Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Interview with Theo Amer, Highline Aerial Media

Ok, for my interview this week I am here with Theo Amer, who is part of Highline Aerial Media and has graciously decided to be interviewed for The Potting Shed. So, Theo, would you mind briefly introducing yourself and what your company does please?

So I'm Theo, based in Southampton, and our company Highline Aerial Media provides aerial media in the form of photography, video, film, cinematography and aerial survey using a drone, also known as a multi-rotor helicopter in order to capture the images from the air.

Sounds pretty cool, and I know that some of your stuff's been featured by the BBC and you've been in the national press this week. How did you end up getting involved with aerial media?

HAM's multi-rotor helicopter. Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
It was an interesting journey actually. Probably it was about 18 months ago we were inspired by the work of a guy called Johnny Beavers over in the States who had been using a drone to capture some incredible footage, and it was really early days for the industry.

He happened to be the brother-in-law of a friend, so I was shown his stuff via the friend and found myself saying "this is incredible!" the kind of footage this guy's got, the kind of angles - there was nothing else out there creating this kind of footage.

We looked around to see what was going on in the UK - there was very little going on and what was just wasn't of the kind of quality that Johnny was doing over in the States. I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a cinematographer - I'm a professional pilot - and combining the two skills of aviation and cinematography we thought "Let's see what we can do here in the UK" having had the inspiration from Johnny in the States to do something to a similar standard over here.

We spent some time looking at the feasibility, looking at the options and then got in touch with Johnny, and with his help we got ourselves set up over here in the UK, and that's how it got started really, with the aim just to combine our skills to put something together and make it work.

That's really interesting. You said you trained as a pilot, do you need to use your flying skills for flying it or could anybody do that? Does it add an extra dimension to it for you?

Chatting via FaceTime
I think ultimately anyone with enough practice could fly it, although obviously there's an element of aptitude to be able to fly it reasonably well! Having a flying background and having the understanding, aptitude and experience helps, but it's not that you would need to have trained as a pilot in order to fly it - you can pick one of these things up and with some time and some practice you could fly it.

Where my pilot training's really helped has been around the regulatory side of it. The difference between the States and the UK is that in the UK it's been highly regulated since 2010, whereas in the States they've literally in the last two weeks brought in some regulations.

What that means is that it's a requirement to get certified by the Civil Aviation Authority in order to be able to operate these drones commercially. So we had to do that which meant me taking ground exams, doing actual flight tests with the helicopter, and putting together a big operations manual.

For that side of things I've found my aviation experience is invaluable. Having worked as a flying instructor training other people to fly then having to get qualified myself with all the exams that are required over here, that was all very straightforward. Also when it comes to actually operating, having an understanding of airspace, where you can fly where you can't fly, working with the CAA - it's been really helpful as we've developed and set up as a business.

Do you think your business and what you set out to do has that turned out how you expected? Or have you had to be quite versatile in terms of what you've ended up doing and your approach to it?

Yeah I think we've had to be reasonably versatile in that its such a new industry over here - some people are doing it quite well, some people are doing it quite badly, some people are doing it blatantly illegally! A lot of people don't really have an understanding of how it works, what you can do and can't do.

So in terms of working with clients and customers we've had to work in a variety of environments that perhaps we didn't perhaps initially expect we'd need to work in, with challenges coming with that. Also with the technology itself, it's fairly "early days" technology, so some of it isn't as robust as you'd like it to be.

So there's been an element of having to really get quite technical - sometimes at key moments when you've got a piece of equipment that isn't doing exactly what it's supposed to do and having to sort it out - being versatile in effecting a repair or trying to sort out some electronics. Especially when you're on a job and you've got that time pressure of needing to get the helicopter flying whilst some of the technology,  because it's fairly cutting edge technology, is not responding quite how it's supposed to.. we've needed a fair bit of flexibility every time we work!
" that point I said goodbye to the airline industry.."
And also just in terms of planning what's possible. Because the regulations in the UK are actually quite tight, there are quite a few environments where you have to work very hard to be able to fly within the regulations. A lot of places it's possible but it means you've got to be quite adaptable. We plan before we fly, using things like Google Earth, satellite imagery, to get a feel where we could fly, how we could fly, what lines we could fly.

But often when you get to the site on the day a few things have changed so you've got to be able to adapt quickly and make sure that you are still flying legally  - that ultimately you are within those regulations but getting the great shots you're there for. You want to work within the regulations absolutely rightly, but also you want to be able to get a great "wow" image. So working out how you can do that within the set boundaries needs quite a bit of creativity.

When you trained as a pilot Theo, did you think you would end up doing this kind of thing? Did you have different plans and if so, how do you marry the two things up?

Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
Yeah, I mean it's been an interesting journey for me with the flying and the aviation side of things. Having been a private pilot for quite a number of years I trained as a commercial pilot, just before the recession hit.

At the time I went into my training there was a world shortage of pilots, everyone was desperate for pilots. In fact before I came out of my training I'd already had three job offers as a flying instructor before I'd even done that element of my training!

By the time I came out the other side of my training the recession had hit. The airlines were some of the first to be hit really severely, and laid a load of people off. Certainly in the western world there was suddenly a surplus of pilots and my employment prospects just changed overnight. I got into Flybe's books just after my training, but the way it works with an airline is that you join a holding pool waiting for actual vacancies in the aircraft to come up.

I thought that would be a few months before I got on board and did the Flybe element of my training - but it was three and half years before I had a call from them with a position available. By that time our life circumstances had changed quite considerably and some of our ability to just up and move to the other side of the country or even offshore to some of the places the jobs were offered  - Isle of Man, the Channel Islands - it just wasn't possible for us in the same way.

So at that point I said goodbye to the airline industry, recognising that times had changed and our life was in a very different place. So yeah, I find myself in a very different place now to where I'd have imagined myself five or ten years ago. So it's quite a change, quite a different place. I certainly didn't imagine myself ending up flying drones having gone through all my flying training!

How have you dealt with that? Has that been a tough thing to deal with, or have you been embracing positive opportunities instead  - or a mixture of both?

Theo piloting the drone (image courtesy Highline Aerial Media)
It's definitely been a mixture of both. In the early days there was a huge amount of frustration, sitting there in the Flybe holding pool, every month hoping that the job was going to start, that a job was going to come up.

In the meantime I was working as a flying instructor which was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. It's a great form of actual hands-on flying and working with people - the actual job itself I really enjoy.

Unfortunately the pay is very unreliable because you only get paid when you fly, and the weather's often bad in the UK. So at that point of providing for your family there was an element of frustration there, married to the fact that you're doing a fantastic job. So there was a lot of frustration for me just wanting to get that job and fly with the airline.

In those three and a half years of waiting, the way life's circumstances changed meant that a few years in I reached a really unsettling place of going "hang on, I'm really wanting to step into this airline job that's not coming through but at the same time I'm not quite sure that's where I'm meant to be at the moment, not quite sure that's where I'm supposed to step". So there was quite a feeling and uncertainty in the midst of that, wondering "what's going on, where should I be stepping and where should I be looking?" Which then came to the point where I was offered the job and had to make the difficult decision of turning it down.

So I made that decision, and it felt like the right thing to do. But I wondered whether I'd regret that decision having done so much training and having had this passion and then turning it down and saying no. I thought that in the weeks and months I might go "what on earth have I done?" but actually I haven't. I've felt peaceful about the decision, feel I made the right decision and actually if anything it has opened up more variety, more opportunity and more creativity.

That's good to hear. So what's the best thing about what you do now?

I think it's the satisfaction you get when you see that first edit and you see the footage. You've filmed on location, but you come away and it normally takes a couple of weeks until you've got the first edit. There's almost that period of anticipation for me - I do the flying so when I'm flying the helicopter I'm not seeing what footage we're getting. And Mikey, who's my business partner, he's the cinematographer he can see what's being filmed on his screen on the ground.
"..if anything it's opened up more variety, more opportunity and more creativity."
So I'm always there in anticipation asking "What are the shots like, how are they looking?" and he'll say "It's looking great, I've got some great stuff". I then have to wait a couple of weeks before I see it, but that moment when you see it all put together  - wow!

Especially when it's been a step up for us - taking things to a new level in what we've been filming. A different environment or a different event maybe. For example a lot of our initial filming was of buildings - stately homes or structures, that kind of stuff. Then we did a job filming professional wakeboarders doing a load of tricks at a wake park - it was a completely different thing we were filming. Suddenly we were doing action sports!

And just to see that for the first time, put together in a good edit with some great music in the background  - it's great, that moment of satisfaction. And then you start all over again with the next project.

What's been the most unexpected thing then about working in aerial media and where you've ended up?

Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
I think what's been most unexpected for us is where our early jobs have come from. We imagined we'd ultimately be aiming for the TV media side of things but thought that in the early days we might be filming golf courses and country house hotels, that sort of thing.

But probably from our first three jobs we had some footage on the BBC, which came out really early in our business. We actually got our first pay-check from the Royal Household because we did some aerial survey work on Windsor Castle, which was a fantastic experience just being there and doing that! Then also getting some work with Marks and Spencers early on - it's felt quite exciting where some of our jobs have come from in a very positive sense.

Just being there at Windsor Castle knowing the Queen was in residence and Prince Philip could pop around the corner at any time in his Range Rover and ask what we were doing (we didn't actually meet him!!) but working there with an amazing team on an amazing building, a thousand year old structure was just a real privilege, and we didn't imagine we'd be somewhere like that certainly at that early stage.

That's really exciting. You've ended up in quite a creative industry, doing creative things, you've been creative in how you're using your skills  - you've seen something and you've gone for it. How do you stay inspired?

That's a good question. I think partly it's seeing some of the other stuff out there that other people are doing which is inspiring. Talking about our friend Johnny Beavers over the United States - when we first got in contact with him and he was helping us get set up he was doing some TV stuff, some sporting events  - he's since done a number of Hollywood movies. Recently he was filming on The Incredibles 3, and the trailer for that movie has 9 or 10 of his shots in it.
"..Prince Philip could pop around the corner at any time in his Range Rover.."
Seeing some of that level of stuff done, and some of the other creativity that just keeps coming out as drones are just pushing the envelope of what they can do and where they can film is really inspiring and just pushes us on to want to be doing that sort of thing in the UK.

The challenge are the restrictions in the UK, which mean that whereas there's a whole load of freedom in other countries to film some incredible places, and especially when there are lots of people around some incredible scenes, that's not so straightforward here. So there are challenges within that to push us on to develop that creativity within the boundaries we've got over here.

You've had to deal with disappointment, you've had to change your plans, has your faith played a part in that at all?

Yeah definitely my faith's been a huge part in that. In that journey of transition from where I thought I was going to where I am now just being able to recognise and have faith that I've got a good God who loves me who actually has a plan and purpose for my life. Trying to work out what that plan was in that time of confusion and recognising that within me there was a real peace I received in making the decisions I made. A sense of God guiding and directing me in some of those decisions which I think has led me to step into those decisions with an element of faith.
"..there is something of the adventure of life that is possible when everything doesn't quite work out how you expect it to be."
Some of those decisions which on the surface of it for some people would seem absolutely crazy - having trained as a pilot, had that dream - to then step away from airline flying (I still fly, I still work as a flying instructor from time to time), a lot of people in the aviation industry just couldn't comprehend. So to be able to have a sense of reassurance in terms of my faith, in terms of my relationship with God that it was the right step to take has given me the peace I needed to step and make it. And I feel that for the circumstances I find myself in, for my family, for where I am in life now, what I'm doing, I feel very comfortable that I made the right step and exciting opportunities have come about as a result

That's great. Do you have any advice for people reading this who may be in situations or have had situations where there dreams haven't worked out. What would your advice to them be?

That's hard isn't it? I guess from a point of view of faith, for me, I think there's something absolutely vital in being able to trust God. There were times when to be honest I questioned God in terms of the way things were working out - they weren't working out the way I'd do it if I were God! But the foundational thing is that I believe God is good, I believe that God's got my best interests at heart and so as I stepped in and chose to trust him in the circumstances,  God gave me a new path that's probably been more satisfying, more creative, more exciting and more of an adventure.

I think there is something about the adventure of life that is possible when everything doesn't quite work out how you expect it to be. I heard someone recently talk about adventure, saying that when you imagine adventure it all seems thrilling, exciting and fun, but when you really genuinely walk through adventure there are moments when it's sleepless nights and it's fear and pain. But there's a story that you create and build through that adventure, through those circumstances that's so much bigger than the one when you don't journey through them.

Having that sense of faith and trust as I walk through that has been able to sustain me, and at the moments of questioning and doubt it's kept me going.

That's good advice. From a creative angle, or from any angle, is there anything you might recommend to people reading this interview that might encourage or inspire them to follow their dreams, make tough decisions?

There's that text I see on Land Rovers round here  "One life, live it" - I think it's just the 4x4 community who stick that on their very dirty looking land rovers! But I think there's something of that. There's that sense that we do have one life, that life is very short and we can either spend an awful lot of time trying to make ourselves feel very safe and secure - I'm not sure we ever completely get to that point of safety and security regardless of how safe our career feels or how big our house is or how much income we have.

And I think there's a whole lot more out there in life to be enjoyed! Right through my life I've always followed my dreams, or followed those things that look more interesting, and that has been at the sacrifice of security and good "career". There are moments as I find myself in my late 30s into my 40s that I sometimes wonder what on earth I've done! But most days the reality is that I really enjoy what I do with my life. I get great satisfaction from the things I do, the time I'm able to spend with my family, but also in terms of the stimulation of the work I do. It's always varied, it's very rarely dull, sometimes it's quite nerve-wracking, but it's fulfilling.
"..there's that text I see on Land Rovers round here:
"One life, live it".."
And I think I'd far rather live a life of fulfilment and adventure than simply make myself feel safe and secure. So I would say if opportunities come along do take them, make some wise decisions, don't just jump at every opportunity but do have a look and see if there is any way you could possibly make those things happen. I've always had the philosophy that I'd far rather give something a try and fail than sit on my deathbed with regret after regret of all the things I really wanted to do and never quite gave a go. I think that's far more debilitating than failing and getting up again and giving it another try.

That is absolutely brilliant. Theo it's been an inspirational interview, I'm sure many other people would think so as well. We're really grateful for your time and thanks for sharing your wit and wisdom!

Thanks Luke!

Check out Highline Arial Media's wesbite and cool showreels at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great insight into the work and inspiration.