Lasers and Drones! A Flying Quadrotor Light Show Spectacular

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The Creators Project speaks with the team behind the dazzling robot performance at Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase in Cannes. 

Last week, the video (above) for Saatchi & Saatchi‘s New Directors’ Showcase 2012 dropped on the Internet. If you watched it, then you were no doubt left open-jawed afterwards, mesmerized by the performance of 16 quadrotors dancing around a glowing pyramid and reflecting light across a room. The light show spectacular, called Meet Your Creator, went way beyond the conventional robotic performances we’ve seen to date.

This dazzling flying robot ballet was orchestrated by Marshmallow Laser Feast — Robin McNicholas, Memo Akten, and Barnaby Steel — with music from Oneohtrix Point Never. Using the quadrotors of KMel Robotics, whose robots performed the James Bond Theme earlier this year, the display is a technical marvel and the first of its kind. In a tightly choreographed show, light is sculpted around the room using mirrors and spotlights by a dancing troupe of LED drones built and programmed specifically for the show.

The performance, which is reminiscent of some 1980s sci-fi films mixed with a Space Invaders vibe, took months of planning and was simulated in Cinema4D to ensure the logistics were correct and the robots were all going to dance in sync and not go crazy and kill people. The quadrotors were tracked by a VICON tracking system, which featured 20 cameras, and the tracking data was used to control the bots.

Such a stunning automated performance needed further explanation, so we sent a few questions off to Memo Akten and Robin McNicholas to find out a bit more about this incredibly complex, but winning combo, of light beams and flying robots.

The Creators Project: How did you come up with the idea of using quadrotors for this performance? What appealed to you about this approach?

Robin McNicholas: Earlier in the year we went down to a small cliff-top chalet on the Cornish coast of England with Jonathan and Xander from Saatchi London. We detached from the outside world — no Internet, no phones — and thrashed our collective ideas around on good old fashioned pen and paper. Together we wanted to achieve an uplifting experience for the audience with big rays of light and sculptural forms. We knew we could track objects in a 3D space and knew the KMel team’s work, which seemed to run in parallel with our sensibilities. Things naturally evolved over the next month or so going through all kinds of adventurous iterations including Segways, Honda UX-3s, and even ice-cream ladies with dual purpose mirrored trays!

Memo Akten: We’d been fascinated with quadrotors for a while, even before the Saatchi show. How could you not be? They’re tiny flying robots! Our first idea was to mount lasers on them, because let’s face it … flying robots need lasers. But then we found out France had banned lasers, so we adjusted the concept to the current incarnation — mirrors and LEDs on the vehicles, with spotlights on the ground tracking the quadrotors and targeting the mirrors. On a serious note though, what appealed to us was the idea of small, nimble little flying robots which we could fully program to follow precise trajectories. Most importantly, we could use these flying robots to manipulate beams of light in ways not previously possible and use these techniques to construct light sculptures dancing to music.

How hard was it to convince people to let you bring drones into a theater for a performance like this? What other challenges did you have to overcome in order to make this project happen?

McNicholas: We were blown away by the encouragement and support from everyone on the ground. Generally, quadrotors seem to have this incredible knack of exciting people and we can honestly say, everyone we encountered on this project really believed in it and tried in their own way to make it happen. It was insanely ambitious and the level of risk was immense. There were compromises along the way however, it was initially planned to have the quadrotors fly into the audience which unfortunately we were not allowed to do. Next time!

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Akten: It was quite challenging on a few levels. Everyone loved the YouTube videos of quadrotors, no problems there. As a concept it was an easy sell. The first hurdle was to convince everyone that they weren’t going to get just what they saw on YouTube. We had to convince people that what we were going to deliver would take it much further. That wasn’t too hard a sell either. As soon as we storyboarded our idea everyone was fully on board and behind us 100%. Now that everyone was supportive creatively, we just had the little matter of health and safety to address. Understandably everyone wanted to make sure that a quadrotor wasn’t going to lose control or gain self-awareness and attack someone in the audience. So we agreed on a safety gauze in front of the stage (which of course had to be indestructible and fireproof, as did everything else).

Health and safety concerns aside, there were of course a ton of technical issues we had to resolve. Making sure that the wireless communication between the quadrotors and their server wouldn’t be affected by any local interference, making sure that the infrared tracking of the quadrotors stayed stable, making sure that the moving head lights on the floor were in the designed correct positions and orientation — or if they weren’t, how to measure and calibrate that, making sure that the motors in the lights were calibrated in a way such that when you told them to aim at a known position in space, it did aim at that position in space (instead of aiming a few degrees off), designing mechanisms to detect potential bad trajectories that may cause collisions or instability (exceeding certain accelerations, velocities, proximities) etc. We were kept busy for quite a while.

Can you tell us a bit more about the creative concept behind this piece? Seems like it’s got some ritualistic/occult overtones to it. What were you trying to convey with that?

McNicholas: We wanted to fill the God hole! To provide people with an experience that took them away from their day-to-day lives and offered people an escape into a utopian world where we lived in complete peace and harmony with machines. Without the nasty cold and mechanical sting that often is associated with technology and science fiction. All that mixed in with our shared sense of humour. That’s partly why Oneohtrix Point Never became involved as he’s right on the edge of incredibly intricate and high-brow work interspersed with just hints of other more humorous nostalgic worlds.

Akten: The Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase is a celebration of directors, of creators. The theme of the event, is “meet your creator,” referring to the directors in the reel obviously, but it implies a cheeky double meaning, a religious connotation of meeting your "Creator." After many brainstorms, this idea evolved to position the event as a congregation, and the whole audience, disciples of an imaginary religion that values and cherishes creativity, creation. It is a religion where we are all creators, and are driven by the urge to create, and appreciate other people’s creations. We wanted to attach a level of appreciation to this analogous to that of a trance-inducing evangelical worship. Part inspired by the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s inspiring speech on (to paraphrase): “What part of my brain lights up, when I think about the fact that the molecules in my body, consist of atoms forged in the hearts of stars and supernova.” He goes on to compare the physiological experience and chemical reactions in his brain when he thinks of fascinating scientific observations, to be similar — if not identical — to that of an evangelical during a worship. i.e. we all crave some kind of spiritual stimulation, whether that comes from a deity or scientific explanation, or elsewhere. In the case of our fictitious religion, that stimulation comes from creativity and the act of creation.

What was the most surprising thing about working with drones? Would you do it again?

McNicholas: We were all amazed at how much interest the quadrotors got! People just light up and grin at these things like big kids, it’s wonderful to see. So the most surprising element was probably that, their characters surfacing and stealing the hearts of our audience!

Akten: In one sense, these machines look dead scary. They are like something out of a Terminator film. But when you see them for real, they fill you with astonishment. We’ve all seen helicopters, and planes, and are used to the way they look and move — even fictional space ships and flying saucers. But quadrotors look so different. They don’t have a clear front/back, etc. They look so alien that it invokes a fascination. And they move so fast, and so agile. They can jump around like a hummingbird, but then lock themselves into position. Again it’s something that we just aren’t used to seeing machines do. They’re like giant weird insects. However the most fascinating/educational/unexpected aspect of the project, is how the outcome ended up being a definite collaboration between the team (us humans), and the hardware (the vehicles themselves and the moving head lights). We knew working with hardware was going to impose constraints (especially working with flying robots!), we knew we were going to have to make compromises to stay within the confines of “physically possible,” we knew we were not going to get the exact same motion we had in our animation and simulations. We did not know that the vehicles were going to add such a distinct charming characteristic of movement, that we were all going to fall in love with them the instant we saw them fly our trajectories. We now realise that it’s no different to a choreographer instructing a dancer, who takes the choreography and makes it their own. Or a composer who writes a piece of music for a musician, who takes the score and makes it their own. These robots took our animations, and made it their own. We quickly realised this and fully embraced it, adding little touches which would really allow the vehicles' quirks and character to fully shine through.


The music for the piece is stunning — how did your collaboration with Oneohtrix Point Never unfold?

McNicholas: The collaboration with OPN was done completely from different sides of the Atlantic! We’d be done for if the Internet did not exist, as it really played its part in facilitating the creative development process between what we choreographed and what OPN composed. We love the final score and it was incredible to hear it on such a colossal sound system in the Palais.

Akten: We worked very closely with OPN to develop the music and the choreography simultaneously. We created a basic animation first to layout the structure, sent this over to OPN, who created a sketch composition and sent it back to us. We briefed him with a direction, but mentioned that he had complete liberty to adjust and modify our animation structure to something that he thought would work better musically. We then adjusted our animation structure to match OPN’s audio, but instead of following that blindly we took further liberties and sent it back to OPN, who composed a bit more and sent it back to us. This iterative process happened a few times, first to lock down the rough overall structure and timings (e.g. 52 second intro LED section, 8 second pause, 45 second transitional section, 1:30 melodic section, etc.). Once the rough structure was locked, we carried on this iterative process to nail the specifics of each section. We would animate a bit, send to OPN, he would adapt his score to fit, making a few minor changes if necessary to make it work better musically, and vice versa. It was a great process. OPN was very receptive to our feedback, and a lot of his musical explorations actually inspired whole sections of animation that we hadn’t initially imagined.

Images courtesy of Creativeapplications.net

This post also appears on The Creators Project, an Atlantic partner site. 

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Kevin Holmes is Executive Editor of The Creators Project and lives and works in London, UK.

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