Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Ellie McCutcheon


Company: McCutcheon Media

Location: San Francisco, California (but nomadically-inclined)

Tell us about yourself.

I'm 29, and a dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner. I also like to write songs on my six-stringed ukulele.

What inspired you to begin flying drones, and what made you want to enter the industry as a drone pilot?

I'm an active outdoors person, and drones seemed like a fantastic way to communicate the elevated feeling that comes with a dramatic landscape.

What were you doing before you started flying drones, and what made you make the transition?

I worked for several years as an Associate Producer for a small documentary production company. (Keep an eye out for their upcoming film, Free for All: Inside the Public Library!) They hired a drone operator for a shoot in Wisconsin, and I was so blown away by the footage and how the aerial perspective could elevate the overall quality of the film. Right around that time, I signed up for the Drone Pilot Ground School newsletter and purchased a drone simulator to practice on my laptop.

What drone(s) are you currently flying, and what drone accessories do you love?

I fly an Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse X7 camera (bought used through the Drone Pilot Ground School forum), a Mavic 2 Pro, and a Mavic Air.

What is your favorite feature on your drone and why?

I mostly like to fly manually, but I've recently discovered 360 photos. Been having a lot of fun putting some of those on Google Maps!

What drone images are you most proud of and why?

These days, I'm loving smooth, slow, meditative 15-30 second shots where where you don't necessarily assume it's filmed by a drone - you're just struck by how stunning the imagery is. (à la this guy's work at oneeyedbird.net). I also love when I can get some satisfying symmetry going on.

Have you learned any valuable lessons from being in the drone industry that you can share with our female drone community?

The fanciest drone isn't always the best one for the job. I recently did a shoot for a client and used both a Mavic Air and an Inspire 2. They ended up using footage from both and didn't comment once on the quality difference! Since then, I've decided to use the Mavic series (Mavic 2) over the Inspire for filming that focuses on people, unless the client specifically needs ProRes or RAW and will pay a higher fee for it.

Whether it's from a creative, commercial or humanitarian perspective, tell us about your most memorable drone flight you have piloted thus far.

A former White House calligrapher hired me for his lifelong dream project of writing a poem on a beach. We met at Bodega Bay in California and spent a half day filming large-scale calligraphy from an aerial perspective - all in 20 mph wind (with some higher gusts that did push the drone's limits of stability)!

Then, I camped along the beach in my converted van, which is my favorite thing to do when flying drones around California. :) It's been a fun challenge to edit the piece together to make the poem flow smoothly + feel comprehensible. He'll be debuting the short film at the International Calligraphy Conference in Toronto this summer! I'll post a link in the WWD facebook group when it's up.

What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?

There's so much demand for it right now! I've been really pleasantly surprised how quickly things have been falling into place for me, work-wise. It definitely helps that I'm somewhat connected in the documentary world already - most of my clients have come through word of mouth. So I recommend cultivating good relationships with people who are interested in the same things as you. You really never know where those will lead!

What excites you most about more women joining the drone industry?

More friends!

Do you have any drone tips & tricks you can share with our audience?

If you have access to wide open spaces, that's the best place to fly! (Perhaps that's obvious) More specifically - in the U.S., you can't fly in National Parks, but there are other types of federal public land where you CAN fly legally. For example, land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are great options.

This is likely easier to find in Central/Western U.S. where there's lots of open space. Figuring out specifics of federal public land can get confusing, so I like to refer people to this article to parse out the types of public land and their related drone regulations: Making Heads or Tails of Flying a Drone Over U.S. Public Lands.

What's the best way for our readers to get in touch with you?

You can email me at hello@elliemccutcheon.com, or find me on Instagram at @ellie-mccutcheon.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?

I also want to get into mapping with drones, but haven't scratched the surface of that. So if anyone has any tips/tricks on how to get started with that, I'm all ears! Also curious for any tips on 360 video - don't yet know how to do that either.

Ellie is a Part 107 FAA-certified remote pilot specializing in aerial storytelling techniques for filmmakers and journalists. She loves filming dramatic cinematic landscapes, and is interested in pushing the creative limits of what you can communicate with a drone.

After spending several years in the San Francisco Bay Area’s documentary film scene, Ellie borrowed a friend’s drone and took to the vast public lands of the Western U.S. (specifically, land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service) to practice flying. More than a hundred flight hours later, she travels around California doing client work and making short aerial films with her DJI Inspire 2 and Mavic 2 Pro. Some recent clients have included NPR, UC Berkeley, Blue Shield of California, and a former White House Calligrapher.

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