Corey Rich is a storyteller. The photographer and videographer has traveled the world to capture images of athletes on the edge with his South Lake Tahoe-based company, Corey Rich Productions.
And this summer, his storytelling arsenal got a bit bigger when he used remote-controlled helicopters to capture sky-breaking footage of an expedition to climb the Trango Towers in Pakistan - a group of 20,000 rock spires in the heart of the Karakoram, home to K2 and one of the most formidable mountain ranges on the planet.
"My job as a filmmaker, photographer and director was to tell the story of that expedition. We're always looking for new ways to film and shoot so we can surprise our audience with the visuals," Rich said.
RC helicopters have long been the domain of hobbyists and gamers, but recently the drones have become a way to capture never-before-seen footage of extreme sports at a relatively low cost.
Rich had used the drones about a dozen times before the Pakistan expedition, but a quarter of the helicopters had crashed mid-flight, and he was skeptical the machines would work in the thin air above the Karakoram. No one had ever flown a drone to heights above 20,000 feet, and with good reason.
The fragile machines, which only weigh a few pounds and are about 2 feet wide from blade tip to blade tip, aren't much of a match for the weather and the wind that can smash into a summit.
"The idea of bringing them to Pakistan and to some of the most remote, big mountains in the world, I was skeptical. So it was a huge, huge surprise when as we walked up the glacier and we got higher and higher in altitude, they kept on getting flight and I realized it was working and it continued to work," Rich said.
It helped that the crew had a perfect window of weather and a top-notch RC helicopter pilot. The 21-year-old Swiss pilot, Remo Masina, expertly guided the machine up and over the top of the spire, Rich said, capturing unbelievable footage of the two climbers - David Lama and Peter Ortner - as they made their way to the top of the technically-difficult route.
Check out part of the footage at http://tinyurl.com/cdkcqa8.
To document the same expedition with a real helicopter would have cost approximately $5,000 to $10,000 every hour. The drone plus its pilot cost about $1,500 to $5,000 a day. Still expensive, but not prohibitively so, Rich said.
The drones can also get much closer to the athletes without kicking up the snow, dust and wind that can be both dangerous to a climber and also detrimental to the shot.
The helicopters are still far from perfect though, and if you have the money, a real helicopter is still the way to go, at least according to Mike Hagadorn.
Hagadorn, who owns his own visual storytelling company, Cloud Level Media based in Colorado, started flying the drones for Vail Resorts two years ago as a way to enhance the ski resort's marketing videos.
He's filmed action sports from skiing to stand-up paddleboarding, and when he stumbled across footage from a drone a couple of years ago, he decided to try his hand at piloting the machines.
"It was basically a hobby at first, and now we use it for work and expeditions across the world," Hagadorn said.
It took six months of daily practice for Hagadorn to learn to fly the drones well enough to capture usable footage, and it's still nerve-racking to have almost $10,000 of equipment buzzing over your head. The helicopters work really well when there's no wind, but things can go wrong quickly.
"They take a lot of practice. If there's no wind, it's a very stable platform, but if you're out of your comfort zone, it can become very difficult. If you have the budget, there's no substitute for a real helicopter. The RC technology isn't quite there yet," Hagadorn said.
Real helicopters can carry almost unlimited payload, whereas even Hagadorn's largest drone - the eight-bladed octocopter - is limited. It's also the only one of Hagadorn's machines that allows for a two-person set-up, one pilot, one cameraman. With the six-bladed and four-bladed helicopters, Hagadorn has to both fly the machine and shoot the footage.
What it does do is open the possibilities for videographers working with a limited budget to document rare, exciting shots. The technology is becoming more accessible, allowing amateur directors more creativity.
Take the Copter Kids. Started by two residents who liked to fly the helicopters from their Tahoe garage, the company has grown into world-class RC aerial cinematography and photography freelancers. Neither founder Trent Palmer nor Errol Kerr were available for comment, but according to their website, the drones have allowed them angles that before were thought to be impossible.
For Rich, it's certainly expanded his storytelling mediums.
"It definitely expanded my vision in the future when I work on a project filming in the high mountains, I think an RC helicopter is a mandatory part of the kit. It really allowed us to capture footage that helped link together the story," Rich said.