You’ve probably seen some of the smaller LEDs that you can attach to drones for light painting or other cool effects. In fact, we wrote about this recently. But did you know that some professionals can put really bright lights in the air? Just wait until you see what DroneBoy did in Canada.
We’ve become quite accustomed to picking out drone shots during movies, television shows, and even advertisements. But sometimes drones are involved in less obvious ways. In the example we’re about to look at, a drone was carrying the lighting on a cold winter’s night.
And as you’re about to discover, there’s quite a story behind that.
DroneBoy is one of the leading aerial cinematography shops in North America. Led by Tom Comet, DroneBoy has a super-qualified team. Not only that, the company has its own airplane, which it often uses to fly its crew and gear to on-location shoot. Brief aside: The Cessna 337 Skymaster is a super-cool aircraft that has both a puller and a pusher props.
DroneBoy is really in demand for professional shoots. This includes work on movies, television productions, commercials, and more. We find the company so interesting that we featured its founder, Tom Comet, on this episode of the Buzz podcast.
Lights in the sky
On a recent gig, DroneBoy was tasked with getting some bright lights in the sky at night and also doing some aerial shooting during the same time. The job was for a spot for running shoes, but with a pretty high concept: The runner is running, at night through the woods, during an unusual eclipse. The director was clearly after a mysterious, otherworldly feel. We asked Tom Comet to fill in the details:
For this project we were asked to fly TWO of our heavy lift drone packages which meant TWO full teams on site. Luckily we have the gear and the highly-skilled team to pull something like this off. Even so, we performed a full nighttime rehearsal at our facility the week prior to the shoot so that we were all current on our two drone, night time SOPs. Both flying heavy lift drones at night and two drone OPs are challenging. Add in super-bright LEDs shining in your face and -15C weather and things can get downright challenging. Best to be good little Boy Scouts and be prepared!
What about the gear?
We asked Tom what they were flying. The answer? A lot. First, let’s deal with the camera rig:
The camera ship was our Freefly ALTA X carrying a MoviPRO gimbal, an ARRI Mini, and Angenieux 15-40 zoom lens. The ARRI Mini works great in low light and that camera has become our go-to heavy lift camera package over the past couple of years. Everybody loves them and so do we. It is great to have familiarity with the tools we are asked to use and we have that with the Mini!
Cool. Now what about those lights?
The light ship was our Freefly ALTA 8 carrying another MoviPRO gimbal and this one was rigged with our high powered Stratus LED array. These custom-built LEDs are super bright but lightweight and efficient enough that they can be flown on a heavy lift drone. They generate 52,000 lumens at 5500K and we can run them for around 12 minutes on a battery pack. Because they are mounted on the Movi PRO it means that we can point them any way that we like and follow the action on the ground or perform intricate lighting choreography. This made them an awesome tool on a project like this where our client wanted a super creative, moving-light look that would have cost a fortune to accomplish with conventional lighting fixtures mounted on cranes. Without the use of our drones the dynamic movement, chases and quick setups would not have been possible either. It is a one-of-a-kind product and this particular project really showcased what it can do. We are super happy with the results!
How do you figure this out?
Seriously. We asked Tom how they calculated whether the lighting they were going to throw up there would be sufficient:
Basically we use ALL the lighting that we have and hope that is enough. In this case it was! We can only go so big with the drones, the LED array and the onboard battery source (LIPO batteries). That night we were lucky in the fact that the project shot on the snow which acted like a huge reflector magnifying the look and overall effect. The challenge with the night and snow is the cold that comes with it. Our Stratus LED array is a HUGE power hog and that night the cold ate into our battery power as well. Luckily we had one huge, magnificent ‘snow reflector’ and for some of the shots this enabled us to to dim the LEDs in order to conserve some power and perform longer flights (longer takes) which is always a good thing.
This was going to be a challenging shoot. And one of the thing Tom Comet does when planning shoots is run through them in his mind, well in advance. What might make the end result better? What might possibly go wrong? What other contingencies could be planned?
Well, Tom was thinking about this shoot beforehand and came up with a couple of ideas that ultimately really helped the finished product, and his crew:
More often than not it is those very things that kept me up at night that we actually added to our system that made the difference between success and failure. The first of these new additions was the ability to remotely dim the LEDs from the ground. Not a big deal but pretty tricky to do well and we had already tried two other ways to make this work. Finally we got it right and it helped a lot with our run time and the ability to change the look easily without landing.
And the second?
The second was the addition of an FPV camera on the LED package itself that enabled our Lighting Operator to see the lighting from the perspective of the lights up in the sky. This made it much easier for him to line up shots and work with the pilot to perform dynamic tracking moves quickly and easilly. It helped in another way as well. While we were piloting our light ship over the tops of trees in the middle of the night it was very hard to see the treetop obstructions. Yes, we had multiple ground spotters and great comms but at night it can be very challenging to see just how high the drone is above the tops of the trees which could end terribly as you can imagine. With the remote view setup all we had to do was turn out 52,000 lumen flashlight on and double check our tree top clearance from above. Very nice!
What altitudes were involved?
For most of our operation we were between 50 and 150 feet AGL. For some of the shots we were tasked with flying right over the tree canopy and moving the drone horizontally in order to create the crazy lighting in the trees look. In the case of the trees it was really nice to have all the detailed telemetry date viewable realtime on our Panasonic Toughbook laptop. That combined with the RTK GPS enabled us to mark waypoints, altitude and flight tracks and repeat as necessary. I love it when technical tools allow us to help make great art!
Let’s see the video!
You’ve waited long enough. But now you’ve got a much greater appreciation for the kind of planning and tech that goes into a shoot like this.
And the result? Pretty incredible:
And one brief aside
We asked Tom if there were any other challenges or tricky bits about the shoot. We weren’t expecting the two answers we received, both of which were great.
This was an overnight winter OP and as such it was extremely challenging at times. We had to schlep two heavy drones, all support equipment, accessories, batteries (heated), and spares out into snowy fields and remote clearings in the forest in the middle of nowhere at night in winter. Planning, logistics, and support were a HUGE part of this job and our success. Luckily I LOVE this kind of thing and have assembled a team who love it as well and we have the knowhow and a mountain of specialized gear that enables us to pull it off. We have our 24’ long heated drone trailer, heated battery boxes to keep our LIPOs alive, drone carts that were fitted onto sleds and pulled into the woods, and expedition-grade gear to keep us alive and happy in all environments. This is the kind of project I live for!
Something else happened during this cold shoot. Something totally unexpected, which had the potential to totally tank the night. The athlete hired had a tough time in the snow:
One of the crazier things that took place during this mission happened right off the start of the night when we first filmed the talent run across the snowy field. The Agency had cast a top runner for the role BUT apparently what they didn’t cast was someone who was experienced running in deep snow in very cold conditions. The poor guy wore himself out almost right away and that was that. Now we had a commercial to shoot but no lead actor. What to do? Production asked around if anyone had any extreme running experience and, of course, one of our guys did. It turned out that Ryan from our team is an ultra-marathon runner so he was ‘cast’ on the spot, put in the costume, and off he went, tearing across the field, running through forests and streams being chased by our lights and drones all night long and he absolutely killed it! They loved him and he saved the spot really.
And, says Tom, there’s a lesson there.
“This makes me think of another success principal – always bring a few more people and resources than you think you will actually need to pull it off because you just never know how it things will turn out. In this case it turned out amazing and we are super happy with the results.”
Super cool video. Well done, Tom and the DroneBoy team.