Step one when Garret Blair went to acquire a Part 107 license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was to fill out an Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA). Once he filled out the IACRA, he obtained his FAA Tracking Number (FTN), which he then used to schedule an appointment to take the knowledge exam. The exam costs $173 per attempt and includes questions on aviation weather sources; aeronautical decision making and judgment; maintenance and preflight inspection procedures; crew resource management; and general regulations relating to small, unmanned aircraft. Upon passing the exam, he was allowed to apply for his remote pilot certificate by filling out Form 8710-13.

By the time he passed the exam in April 2020—on his second try—he may have been wondering why he got himself into this farcical, Kafkaesque fiasco. But, if he had to navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth to shoot video from a drone and get paid doing it (all in an effort to come out of the economic abyss with a new source of income), then Blair was all for it.  “The first videos I shot were downtown and it was just for fun,” Blair says. Then some of the businesses downtown that made it into his shots asked if they could use the footage to promote their businesses, including Raffurty’s, Sarasota Opera and Oasis. “It became really obvious really quickly that there was a need,” Blair says, “so I made some business cards and started charging.”

During the pandemic, businesses were desperate to connect with their customers when in-person engagement was not possible. Blair’s first paying customer was the gym where he worked, before it temporarily shut down. The videos helped the gym stay engaged with clients, and helped clients stay excited about returning to the gym to achieve their fitness goals. Shortly after that experience, Blair parlayed his Part 107 license into shooting real estate footage. “With people not always able to check out a listing in person, this was a great way for them to get an idea of a listing,” Blair says.  But, in spite of the huge market demand across various industries, even seasoned veterans with full production companies found themselves agonizing over how to navigate the uncertainty of the shutdown and its subsequent safety protocols. 

“From March to June in 2020, a lot of our contracts were put on hold, so things got sketchy there for a while,” says Brett Hoehne, owner of Integrated Media Productions. That meant the brand strategy videos and live broadcasts that were his bread and butter were victims of budget cuts. But, by September, things took a turn as organizations went from being holed up in survival mode to what would become a ubiquitous pivot toward virtual content. “Businesses and organizations finally hit a point where they said, ‘We’ve gone too long without connecting with our audience and we need to bridge that gap again,’” Hoehne says.

Some of the first to reach out were arts organizations. Throughout the past year, Hoehne and his team did work with The Ringling, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Choral Artists of Sarasota and the Sarasota Concert Association. These productions required loads of video and audio gear. And, with the whole world suddenly in need of video content, Hoehne found himself in two unique pickles. “The first challenge was trying to work with a skeleton crew,” Hoehne says. Production sets can get crowded with boom and camera operators, directors, lighting designers and all manner of production assistants. “We had our audio guy doing lighting on the same shoot to try to keep the numbers down on set,” Hoehne says. The multitasking approach pushed his crew to learn skills outside of their initial trade, and that learning curve proved difficult—if fruitful—in the long-term. The second challenge came in the form of gear supply. “All the factories overseas were shut down, and that made it hard to find inventory which, in turn, skyrocketed prices,” Hoehne says, “and we’re still not fully out of that.” The biggest shortage issue was not the big stuff like lenses, cameras and microphones, but smaller stuff that was being snatched up by DIY-ers and upstarts producing content from home. “When it came time to help clients stream stuff from their home, we had to find coders, which are little boxes that translate your video signal to your computer,” he says, “and those things got really hard to find.”

Among Hoehne’s accomplishments during this hectic period was the work he and his crew did for Sarasota Contemporary Dance (SCD). In addition to helping the modern dance company set up its virtual learning platforms, Hoehne’s crew helped SCD take home the top prize from SRQ’s annual “Best Of” competition for Best Virtual Event category. 

Like Hoehne, filmmaker Shaun Greenspan also found himself making bids on video production projects for performance art organizations. Greenspan got an opportunity to co-create a hybrid virtual/in-person production with Urbanite Theatre called Safe House. The immersive production displayed 17 pre-recorded performances in a walk-through whodunit. “The theatre was looking for something to do,” says Greenspan, “so they tore down the whole stage for this show and created something super innovative.” 

Even municipal entities—those cumbersome behemoths seldom known for pivoting—were forced to hunt down videographers like Greenspan to find virtual replacements for in-person events. “I actually created a 45-minute presentation for the county clerk and comptroller,” Greenspan says. The presentation replaced what is usually a 200-person live event in which city officials give a sort of state of the union address to community members and other city employees. “Obviously everyone was looking at ways to recreate live events,” says Greenspan, “but I think, rather than being a replacement, it offered a new perspective on things.”

And that presents the most interesting question about videography as organizations begin to build their budgets back up to pre-pandemic levels: Will demand for videography wane? Though productions like Safe House or SCD’s virtual events yielded critical acclaim, arts organizations simply cannot replace the revenue of a fully packed theater. Many organizations viewed video content and virtual programming as a short-term survival strategy—a way to produce work as a substitute for in-person events. Still, at a time when many seasonal ticket holders remained up north and local ticket holders were holed up, traffic for these virtual offerings gave organizations something to consider. 

“We’re usually done with our season at the end of March,” says Sarasota Opera Executive Director Richard Russell, “so the virtual stuff can be really helpful to extend our audience outreach and marketing.” 

The questions of quality and artistic integrity loom similarly large for Rebecca Hopkins, the managing director of Florida Studio Theatre. “I have a great appreciation for the work that goes into video as an artform,” says Hopkins, “but that’s called television and film. We’re a live theatre.” Still, from behind a camera lens, videographers like Greenspan see the value of moving pictures as an upward trend. “I think some people maybe didn’t realize how important video is,” Greenspan says, “and now that they’ve fully realized it, I don’t think things can completely go back to the way it was.” That means even mom-and-pop operations might start making space in their budget sheets for video as a way to connect with customers. But it also means performance venues, whether prompted by lingering pandemic paranoia or by the promising prospects of expanding their reach, might find themselves adopting a hybrid model of in-person and virtual programming.  SRQ

Photo clockwise:  Garret Blair, owner, The Aerial, 423-871-0906. Brett Hoehne, CEO, Integrated Media Productions, 941-704-1013. Shaun Greenspan, owner, Triforce Productions, 818-469-2547