FORTITUDE: Kenji Sugahara | How many jobs can you juggle in one day?

Flying high under pressure with Kenji Sugahara, co-founder of A-Cam Aerials.
| By David Poulshock

It’s not often you get face time with an actual pioneer (even if it’s all on Zoom these days), but I recently had that privilege when meeting Kenji Sugahara (yes, on Zoom). Though I’m positive he’d want to share the credit, I think Kenji is a central figure in the drive to legitimize drone cinema production in Oregon and across the country.

Thing is, that’s not all that Kenji does:

Self-professed gearhead, attorney by trade, drone pilot, business owner, Travel Oregon Commissioner, non-profit CEO/President and doting father, Kenji is yet another of those cup-half-full characters we keep encountering in our OMPA “Fortitude” series. The sheer volume and quality of his contributions to the film community and Oregon is nothing short of amazing. (I’m sure he’ll downplay this praise as well, but you know me, I’m prone to — well, not exaggerating — but freely sharing my enthusiasm about the cool people I have the honor of meeting).

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Let’s go back in history: when Kenji graduated from the University of Oregon School of Law, being a cycling enthusiast, he took a job as Executive Director of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association. “At its peak, we had 5,000 members,” he said. “And when drones started showing up, I thought, ‘Wow, what an interesting way to show what bike racing is all about.’”

And the rest is history.

Among Kenji’s many pioneering feats: the first ever drone shoot inside a state capitol building and the first drone shoot over Timberline Lodge and Mt. Hood Meadows.

Kenji took up piloting drones at racing events and got so good at it that people started encouraging him to start a drone business. But there’s a little quirk in this story: the association’s membership was chock full of creatives in the film and advertising biz — from DPs to Key Grips and Creative Directors at all the agency and footwear giants. (I could name-drop all the OMPA obsessive cyclists I know, but then this story would be way too long. (Greg, Bruce, Brian and others, you know who you are!)

Anyway, you know where this is going:

Kenji told me, “After eleven years of the pressures of dealing with 5,000 type-A personalities on a daily basis, it was time to go.” We both laughed — me, a little awkwardly, being a former Type-A. (Kenji and I haven’t worked together yet, so he’s not familiar with the Triple-P-Effect. During an unusually intense production long ago, my Art Director silkscreened a T-Shirt for our crew that read: “I survived the PPPE.” No, the acronym doesn’t have anything to do with COVID — it stands for “Proximity to Poulshock-Pressure-Effect”).

But go figure: Kenji decided to stick with the Type-As in his new drone business. After leaving the racing association, he co-founded A-Cam Aerials with pilot and camera operator Alex Emberlin, DP Greg Schmidt and gimbal expert Mike Cook, both highly accomplished creatives. (Mike and Greg are also part of OMPA member Too Easy Co.) The firm has grown to include photographer and director Lee Puente, action sports filmmaker Jasper Newton and helicopter specialist Daniel Hurst. Their work is of the highest caliber and takes them all around the world. Their clients include Netflix, Nike, Adidas, Ford Chevy — you name it. Check out their website here and their reel here. Amazing stuff!

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Photo by Samuel Crossley

Among Kenji’s many pioneering feats: the first ever drone shoot inside a state capitol building and the first drone shoot over Timberline Lodge and Mt. Hood Meadows. But here’s where the real pioneering begins: as a lawyer, he is one of the most knowledgeable drone policy experts in the world. He played a critical role in the 2017 FAA Remote ID and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee, serves on a number of Federal Drone Advisory Committee task forces and advises numerous state agencies and municipalities as a UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) policy advisor.

Wow. How many jobs can YOU juggle in one day?

“Dealing with the FAA can get complicated, so being a lawyer helps.” —Kenji Sugahara, CEO, Drone Service Providers Alliance

But wait, there’s more. With photographer and drone advocate Vic Moss, Kenji recently launched the Drone Service Providers Alliance, a 501c6 non-profit dedicated to providing a voice to drone service providers at the federal, state and local levels. “We founded the Alliance to engage with policy makers as they develop regulations that affect commercial UAS businesses,” Kenji said. “State and local authorities need to allow us to provide our services to the film, construction and other industries while at the same time protecting their communities from drone misuse.”

You might be asking, “Drone misuse?” Just Google “consumer drone disasters” and you’ll get the picture (one of my favorites: the guy who crashed his drone into the Space Needle). Remember when drones first came out and you wanted to get that shot flying over I-5. Not a good idea. If you do, expect a call from the Feds, since every consumer and commercial drone is equipped with UAS Remote ID. Big Brother is watching! “Obviously it’s all about safety,” Kenji said. “You want your drone team to know what they’re doing — not just creatively, but also in the safety and legal arenas.”

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“Dealing with the FAA can get complicated, so being a lawyer helps,” Kenji said. During the BLM protests this summer, the FAA and Homeland Security established temporary USAS flight restrictions over Portland. “We had a couple of jobs and needed to fly down there,” Kenji said. They wouldn’t let us fly without special permission.” With Kenji’s legal expertise, A-Cam Aerials was able to acquire the necessary waivers to do their work.

Kenji’s focus on advocacy is one reason he appreciates OMPA. “They provide invaluable support to the film community,“ he said. “One example is how OMPA, with the Oregon Film Office, helped preserve the Portland Film Office this year. We really need that office to stay open right now.”

“They provide invaluable support to the film community. One example is how OMPA, with the Oregon Film Office, helped preserve the Portland Film Office this year. We really need that office to stay open right now.” —Kenji Sugahara, Chief Drone Pilot, A-Cam Aerials

I asked Kenji if he had any words of support for our fellow filmmakers. He said, “As a community we will get through this. If you feel isolated, reach out. There are a lot of people ready to help.”

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Kenji pictured with business partner Alex Emberlin, right.

Like everyone, A-Cam Aerials has had to adapt during the pandemic. Kenji told me that everything shut down for them in March. “And then came all the fires,” he said. “We couldn’t fly at all. It was like double jeopardy.” One of the adjustments A-Cam Aerials has made during COVID is to use their downtime to explore new technology, like the new first person view (FPV) drones. “The FPVs are incredibly nimble versatile tools,” said Kenji. “They can get close to talent, fly upside down, do acrobatic maneuvers. Not to mention, they’re really fun to fly.”

As for flying under pressure, Kenji and his team knows all about it. Last August they were on a mega music video for the rapper Drake, which has almost 190,000,000 views on YouTube. “No pressure on that one,” he laughed. “But in our business, you know, there’s no room for drama. We just stay on task.”

That shoot looked amazing. Way to stay cool under pressure, Kenji!

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About the Author

David Poulshock is a writer/director based in the Northwest whose preferred genre is magical realism.

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