There’s a thrill in the way Geoff Baer’s drone camera rises up and floats down the valley of the Esopus, around the classic lines and over the lands of the new Maurice Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, or climbs alongside a couple of men scaling a tall antenna in Allaben as the traffic along Route 28 c hugs by far below. But it hardly matches the Mt. Tremper resident’s excitement at being the first in Ulster County to have gotten his new FAA license as a commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) pilot.
“Basically, up until August 28 you had to have an official pilot’s license for flying airplanes to fly a drone,” Baer explains about the shift in Federal Aviation Administration regulations that went into effect as the Small UAS Rule (Part 107) as of 12:01 a.m. EDT on August 29. “You could fly small unmanned aircraft as a hobbyist but not if you want to fly, film and charge money for the service.”
Baer went on to note the public’s confusion over the term “drone,” which he sees as being incorrect in perceptions that such things are not tightly piloted. He added that the new FAA rule starts to codify and professionalize a practice that was including those who used remote goggles to fly their craft, which is now illegal. He took his course at the Kingston Airport, which included written and field tests, and is looking to train Steven Thomas, a wheelchair-bound 15 year old, to be his pilot as soon as his own official certificate arrives in the mail from Washington.
Baer says he’s inspired by Thomas, who is as much the filmmaker’s best friend as his protégé, and someone Baer and his girlfriend spend much time with. He speaks about how his brother Ian had a bad accident when a younger man, and how caring for others has become a core part of his life, and character, ever since. But also the impact Thomas had on him when they first met eight years ago.
“I was brought in to shoot parts of an Extreme Home makeover episode in the house where Steven was living,” Baer remembered. “The tears started streaming down my face as I listened to his story, and before long we became NASCAR fans together, and everything I was interested in he became interested in. We grew into the droning together…Steven’s a big reason why I’ve continued to move forward with all I do.”
Baer noted that even though it’s not yet required in New York as it is in some of the Midwestern states where UAS flights are more popular, “I’m seeking insurance for what we do,” Baer added. “I think what the FAA is doing with all of this is important. They needed a comprehensive plan to protect airspace and make sure no explosives can get flown into a bridge.”
How did Geoff Baer get to being Ulster County’s first commercial drone pilot? The 1978 Onteora High School graduate eschewed college to start working with musician/video visionary Todd Rundgren in his fledgling Utopia Studios in Bearsville when he was 19. There, he recalls his mentor/boss as a “strange individual” who would clear a set to supposedly film everything himself, only to have the young Baer actually run the cameras.
After Utopia closed in the early 1980s, the budding videographer moved to New York City, where he worked as an offline editor, then a specialist in film to tape transfers, for several large production houses. Among his jobs were music videos for The Bangles and Rod Stewart, as well as much of the first season for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, for which Rundgren was writing music.
Apart from a stint trying to start and run a video production house in the Virgin Islands for a spell, Baer moved up to help out his family after his brother suffered a bad car accident in the later 1980s. He started and ran a company building indoor rock climbing walls, mainly to the military and Boy Scout troops, for eleven years.
By the first years of this century, he had hooked up with the late Peter Walther, who he calls “sort of my stepfather” to start Woodstock Films, which helped produce the In Your Face political variety shows for Woodstock Public Access television, a number of concert videos at Levon Helm Studios, and a variety of work for other local clients.
“But then HD [high definition] came out and put us out of business,” Baer adds. “I worked for a while with Remote Digital Media doing MTV Unplugged until they stopped paying me so they could invest in new cameras.”
He got a high end GoPro camera, a Steadicam and jib for fluid camera work. Then started looking at what could be done with cameras on unmanned aircraft systems.
“I keep reinventing myself,” Baer said. “I’m always wanting to have something unique to offer.”
His new line of film work from the past years has included accounts of Creative Music Studio events, promotional videos for a number of local not-for-profits completed or in progress, He’s shooting a piece for Rich Moore Aviation, which helped him get his UAS certificate, and is talking to entities from the Catskills down into the Hudson Valley proper about giving them the sorts of shots that will give all they do an added sense of movement and dazzle.
Has it been fun learning to pilot drones?
Baer tells a story about one that a friend had lost somewhere around Cooper Lake in Woodstock. The second, bought in partnership, led to a misunderstanding. Now he’s got a “smart drone,” which can avoid mishaps easier, and a second state-of-the-art UAS…the better to provide a truly professional service in the area.
“I follow the FAA laws and fly only to get my shot, very rarely above 75 feet and always in my line of sight,” he says. “My Solo 3DR can be a little scary; it’s black and very loud. The Phantom 4 is white and quiet.”
He said that, on the hobby side of things, he’d looking to load up a small drone with LED lights for some aerial disco fun.
“It’ll absolutely blow people’s minds,” Baer added.
We turn back to Woodstock Films and Baer’s more personal work online, available on his channels at YouTube. The work is all smooth, stylized, yet constantly soaring above and beyond what we’ve grown used to seeing for this area.
“I’ve been talking to real estate agents. I have an idea of doing tours of this area, a new form of ‘aerial America.’ I want to update all our postcards,” Geoff Baer adds, as excited at the end of his interview as at its start. “I want to pursue something of my own.”
He paused, noting how in the end, it all comes down to helping his young friend, Steven Thomas, find meaningful work and direction.
“I don’t exactly know where any of this will go, business-wise,” he added. “I know my friend here will make a great drone pilot. It’s something he can do, and something I can teach him.”