Mike Mazur is a Drone Pilot Ground School alum with a huge range of experience in cinematography.
He started out working in Manhattan in post-production. From there he learned about shooting and directing, and built up his skill set to the point where he is now, as the owner of his own production company, Diario Films. Mike has worked with artists like Kesha and Steely Dan, and he’s also flown missions for non-profits in Guatemala and elsewhere around the world.
We wanted to sit down and talk to Mike both about how he built up his production business, and also about his decision to add drones to his list of tools as a cinematographer.
Tell us about your background. How did you first get into work as a photographer and cinematographer?
My career started out very differently from many drone pilots I’ve met and heard about.
I first started work in photography and videography in post production, as an editor and and after-effects artist. For a significant part of my career I was managing a green screen studio in lower Manhattan, and only did post production work.
But after a while that work became tiresome, and I realized that I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life in a dark room, looking at other people’s adventures.
So I eventually got a job as a producer, because I had been producing some of the shoots that we had done in lower Manhattan (including one with our current president, which was a funny experience).
The agency I was working for, which was called Cross Borders, eventually merged into another agency called Rain, and that was a creative agency where I handled projects in which we were creating digital content for corporations to use in one form or another. We worked with companies like Walmart, Subway, and Hess
Although I wasn’t very enthusiastic about a lot of the more corporate work, we got to make a short documentary series about sports in America to be used in tandem with the 2012 Olympics, and I really loved that work. The goal of the series was to showcase how American society looks at sports—we did an episode on the Special Olympics, one on Jackie Robinson, things like that.
While at Rain, in addition to working in production I started picking up a camera. The first thing I really learned how to shoot well was a time lapse—I’d always be shooting time lapse photography while these bigger projects were going on. But we’d always hire a cinematographer and a director of photography to come and shoot the project for me.
And then, when I was 29, I had a sort of serendipitous occasion on a trip to Guatemala, back in January of 2013. I ended up getting a fellowship with a non-profit there, and staying for the entire year of 2013 doing work in both Central America and Southeast Asia.
To do this work, I would literally go from country to country, from town to town, with a big backpack that had a camera, a tripod, and a laptop. So I was finding stories, shooting them, directing them, editing them—I was delivering them, all by myself. And that was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
When I came back from that year I had so much experience to draw from for my work in cinematography.
I wanted to finish a documentary I’d started about a famous figure in Puerto Rico, so I teamed up with my friend Fernando, who is a brilliant cinematographer, and we raised a few thousand dollars through an Indiegogo campaign, and we spent two weeks on the island and were able to finish the project.
Around the same time, I met a producer named Matty Parker, who had just secured the life rights for the story of a man who was the first African American to play in the NBA, who is named Earl Lloyd. The NBA film premiered a little while back at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and we’ve secured international distribution, so we’re really excited about that.
So that’s the story of how I went from work in post-production to getting behind the camera.
What made you start using drones in your work?
It’s kind of a funny story.
At the same time DJI released the Osmo, which allows you to get incredibly smooth shots, and the X5 Handle—but the two didn’t actually work together.
They said it would, but in reality, it just didn’t. (The following spring, after releasing these two products, they released a little piece that allowed you to connect one to the other.)
The X5 handle was pretty expensive—it cost more than $2,000—but I couldn’t use it since it didn’t connect to the Osmo, so for a while I just had this really expensive paper weight sitting in my office.
At the same time, I’d been wanting to expand my repertoire and my business, and so I just compulsively bought a DJI Inspire 1 and started flying
How did you first start using drones as a commercial pilot?
The first time I flew a drone on a shoot was for a job in Guatemala, for a non-profit called the Friendship Brigade, which does loans to women in rural areas to help them start businesses. (This was on a return trip, not during my first period there where I was given the job to travel around the world.)
After that first experience, I realized that I really loved shooting with a drone, and I realized how much it improved the quality of the work that I did there.
The piece I made for the non-profit was a profile of a woman named Gilanda. She used the loans to really improve her life, and she helped all these other women in the community improve their lives.
Being able to follow her from the sky, and to shoot her house, was huge, since part of what she did with the money she borrowed was expand her home. And even at the end of the video I was able to get a great shot with my Inspire I that really helped close things out.
Have you ever crashed during a shoot?
No, but seriously, I definitely have had to deal with a crash, and it was heart breaking.
I was in Puerto Rico working on that documentary I talked about earlier, and still fairly new to flying. I was flying near a lake, and decided to pull back a bit without turning the camera around and looking at what was behind the drone—I just impulsively went backwards, and I got the drone stuck in a tree, about a hundred feet in the air.
Before I knew it a local man was chopping down the tree to get the drone back, and he’d cut it down within less than ten minutes with his machete. And I watched in agony as the tree turned in the air, at the last minute, and completely crushed the drone.
It was definitely a learning experience. Since then I’ve been through the Drone Pilot Ground School course, and I know a lot more about how to check yourself and be careful when you’re flying, to prevent those types of scenarios from arising in the first place.
When did you start flying commercially in the U.S.?
I shot abroad quite a bit, in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, India, France, both with a drone and with other equipment
And finally, when I was back in the U.S. and ready to work I decided I wanted to pursue Part 107 certification and became a professional drone pilot here.
I made the decision for a few reasons: I wanted to know the material, I wanted to get better at flying—and I figured the certification process would push me to do that, too—and I also wanted to separate myself from other cinematographers, who either weren’t flying drones at all, or who were flying drones illegally.
This was in late 2016, shortly after the Part 107 rules had come out, and I knew a few cinematographers who would just use a drone in shoots without knowing the rules at all. They’d show me their drone footage, and some of it would just be so illegal.
Have you ever had to turn down work because it would violate the Part 107 rules?
There have been multiple times where I’ve had to turn down jobs because I didn’t have the night time waiver, which I applied for and wasn’t able to get.
I’ve also had to turn down work in New York City on a few different occasions. Even though many locations in New York look like they’re OK for flying when you’re in the AirMap app, you then learn that the reality is way more confusing. And, of course, NYC claims to have a city-wide ban on drone flights, but even that doesn’t actually seem legal, it’s just something that the city has put on their website to discourage people from figuring out where they actually can and can’t fly.
Basically, it’s so confusing that I’ve decided not to do it, since I don’t want to risk breaking the law.
How do you typically find clients?
Word of mouth is key.
Every job I get is essentially stems from an existing group of contacts that I’ve built gradually over the years, and we all support each other and give each other work. Almost everything I do is an extension of some kind of work, some kind of contact that I’ve made in the past through previous networking. Your experience just snowballs.
If a contact I have sends me any kind of opportunity, I’ll immediately stop what I’m doing and apply to it. And often, because it comes along with my contact’s recommendation, I’ll get the job.
Of course, your work has to be solid enough to get your foot in the door, and you also have to be able to deliver when you show up to do the job.
One thing I did that helped me get work, and really distinguish myself, was that when I upgraded my cinematography services and started adding drone services as well, I made sure to send out emails to my contacts and let them know, and share my aerial reel.
And actually, creating that reel was one of the most important things I did to get those new clients who were interested in aerial shots. After my first drone shoots in Guatemala, I did some aerial shoots in New York and New Jersey, just flying around my family’s home, and put a reel together to show off my new skill set.
The key is to just keep chipping away—adding on footage to your reel, making it better and more diverse as you get more jobs, and also to keep adding on skill sets.
If you make it your goal to keep growing and keep getting better at what you do, you will find work—it may not always be easy, but it will come.