Flying High With Cinematographer/Drone Operator, Crystal Kelley

Nikita Raja

This Spring, we are thrilled to host a number of events at NAB. Our “Women On the Move” panel will be highlighting women who specialize in camera movement & operations. The talented Crystal Kelley, Cinematographer, Licensed Drone & Camera Operator will be one of the speakers.  We had the opportunity to learn about Crystal’s journey to becoming a fully licensed drone operator as well as becoming a member of the Cinematographer’s Guild, Local 600. Check it out, and we hope you’ll join us, live from Vegas at NAB. Sign up here.

What got you into film ?

I got involved in film, and more specifically cinematography through theatrical lighting. I loved creating lighting designs for staged productions, but it was a temporal satisfaction. Film was a medium were my work has longevity and can reach a broader audience.

What is your artistic & developmental process when preparing for a film?

I look at the emotional arc of the characters and the storyline. I think about composition and lighting that would be appropriate for them at this time in a scene.

You recently got into the International Cinematagraphers Guild, Local 600.  Can you tell us about the process and if you feel a shift since gaining membership.

The process can be easy if you go straight to the source to get the correct information of how to apply to the union and for submitting your work days to contract services. I believe one should constantly meet people and build relationships with those who are in the profession where you want work. Those relationships help greatly when you need recommendations to apply for the union. For the time I have been in the union, I feel there is a push to help those early in their careers with guidance through the mentorship program.

Please share your process of how you obtained your drone license.

Again the process can be simple if you get the correct information from the correct source. I have a Part 107 license, which is issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. I went to the FAA website and took about two months reviewing the study guides and practice test. I actually over studied for the test! There is a list of facilities that administer the actual test, and you pay a fee of about $160.00 to take it. Once you pass, your license comes in the mail a few weeks later.

Tell us an anecdote from working on the Soul Train Awards.

I was hired by a team of producers from BET in the New York Office to highlight up and coming artists for their first time performing at the Soul Train Awards. When I arrived and met my team, I just smiled because they were all like me. They were young, black, and eager professionals working hard in the entertainment industry. Two members from the team gave me a tour of the different areas where we would shooting. The last stop was in a large conference room in the hotel that served as a command central for all the different teams and production coordinators. I just had to stand there in awe for a moment because the entire room was filled with black people working on the same show. This never happens!!!
Most people would not understand why this was such a proud and hopeful moment for me. To put my experience into context, I am labeled as a minority in this country. And when I work on other productions, I am usually one out of two or three other people of color on set who just might only be PAs. In this conference room, I felt a level of comfort and trust from among my peers because they hired me for the role as a camera operator.  The producers could see from my work and resume that I was qualified to do the job. They did not relegate me to be a camera assistant or camera PA as with other productions who are fully aware of my skill set. I was not questioned or second guessed if I am competent in my position, which I get subtle undertones from men and white people on other shoots.  Culturally, this was the best experience because I could refer to a song, artist, tv show, or joke and those around me would laugh and understand. Working at the BET Soul Train Music awards, I was no longer a minority. I was just Crystal the camera operator a part of the majority.

What are your preferred technicals?

I prefer cameras and controls that are designed to be ergonomically balanced. If you are doing handled work or other physical work on set…ergonomics helps to maintain your stamina for long days.

Tell us something unique about yourself:

Well, I don’t know if this is unique, but I like to do a variety of outdoor activities such as skiing, snorkeling, and hiking, but my all time favorite is horseback riding.

What is your next goal as a camera person ? 

The next goal in my career as a camera person is to work on a union movie set or television show. I believe that being able to take on more responsibility and tougher projects will help me to fine tune my craft.