etc).

I would also recommend learning the entire process of film making. The actual filming is a very small part of the whole process. The more you know from beginning to end the better you will be at the “part” you want to focus on. I love editing, but I like shooting more, but because I know how to edit I have become a better shooter by knowing what will need to be done in post. Simple things like let the camera roll before “action” and after “action”  that few seconds of padding can make the difference between a great shot and just a nice clip.

Russ Fairley
Russ Fairleyhttp://www.productionworld.net
Russ Fairley is a producer, editor and motion graphic designer. He also writes for Videomaker and several other publications.

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