With Camera Drones, New Tool For Viewing and Saving Nature

Filmmaker Thomas Lennon says camera drones have opened up dramatic new possibilities for seeing the natural world and inspiring the public to protect it. In an e360 interview, he talks about how his drone video from the Delaware River illustrates the potential of this new technology.

In a career spanning four decades, documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon has won an Academy Award and two national Emmy Awards and has tackled topics as diverse as the Irish in America, the Battle of the Bulge, and a polluting chemical plant in China. But it was his current project — a short film about the Delaware River — that opened his eyes to what he sees as a revolutionary new tool for viewing the natural world: the camera drone.

Drones, of course, have been the subject of controversy lately, with widespread concerns about both the privacy and security issues surrounding them. But for Lennon, drones are a major innovation that allows filmmakers and photographers to capture images of the landscape from a vantage point never before possible.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lennon — who produced the video of drone images from the Delaware watershed featured above — talks about the potential of drone images to inspire conservation efforts in much the same way that the photography of Ansel Adams did in the 20th century. “There’s an opportunity for visual excitement, but combined — and this is the key — with intimacy,” Lennon says. “And I think that can become a tool for artists as well as for environmentalists.”

Yale Environment 360: Describe the short video you made with drone video from the Delaware River watershed and explain what you think it uniquely demonstrates.

Thomas Lennon: I think the three or four days that I spent working with the drones were the single most pleasurable days shooting I’ve had in ten years, and I’ve done a lot of shooting. Part of it was, of course, the joy of working in these beautiful, rural parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the really deep joy was encountering landscapes from an angle and attacking it with tools and a point of view that I had never experienced before, and that I had almost never thought was possible — when you have that level of control, where you can stop and start at any point, where you can move quickly or you can move slowly, where you can be close, you can be high, you can be tilted at any angle. The vantage points are literally infinite. I’ve done enough helicopter photography and aerial photography to know what that’s about. And that work is beautiful, and I loved the experience when I did it. But this is just more creative, exponentially. You can look straight down, you can come very close to something without risk.

You know, one of the interesting things is if I say to fifty people on the street ‘drone,’ what’s the first thing they think of? They think of an instrument of death. And my experience was just 180 degrees from that.

e360: So it was fun in the field. And then when you reviewed what you’d shot…

Lennon: When I reviewed what I’d shot, I thought, ‘This is just the beginning.’ It got me thinking a lot about the potential of the tool. Right now, you can buy a very effective and powerful drone, a very powerful creative tool, for under $2,000. And that’s with the camera. And those prices are going to continue to drop. So what that means is that it’s accessible. An NGO can buy one or a regular person with a little bit of dough. So this tool that we associate with this kind of menacing tool of the state — for understandable reasons, I think — can become a really powerful quote, people’s tool, unquote.

There are environmentalists who are doing this in really interesting ways — whether it’s surveillance to prevent poachers, or to conduct censuses of animals, or to track changes in a particular landscape. I think you’re going to see more and more of that. Think of the role in the last year that mobile phones have played as a people’s tool in exposing police abuse. Now who says you aren’t going to see a miniature version of that, with drones, in terms of chasing down environmental abuses? I think that that potential exists. The lenses are getting so unbelievably good. They’re getting miniaturized and they’re getting lighter. And so those toys, as I call them, are already powerful creative tools that are only going to become more so.

e360: But there is also this emotional component of the video to consider.

Lennon: Right. I thought, ‘What a way to think about and relate and bring a connection to landscapes.’ And that was really the joy that I was experiencing when I was filming. As I said, you’re seeing land from a vantage that on foot, or in a car, or in a helicopter, or in a plane, is wholly unavailable to you. If you’re fixed wing, of course you can’t stop. If you’re helicopter, you’re blasting out that environment, you’re creating such a wind that you’re totally changing the environment as you get close to it. And that’s not true with a drone. So the ability to explore a place, to go around it, to circle something, to go under something, was just so much fun.

e360: There was a moment in your drone video when I thought you were about to hit the log. And I’m watching this on this computer, and I was like, ‘Oh wait, you’re going to hit it!’

Lennon: Right. There’s an opportunity for visual excitement but combined, I think — and this is the key — combined with intimacy. And I think that can become a tool for artists as well as a tool for environmentalists, in the sense that this argues for the preservation of a particular landscape. I think that, if done well, it can do that.

e360: There’s certainly precedent for that. I think of Ansel Adam’s photographs that were instrumental in establishing the Kings Canyon National Park [in California]. And there is that iconic image of earth from space that showed the fragility of the planet.

Lennon: You’re totally right. The work of Ansel Adams and the work of Edward Weston and Paul Strand, those [photographers] changed the way Americans thought about their wilderness, or at least profoundly impacted the way they did. They were at that cusp where they were artists, but they also had one foot, particularly Adams, squarely placed in the environmental activist mode. And those two sides of him reinforced each other. Adams, as you rightly pointed out, was absolutely central, not just in Kings Canyon National Park, but more broadly to renew the appreciation of the importance of the national parks.

So there’s an artistic opportunity here. But there’s also an opportunity for social impact. The million-dollar question is, with all this great flood of imagery, have we become so jaded that it’s hard to get our attention? Can we, through creativity, and through these new tools, make landscapes more precious?

e360: There was a certain point in the video where we see this shot of an industrial complex, located on a river bank. What is that complex, and why do a drone shot of it?

Lennon: That’s the old Bethlehem Steel Plant in Bethlehem, PA. It’s part of the great industrial past, when that part of Pennsylvania was part of the industrial heartland. And by filming it, we were thinking of making a point about how, at one point, sources of pollution were easy to identify. They were huge, they were monstrous, they were single-source points. And nowadays, the environmental threats are more subtle. Now, if it’s from agriculture, or if it’s from other types of runoff, there are a thousand sources instead of one or two. And so, in a way, the communication challenges within the environmental and conservation field are harder today.

Thomas Lennon’s work in documentary film has won the field’s most coveted honors: three Academy Award nominations, two duPont-Columbia awards, two George Foster Peabody and Writer’s Guild Awards, and two national Emmys. He co-produced, with Yale Environment 360 and Ruby Yang, The Warriors of Qiugang, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview, is a regular contributor to Yale e360 and currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.