The business model is simple enough – take something interesting but out of reach. Give people a bird’s eye view of it, literally. And fame and fortune follow.
That, in brief, is the remarkable story of Beijing FlyCam Culture and Media, an aerial photography firm that struck it rich thanks to the determination of a couple of Beijingers to turn their hobby of flying model aircraft into a money spinner.
Beijing FlyCam’s owes its big break in no small part to Zhang Biqing, a doctor of Chinese traditional medicine who built an illegal rooftop structure so audacious that it captured the world’s attention.
The bizarre villa covered the entire roof of a 26-storey building in the upscale Park View residential compound in Beijing. It featured fake rocks and real grass and trees – all arranged to look like a mountain in the style of a classical Chinese painting
Feng Chang, the 24-year-old co-founder of Beijing FlyCam, knew his camera-carrying drone could provide the sort of images of Zhang’s rooftop folly that few others could.
“It was absolutely the right time,” Feng recalled. “My business partner [Li Changchun] and I happened to be at the bottom of Zhang’s building. Li said: ‘Why not fly our camera up to have a look?'”
Feng piloted the drone over the building, made some simple edits and uploaded the video to Youku, China’s largest online video service. The video was an immediate viral hit, attracting more than 2.9 million page views.
“We were stunned by what the camera captured: a rockery, plants and a terrace,” he said. “It was like the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit in The Legend of the Monkey King.”
The video earned Beijing FlyCam a flood of business, an award at the recent Xian International Folk Video Festival, and even attracted interest in their technology from the military.
Sina, the mainland’s largest news portal, bought a second video and drove up the already intense interest in the rooftop villa by publishing more details about its construction.
“Media typically broadcast news by print, photos or video using standard equipment,” Feng said. “Using an unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] is unusual. That’s why we stood out.”
Feng said Beijing authorities have so far been accommodating, although they require him to get permission whenever he films within the capital’s Third Ring Road.
Mainland news organisations have also begun using aerial photography to offer viewers and readers a novel view.
The Chongqing Morning News established its first aerial photography team last year and published a year-end issue, “A Bird’s Eye View of Chongqing,” in December. In March, the Hubei Daily advertised for UAV operators to help it produce news.
“UAV aerial coverage can be better at capturing breaking news, especially when reporters cannot reach the site,” the newspaper said. “UAV coverage will help give a unique perspective as well as higher-quality images.”
The newspaper also said it could hardly afford the 20,000 yuan (HK$25,300) per day charged by aerial filming crews.
Feng said he decided to offer lower prices to attract more customers. Basic images and video can be covered well with a GoPro sports camera, for which he charges 6,000 yuan per day.
For assignments with more elaborate equipment, Feng charges between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan per day. Military assignments were out of the question because of their sensitivity.
“Our biggest dilemma is that no insurance company is willing to cover us, because the drone and the camera are too expensive,” he said.
“We have to accept full risk when flying our most expensive equipment. We haven’t had an accident so far.”
Feng and Li met while flying model aircraft together two years ago. They started the company with capital of half a million yuan – some of it from family – at the start of this year. They recently recovered their costs.
Feng said he first became interested in aerial photography while watching James Cameron’s Titanic, with its dramatic sweeping shots of the ship.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “From that day on, I wanted my camera flying above the clouds to take unusual views of the world.”