August Feature

August Feature

August Feature 2000 1281 The Flyer Magazine

High flyers


Josh Dunn and Ben Ruffell are a couple of high-flyers. The local business partners have an ever-changing bird’s eye view of the Wakatipu’s most stunning scenery from their mobile ‘office window’ – 120 metres up.

Skilled drone pilot Josh and camera operator Ben, who both have more than 20 years’ experience in the film industry, formed their business five years ago amid frustration trying to find just the right drone company to assist in their film work.

“We decided we could do it better,” says Josh, who has spent countless hours during the past three or four years’ upskilling to become a fully-certified drone pilot. He’s had to gain government Civil Aviation Authority certification, similar to that of an aircraft pilot although less intensive. That includes a full aeronautical radio operator’s certificate. Josh has also qualified to fly drones in Australia which has its own stringent compliance regulations.

He’s attained pretty much every additional specification that could be applied for, he’s attained, including night flying, flying below a certain level in low-flying zones, flying above the usual 121 metres threshold and flying over private property without consent.

There are a lot of rules and regulations when flying between 15 and 25 kilos of drones about in the sky. Aircraft must normally stay above 150 metres, depending on the regulations in each area, he says, but Josh is fully versed with the rules and safety is obviously paramount.

Josh and Ben now operate a fleet of 12 drones – the smallest weighing in at 700 grams while the largest is 10 kilos. Each is designed to carry different sized camera equipment which Ben is highly skilled at operating.

After working for years as a ‘grip’ in the film industry, placing cameras in all manner of precarious positions, including on cranes, helicopter mounts and ‘dollies’ (wheeled trolleys), the transition to moving a camera around in the sky came relatively easy for Josh.

Understood to be the only heavy-lift drone operators of their kind in the South Island who can operate a full-size cinema lens, it’s very technically specialised work, says Josh. “We shoot UHD (Ultra High Definition) releases all over the world and regularly shoot in Australia.” Until Covid-19 lockdown was imposed restricting flights, Ben also regularly worked in China and Japan.

Post-lockdown flight restrictions haven’t kept them grounded with Josh and Ben out shooting plenty of stunning file footage which is then scouted by big companies needing epic aerials for television commercials.

It’s all in a day’s work for these two, who have already clocked up drone camera work on some big name productions, including Alien Covenant in Milford Sound. Josh was also the ‘drone guy’ on television series ‘One Way Bridge’ shot locally and season 2 of television drama ‘Wanted’. Josh’s spectacular drone footage of his hometown of Kingston recently won him Richie’s (McCaw) Top Spot on ThreeNow.

He’s renowned in his local area as the ‘go to’ guy for farmers too, in demand on local stations and large farms. “Drones are a really good tool for mustering big blocks and checking on cows in calf that tend to hide in scrub,” says Josh. “I can fly 80 hectares in about 15 minutes and flush out a whole block.” It’s a job that normally requires a helicopter at great expense so drones prove way more economical, especially in Josh’s case.

Josh isn’t the only one in his family who’s rubbed shoulders with the big names in film either. Wife Stacy Thomas has years of experience as a stylist in make-up and wardrobe, working on productions like ‘Mr Pip’ in Papua New Guinea, The Hobbit, Yogi 3D and as personal stylist to Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.

For now Josh and Stacy are happily settled in Kingston, among an ever-expanding nest of creatives, raising their two children, Howie, 7, and Alby, 4.