Drones in Drag
by Jenny Barrett
Drones are not just busy conducting military strikes, spying on far off countries or, on good days, transporting medicine to isolated populations. They are also firmly establishing themselves in live entertainment. And we’re not talking capturing footage. These days drones are getting in on the act itself.
Katie Cullen Montgomerie, Kiwi born and bred, is now Head of Marketing for Verity, the world-leading provider of indoor drone shows. Based in Switzerland, we caught up with Katie when she recently travelled home to give a keynote address at the Entertainment Technology NZ Conference.
From Flying Scenery To Drones in Drag
Verity’s drones have completed in excess of 150,000 flights in over twenty countries and more than one hundred venues. The drones are more commonly used for special effects or a lightshow but in some instances Verity’s costume designer Léa Pereyre gets the nod, and lo and behold you have a drone in drag.
Think lanterns. Picture eighty-eight micro drones flying over performers in red Chinese lantern costumes for China Central Television’s New Year’s Gala, the world’s most-watched TV program with 1 billion viewers. The drones were choreographed to coordinate with LED screens, seventy dancers’ movements and two famous Chinese pop stars.
Or lampshades, “We started on Broadway in Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour in 2016 with drones dressed as lampshades.”
Katie describes other recent work, “Our drones also feature in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany. Off land, our drones are used in five stage productions on cruise ships. We’re yet to deploy costume drones in a permanent installation, but we did debut silver-painted drone guards on one of Royal Caribbean’s ships.
“Nick Weir, Royal Caribbean’s VP of Entertainment has been a fantastic advocate for Verity’s drone technology and is always looking at different ways of using it.”
Katie believes costume drones will soon be touring with productions too, “Tours are very challenging environments because everything needs to be loaded-in, loaded-out, transported and loaded back in every few days.
“Adding an extra element like drone costumes to this process requires careful thinking and clever design to ensure the costumes are robust and easy to handle. But we’re not far away!”
Drone Choreographers, Drone Dressers & the Drones Themselves
The company generally works with the show designer to come up with a big idea, then the technical team plan every detail with the production manager. Next it is over to the drone choreographers to develop the flight patterns and lighting effects and lastly they work with the show’s production team to provide live support.
Where costumes are required, the world’s only dedicated drone costume designer creates the costume design in CAD software before laser-cutting the materials and assembling the costumes.
The drones feature special guards that have pre-defined slots to easily attach costume elements, making it easy to quickly create large numbers of costumes and transform drones into moving pieces of scenography, props and even characters.
The company’s flagship offering, trade named the Lucie micro drone, are ultra-light weighing only 50g each. They carry RGBW LEDs with 140 lumens on the white channel and each drone has a three minute flight time per one hour charge. Katie explains, “We’ve also developed a special charging station with ease of transport in mind.
“It’s an all-in-one transportation, storage and charging solution within a standard flight case. Each charging station holds forty Lucie micro drones in five drawers. To deploy the drones, you take the carrying trays out of the drawers and place the trays on stage.
“Each tray holds eight micro drones, so it’s easy for one person to deploy a reasonable number of vehicles quickly. After the show, the operator, usually a stagehand or freelancer, will collect the drones on the trays and place them back in the charging station.”
Because of the Lucie micro drones’ small size, they are very quiet,“This was one of the main concerns for Starlight Express as the drones are used in the Starlight Sequence, which is a very peaceful moment in an otherwise loud and energetic musical. But even in such a quiet scene, you can’t hear the drones when you’re sitting in the audience.”
All the software, choreographies and hardware is developed by Verity in Zurich, Switzerland. And the software is impressive. If a motor were to fail on a Lucie micro drone, the drone would detect this, switch off its motors and land on the stage but for other drones such as the 1kg Stage Flyer drones deployed in Paramour on Broadway, Verity needed to be sure that no one would be injured by a technical failure.
The engineering team developed ‘Failsafe’, a control algorithm that ensures if a motor were to fail, the natural spinning behaviour of the drone would be leveraged to maintain elevation and control.
Verity’s drones fly autonomously, so when a failure is detected, Failsafe automatically kicks-in and safely lands the vehicle on stage.
During the run on Broadway, the Stage Flyer drones completed 398 public shows, including more than 7,000 autonomous take-offs, flights, and landings, in front of an audience of up to 2,000 people per show, all of them without safety nets.
The system was entirely client-operated, with the theatre staff providing routine maintenance and the show’s automation carpenter running all shows. Verity Studios provided maintenance services twice per year.
Equally amazing is how they manage the drones on cruise ships, “Most venues aren’t moving while you’re working in them but of course cruise ships are constantly in motion, so we had to develop special software to estimate the movement of the cruise ship to enable reliable drone flight inside these challenging venues.
“This is crucial for autonomous drones as they need reliable and accurate localisation data to fly.”
One of Verity’s most impressive new productions is ‘The Effectors’ on Spectrum of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. In ‘The Effectors’, the villain in the story, Crash, uses Verity’s Lucie micro drones as his minions, and they swarm out over the audience to impressive effect, surging back and forth seemingly in response to the actor’s waving arm movements.
Just a gimmick or here to stay?
Katie oozes enthusiasm for this technology and whilst admitting that “drone shows” in themselves could be a fad, she strongly believes that the versatility of drone technology will stop it from becoming a gimmick,
“If you look at the technology as a way of moving objects, whether lights, scenery, props or characters, around in space, then there are endless possibilities.”
Verity’s drones are about to hit the headlines again with two large events taking place in September, along with a couple of smaller ones, all illustrating the versatility of drone technology, but only one of which Katie could talk about when we met, “Our drones will perform in Season 3 of Apologue 2047 at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing.”
Produced by China Kingway and directed by Zhang Yimou, who also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, this cutting edge concept theatre explores the relationship between humans and technology,
“The Lucie micro drones were dressed as plastic bags to symbolize the impact our consumer behaviour has on the environment. As you can see in the images, the drones melt away into the background and it appears the bags are floating, twisting and turning in the wind.
“There’s so much potential with this technology, it’s impossible to say where our creative clients will take us next!”
The plastic bags costume came with its own set of challenges. In Katie’s eyes the key to embedding the drones’ place in a show designer’s technical arsenal is improving the integration of Verity’s technology with the live events ecosystem,
“When designers have more control over the technology, we believe they’ll find myriad possibilities of using it creatively. In tandem, we’re also working on new applications for our core technologies in live events. There’s a lot of exciting stuff in the pipeline, so watch this space!”
Coming soon to a place near you…or not
Metallica’s ‘Worldwide’ tour, arriving in Australia and New Zealand in October, had incorporated ninety-nine of Verity’s Lucie micro drones swarming around the band during ‘Moth Into Flame’. Unfortunately the tour will be minus drones for the Antipodes due to it being a stadium tour and the drones being too light to be used outdoors.
Back in 2017, this was the world’s first autonomous drone swarm performance in a major touring act, “We collaborated very closely with TAIT on integrating the drones because they take off and land in stage lifts.”
Not to mention factoring in the 360-degree stage, the band, video projections and lighting. Since then other acts have caught on to the potential of drones for raising the stakes of a stage show.
Katie herself saw Drake perform at Madison Square Gardens with Verity’s Lucie micro drones, “It was a pretty special feeling seeing our technology on stage with such a huge artist. The drones have a presence that is hard to communicate with just pictures and videos; you need to experience it live.”
Verity’s drones are going to start touring with a new yet to be announced artist very soon, but in the meantime offshore is your best bet, “You have to hop on the Majestic Princess Cruise Ship. Sadly, there is nothing in the way of costume drones down under as yet, but it does mean there is a big opportunity to be the first!”
For those wanting to get a bit more hands on, Katie was busy promoting Verity as a career avenue during her visit to New Zealand,
“It would be great to have some more Kiwis and Aussies on board. We’re always looking for people with experience in the industry, whether it be in sales, project and stage management, or engineering. We’re also always on the look-out for reliable freelancers.”
If that sounds like you visit https://veritystudios.com/careers
Lead image: Paramour – Cirque du Soleil. Photo Richard Termine