Film producer Joshua Lambeth has mastered drone cameras to capture sweeping views from dizzying angles for clients ranging from BMW and Mercedes-Benz to Arizona utilities Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service.
His Phoenix-based Birds Eye Productions utilizes all kinds of cameras to film commercials and videos, and as the company’s name implies, most of its work is done high above the ground.
Once strictly the domain of hobbyists, small, camera-equipped drones are important tools for professionals like Lambeth, who's part of a small group of photographers and film producers plying their trade in the Valley using these flying machines.
“We do a lot of commercials,” said Lambeth, who founded the full-service production company in 2012. “We’ve also done stuff for Fox and Showtime networks, as well as most of the car manufacturers.”
Companies seek out Birds Eye to provide airborne views of the Valley for their commercials, as well as aerial shots of cars zooming along on roads or closed tracks. "A lot of the stuff that we do is not that high up,” said Lambeth. “Our sweet spot is between 25-75 feet off the ground.”
Finding a niche
Another sought-after Arizona pro is Luke Pierzina, who founded Aerial Raiders in 2011 and specializes in drone photography, shooting high-end homes from the air.
“This is a niche. Not everybody can do it. It’s not a matter of just buying a camera,” said Pierzina, who works mostly in real estate but has experience in film and music video production. “I’ve been doing it long enough that I have a skill and my stuff looks different than everybody else’s.”
Lambeth and Pierzina have each carved out his own specific niche in a boutique industry, which might explain why the two hold diverging views of looming changes in the field.
Pierzina anticipates more competitors crowding the Phoenix market, adding he had almost no competitors three years ago. Today, there are “a whole bunch” of new players hungry for work.
In fact, the competition has increased to the point where Pierzina says he has to pitch himself much more aggressively to attract potential customers. Previously, they had no one else to turn to.
“They were begging me to come out. Now, I have to sell them on my skill, and how long I’ve been here,” Pierzina said.
Drone video productions and commercials are another story, however. Over the past five years, Lambeth says he has watched at least six or seven companies attempt to compete with Birds Eye productions, only to fail.
“They ended up selling off all their gear and closing down completely,” he said. “I think the main reason was that we have a good hold on the market, in terms of relationships with the main producers that work here in Arizona. A lot of the big projects go through one of the five main producers and those producers all know us really well because we’ve been working with them longer than anybody else. They trust our work.”
Pierzina says recent regulatory changes have opened up the field for smaller outfits, drawing more potential competitors.
“Before there was really a gray area,” Pierzina said, referring to changes last year to Federal Aviation Administration regulations governing small commercial drones.
Previously, a commercial drone operator had to have a manned aircraft pilot’s license or apply for special waivers from the agency to use drones for business, an often monthslong process. Now, operators can fly drones after passing an examination for a “remote pilot airman certificate.” Additionally, operators must be at least 16 years old. While operating drones, they must keep the aircraft in sight and fly during the day, under 400 feet and below 100 mph.
“I think the number of competitors in the market will level off and the prices will adjust,” Pierzina said. “But it will be a high-end, niche market.”
The key to survival, Pierzina says, is having a unique set of skills that stand out from the rest of the field.
Pierzina charges about $400-$500 per aerial shoot of upscale, luxury homes, with a product that contains a two-minute video with about 20 pictures.
There’s certainly money to be made in the drone industry for someone who is both talented and motivated. According to Pierzina, if you find the right market and have the right skills, you could make $100,000 annually.
“The rich people still want to spend money,” Pierzina said. “They want to tell everybody that they spent $800 on their photos, not $200. When they have a million-dollar home, they don’t want to go cheap. So, the prices won’t come down that much, but the competition will drive them down a little.”
Lambeth, however, believes there’s room for growth beyond his niche of film production, which makes up 95 percent of his work. He sees potential in aerial surveying and inspections, which Birds Eye has yet to tap into.
“As more and more companies figure out what drones are capable of and how they can help with their budgets, I think it’s going to continue to grow,” Lambeth said.