Greystone Rising: Meet Filmmaker Jody Johnson

Read our interview with Jody Johnson, author of “Greystone Rising” and winner of the New York City Drone Film Festival 2016 in the Architecture category.

The monumental Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospitalbuilt in 1876 in Morris Plains, New Jersey, was a historic icon of USA’s mental hospitals.

It was born from the idealistic vision of Dorothea Dix and Thomas Story Kirkbride: they promoted the innovative concept of “moral treatment” for psychiatric patients, which focused on providing attentive care, adequate places and tools (such as daily work) to improve well-being and reintegrate patients into society.

Built for 350 residents, this facility grew to become the largest mental hospital in the USA; a huge complex which accommodated  7,664 at its peak in 1953.

It also became one of the most important hospitals for the mentally ill in the country and in the history of psychiatry.

This is where most of the antiquated and modern psychiatric treatments we know today were tested, including teeth, tonsil, thyroid and prostate gland removals; lobotomies, hydro and electroshock therapies, insulin shock therapy as well as thorazine and other drug-based therapies.

After surviving overcrowding, devastating fires, outbreaks of typhoid fever, deinstitutionalization of mental patients, numerous allegations of patient abuse and rape, unsanitary conditions, senate commissions and patient escapes, Greystone eventually fell victim to time and decay.

Too expensive to maintain and unfit for modern basic comforts for patients, Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital was abandoned in 2003 and demolished in 2015, despite efforts by preservation groups to save the building for its historic importance.

Jody Johnson, a hobbyist drone flyer, took the opportunity to film Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital’s demolition from the air.

She made a captivating documentary which won the New York City Drone Film Festival 2016 in the Architecture category.

In Jody’s video, Greystone Rising, the demolition of this landmark psychiatric hospital is played in reverse, creating an interesting illusion of the excavators assembling the building.

The tracks and sound bites used in this video add to the emotion, making this a wonderful documentary testimony to the destruction of a symbol of America’s architectural history as well as its social history.

We interviewed Jody on the making of her video and her win at NYCDFF.


Hi Jody, can you tell us a little about yourself, your aerial filming background and your relationship with Greystone?

My name is Jody Johnson and I am a drone pilot who flies as a hobbyist. I grew up very close to Greystone and would pass by it often while it was in operation. I never realized what a truly beautiful building it was until I started documenting the demolition.

You brilliantly captured the sadness of having such an iconic building end up as rubble. Do you think it is important to document this type of destruction of American Architecture?

I think it is very important to document the destruction of historic buildings. In this particular case, thousands of people were made aware of this beautiful building and learned about its history. These people will never get to see Greystone, however hopefully, they felt the loss of this amazing structure and will support future preservationists in other efforts. I was blown away at the amount of people who thanked me for making this film. I believe it touched a lot of people.

Was it fun attending the New York City Drone Film Festival, walking the red carpet, and talking to press?

It was amazing to attend the NYC Drone Film Festival as a nominee and then afterward as a winner (last year I was a volunteer). My Greystone bunch came to support me including my boyfriend. An additional honour was having Robert Kirkbride come to show his gratitude for the film. His grandfather, Thomas Story Kirkbride was the architect who designed Greystone. I am generally a very shy person when I am outside of my circle, so talking to the press was a little hard for me but my excitement overpowered my fear. It was great meeting Jon Resnick from DJI and then getting to hang out with the very cool Randy Scott Slavin. It is surely a night I will never forget.

What equipment (drones, cameras, lens etc) did you use for Greystone Rising?

I filmed all of the footage myself with my DJI Phantom 3 Professional. The P3 has a camera attached on a gimbal. The controls for the camera are on the remote for the drone so I was able to capture and control everything all on my own.

Jody Johnson Flying DJI Phantom While Shooting Greystone Rising

Jody Johnson flying her DJI Phantom 3 Professional in front of Greystone’s main building before its demolition

Greystone Rising has an evocative and melancholy quality which works very well with the spoken word soundtrack and the music you have chosen to accompany it. Did you spend a long time working this out?

I am thrilled with how the music and voices came out although I cannot take credit for that. Lisa Marie Blohm is a woman who I met on site at Greystone. Coincidentally she knew how to edit. We got to talking and she offered to edit my footage just about a month before the deadline for the NYC Drone Film Festival. I also met Christina Matthews on site, she is from Antiquity Echoes which she founded with her partner, Rusty. They had interviewed people who had worked in Greystone as well as others who had a connection to the historic building. She was kind enough to offer some of the voice clips from her interviews for the film and I think it was the icing on the cake. We all met on site and all contributed to Greystone Rising.

How long did you have to shoot and how many hours of footage did you acquire over the whole shoot?

I started filming in May 2015 and did not finish until December 2015. If I had to guess I’d say I have about 10 hours of footage. I took my favourite clips and gave them to Lisa Marie Blohm to edit. I narrowed it down to about 15 minutes of the shots I felt worked best. The final film is under 5 minutes.

Were you at the behest of the company who was dismantling the buildings?

Soon after I started to fly I became friendly with many of the demolition men. I understood that they were not the ones who made the decision for Greystone to come down (although they suffered a lot of wrath from the public since they were doing the job). We exchanged phone numbers and they would tell me when significant pieces of the building would be demolished. After some time, I started dating the project supervisor, Michael Casale. Needless to say, I had the inside scoop. We are still together and very serious about one another. My drone found me wonderful new friends and a love who means so much to me.

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital Demolition

A still from Greystone Rising

Why did you want to run the demolition backwards? It is very effective but was it difficult to achieve?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to run the demolition backwards. No one wanted to see Greystone come down and I thought of this as one last tribute to the historic building. I was very passionate about this film and I knew I wanted to submit this to the NYC Drone Film Festival. I am a one “woman” show with less equipment and less means than most everyone else who was nominated. When I was asked what my budget was I joked and said $11.00 because I had to buy the demo guys donuts. I felt that by playing the footage backwards, it may also help for my film to stand out. I chose the clips with the biggest parts of the building coming down (which was difficult to shoot since I only had one chance to get each shot). Even when I watch it now, I find it to be very powerful. Lisa Marie Blohm was the editor. I explained what I wanted and she saw my vision. I teared up when I watched the very first clip that she sent, it was perfect.

Do you mostly work alone?

I am the drone pilot and the gimbal operator. The DJI Phantom 3 is all in one with controls on the drone remote. This allows me to be in total control of the drone and the camera at the same time. I am the proud winner of a DJI Inspire (from the NYCDFF) which has the capability of 2 remotes. I am not sure yet if I will purchase the second remote or remain in control of the entire shoot. I have gotten used to operating both the drone and the camera at the same time since my first DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus. I know the shots that I want so I may not be able to give up control of either that easily.

Was flying between cranes and demolitions difficult and did it require any specific consideration for you?

I would sometimes bring my daughter with me to keep an eye out. She is also an AMA member and loved being at Greystone with me. Since I was in close contact with the demolition crew, they would tell me where to fly to get the best views of the part of the building they were working on. The guys all knew who I was and would work with me knowing they would get to see themselves in the short videos I would post on YouTube along the way. Seeing the demolition take place and feeling the ground shake when pieces would fall is something that I will never forget.

Do you have any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?

I do have an upcoming project however I have to keep it under wraps as of now. As soon as I am able to talk about it I will post it on my Facebook page and YouTube account. I can’t believe how many emails and phone calls I have gotten since the NYC Drone Film Festival. Good things to come for sure.

Many thanks to Jody for this great interview!
Follow Jody Johnson:

Website: GlideByJJ
Twitter: twitter/GlideByJJ

Interview conducted by Una Hennessy for Skytango Ltd.