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Masters of Flight

Roger Apolinar’s Dynamic Aerial Imagery course trains Communications & Media Technologies students in professional drone flying

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Students follow flight course instructions during Roger Apolinar’s Dynamic Aerial Imagery class. Photo by Bob Toy.

Every Monday, Roger Apolinar instructs his teaching assistants to set up his students’ homework assignment at 2225 Jerrold warehouse. For this particular assignment, his students had to follow a simple, yet challenging course according to Apolinar’s instruction. His commands were simple: “Forward. Back. Left. Right. Hover. Yaw.” 

Aside from the last two, Apolinar sounds as if he is giving driving instructions. But ‘hover’ and ‘yaw’ are designated aviation terms, applied only to airplanes, helicopters and, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since 2016, drones.

“These machines are very powerful, which is why [the FAA] deemed them aircrafts,” he explained during a flight demonstration of his DJI Inspire 2. “This machine can fly up to four miles out — that’s 12,800 feet in any direction.” 

Apolinar is the instructor for the Academy of Art University’s drone class, or the Dynamic Aerial Imagery course under the School of Communications & Media Technologies (COM). His class teaches students how to fly professional-grade consumer drones for commercial purposes, particularly for film and video. The 2010 Academy animation and visual effects alumnus is also an FAA-certified small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) pilot who runs his own independent production company, including conducting aerial coverage for the San Francisco Giants. 

He said that being a certified pilot is just one aspect within his skillset. Apart from being a multi-faceted production artist, Apolinar prides himself in the rapport he builds with his clients. Earlier this summer, the station manager at KCAT, a public access TV channel in Los Gatos, introduced Apolinar to Steve Wozniak, famed co-founder of Apple, to fly drones together. 

“It’s wasn’t that I was this awesome drone guy that he had to come out and meet me, my rapport with the people that I work with is so high that they felt like I deserved to meet this guy,” he said. 

He added: “I’m still a formally-trained cinematographer so, [flying drones] is really in addition to; it’s the groundwork [that] kind of gets us in the door. [I tell my students] this has to be another tool in your tool bag that’s going to add value to what you already do.”

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One of the DJI Inspire 2 drones used in the Dynamic Aerial Imagery course. Photo by Bob Toy.

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Students practice using the DJI Inspire 2 during the course. Photo by Bob Toy.

Flight and photography are the core disciplines of the class, splitting between the logistical and physical elements of aviation, while also covering basic camera principles (such as lighting and framing) and legalities (permitting, planning and privacy). According to Apolinar, however, while most Academy classes require students to turn in a tangible piece of work — be it video, storyboard, sculpture, etc. — his product is mainly performance.

“When you get in front of the client, when you arrive on set, everyone stops,” he emphasized. “Everyone on set wants to see the drone guy, all eyes are on you. The fun level goes way down and the stress level goes way up. You have to be able to perform under those circumstances.” 

The class is certainly low-pressure and three weeks in, Apolinar’s students were already showing signs of improvement; a few students on the course display total control over their bird, while some wavered and drifted. For the first few weeks, the students fly Hubsan X4 drones and, as the class progresses, will advance to the DJI Mavic Pro, hopefully using it to shoot a movie scene for their final. But until then, it’s mastering the basics: Forward, back, left, right, hover, yaw.

Although the drone class is classified as a COM course, any major can enroll. According to Apolinar, though his drone work focuses on cinematography, the industry is expanding and drones are being used in a multitude of fields, from agriculture to law enforcement. 

“You can kind of go all over the place if you want to,” said Patrick Dunn, a School of Photography major who took the course last semester and then returned to work as one of Apolinar’s teacher assistants. “After my first class, I was exuberant to do so much other stuff; the opportunities are endless.” 

Before the class started, Apolinar gave me a private flight demo with his Inspire 2, whom he named Zero. The Inspire 2 is the manufacturer’s latest pro-consumer machine, complete with the power and artificial intelligence suited for Hollywood productions. 

In person, the drone almost looks like a predatory bird. Before takeoff, the Inspire sits on four legs, then once Apolinar turns it on and auto-triangulates the GPS, the bird hovers, raises its four rotors above the body, and with a flick of the control stick, Apolinar sends it off. 

The DJI flight app records data — which marks the Inspire at 1,500-feet within seconds — in real time, and we’re personally treated with stunning views over Potrero Hill, right above the 280 Highway, San Francisco skyline in sight. Cars look like ants, a thin layer of fog creeps above the horizon in the distance as we’re treated to a San Francisco scene that very few people get to see in real time. 

As the Inspire zooms back into our view, Apolinar grinned: “This thing is too much for one person.”