As Kevin and Denise Ferrero of East Falls left their September wedding in their "Just Married" helicopter - Kevin's a pilot and their theme was aviation - the getaway was captured from the air. Then the camera panned the idyllic scene below, a pristine Perkasie lake sparkling in the setting sun and surrounded by lush green meadows.
It's the latest wow factor sought by the nuptially inclined: Along with the perfect bridal party, color scheme, and location, couples want to document how all those ingredients came together to form the perfect wedding backdrop. And those from-the-mountaintop vistas are accomplished only by drones (formally, "unmanned aerial vehicles" or UAVs), the newest trend in wedding filmmaking.
Although military drones go back to the 1970s, use of the devices in a wedding setting has grown in recent years as smaller, more nimble, and cheaper models allow operators to experiment - sometimes to great effect ("There were shots you couldn't get any other way - I just loved it!" said Kevin. "Our guests did, too.") and other times not so much. The infamous 2013 YouTube video of a drone crashing into a groom's face (right as he was kissing his bride) went viral with more than 2 million hits.
It's why Darrell Aubert, the Ferreros' filmmaker, never uses a drone when people are the subject of the shot - so no interiors at synagogues, churches, or receptions.
The things are also loud - "sounds like a swarm of bees," said Aubert, whose Aubert Films in Philadelphia has used the technology at about seven weddings since offering drone footage about a year ago.
"It's not just about the film itself, but acknowledging it's about the wedding," he said. "It's something that needs to be used when it's appropriate."
The Ferreros' wedding was a natural, given its theme, but for more typical weddings, it's the perfect way to get an establishing shot - like a panorama of Philadelphia when the venue is in Center City, said Aubert, whose wedding packages run about $4,000, with or without the drone. "It gives the film a more movielike quality, one tool in a large tool set."
Pilot Geoff Gelay prefers you don't call them drones - a word he says is more associated with surveillance and explosives - but his West Deptford aerial photography and video company, RCHeliCam, started experimenting with them for wedding films about three years ago.
Not wanting to be intrusive, he did it free for friends, recognizing the value of a bird's-eye view at an incredible venue. "The light, the environment, everything that's magical about the wedding from a different perspective, you really get to showcase what you spent all that money for in terms of your venue," said Gelay.
Assuming the weather's good and you have an appetite for risk.
"I'm not going to have you kissing, looking straight down and then fly up and do a spin. It'll look really cool, but if anything goes wrong and it falls out of the sky on your head, that's not OK."
Gelay doesn't charge extra for the drone and finds most clients who ask for it are either technologically savvy or have seen a friend's wedding video and loved the aerial shots. Weddings aren't a big part of his business, so he just hands over the raw footage to the photographer or videographer and moves on to his more lucrative corporate and college work.
"Drone is a buzzword in society right now," he said.
Amanda Schieber chose Willow Tree Films of Pennsburg for her June 2016 wedding, partly because the company uses drones. Its video packages start at $3,400.
"It gives you a totally different perspective, with beautiful views that you wouldn't normally get," said Schieber, of Queen Village. "It was the drone footage that drew me to his films."
Many venues hope that kind of view can attract more couples to their sites. The Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board recently hired CinemaCake Filmmakers of King of Prussia to make a 90-second promo featuring drone footage of four local wedding venues. Ultimately, it plans to shoot a dozen venues, said Dave Williams, CinemaCake president. One of the focuses for the board, he said, "especially now that it's big wedding season, is to have a sizzle reel that encourages people to have their weddings in Valley Forge."
Some videographers who know how to fly the devices specifically avoid using them at weddings. David Campli of Campli Photography in Malvern saves the drones for corporate events. "It's not a photographic reason but more of a guy-at-a-wedding reason," he said. "Where's the line that makes this beautiful, intimate event into a circus?"
Nonetheless, the technology is exploding.
Maybe five or six companies showcased drones at the National Association of Broadcasters annual trade show last year, but a dedicated pavilion had 30 companies displaying their offerings at the convention in April, said Tim Suddall, a filmmaker at Allure Films in Havertown and vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Videographers Association.
The interest in drones also has drawn attention from the Federal Aviation Administration, which in February released its updated proposal for governing small commercial drones - which is what most videographers shooting weddings would use. Currently, operators must have a pilot's license or apply for an exemption. But the latest proposal would require people to pass an aeronautics test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
Gelay said amateurs who "don't know what they don't know" are buying drones inexpensively - for as little as $50 at big-box stores (although professional ones start at around $1,500) - and doing stupid things, like crashing into a groom, that bring a bad reputation to the business.
Some commercial operators, including Suddall, won't use drones (although he prefers the term quadcopters) until the law is sorted out.
"With the spiraling legislation, we decided not to do it anymore, which is really a shame," he said. "You go up 100 feet or so, come in over a pond with a beautiful shot, and then reveal the building," he recalled of one recent wedding shoot. "It added flavor and cinematic appeal to the film."