Case studies: ‘Meet Your Creator’
Project Description / Concept
A live theatrical performance / kinetic light sculpture with quadrotor drones, LEDs, motorized mirrors and moving head spotlights dancing in a joyous robo-ballet celebration of techno-spirituality. Exploring semi-autonomous, computer programmed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) as a means to deflect and divert light and create floating light sculptures dancing to music. Machines which are traditionally purveyors of surveillance are artistically re-purposed to be purveyors of music, dance, joy, celebration, creativity.
Robin: 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. 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.
Memo: 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.
MLF were commissioned to design and create the opening show for the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase in Cannes Lions Festival. After collaborating with Saatchi & Saatchi senior creatives Jonathan Santana and Xander Smith on the show theme “Meet your Creator”, we set off to design a show celebrating the miracle of creation.
Our aim was to create ethereal moving sculptures of light and sound. Always excited by the prospect of appropriating new technologies and further developing them for artistic purposes, we designed and built a fleet of quadrotors with LEDs and motorised mirrors, tightly synchronised to an audio track specifically composed for the performance by oneohtrix point never.
We designed and implemented a system which allowed us to easily choreograph and animate the quadrotors virtually, and have this data directly drive the physical robots, while the spotlights automatically tracked them in realtime. By minimizing the turnaround time from thinking of an idea, to seeing it in the flesh, we were able to realize the creative potential of this brand new medium to it’s full potential in the limited time we had.
Custom drones [quadrotors] made by KMEL Robotics. Built on site, made with motorised mirrors and RGB LEDs.
Quadrotors working alongside 16 moving head spotlights (Sharpy), Vicon system of 20 IR cameras, computers and network switches. Custom set build.
The Quadrotors themselves are the brainchild of Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger of KMel Robotics. University of Pennsylvania graduates Alex and Daniel are experts in hardware design and high- performance control. Their Quadrotors push the limits of experimental robotics, and the Quadrotors performing at the NDS have been built and programmed specifically for the event.
The team also used the VICON rig to calibrate the VICON space (quadrotor coordinate system) to stage space (the coordinate system we used for their animations) – by placing tracking markers on all of the lights on the floor (so the software knows where all the lights are in the world). Likewise VICON rig was also used to calibrate each of the individual sharpy orientation motors. i.e. when they send the instructions to set Pan/Tilt to 137 deg / 39 deg, to Memo’s dismay they were always considerably off (even though they have very precise motors). So he had to map his desired angles, to real world angles (specific to each device).
“Our aim was to create animated volumetric forms in space for a theatrical performance in the Cannes Palais. We realised that by flying mirrors mounted to quadrotors we could reflect beams of light in different geometric structures. Precision control of the quadrotors under a Vicon motion control rig was the only way we could do this. We were also able to choreograph the flight paths of the quadrotors in 3D animation software that worked in parallel with the lighting & set design.”
Their role in this piece is purely an artistic subversion of their original purpose – concentrating on the key feature of these flying robots: following trajectories in space without being bound to external fixed supports. That is the role of quadrotors in this project: programmable vertices in space, the floating cornerstones of a kinetic light sculpture. Thus the vehicles are in fact not the stars of the show. They are the puppet masters operating in the dark, that carry the light, synchronized and choreographed to a bespoke score by Oneohtrix Point Never.
The creative side was Marshmallow Laser Feast collaborating with two creative directors – Jonathan Santana and Xander Smith at Saatchi & Saatchi. It was produced by Juliette Larthe at Prettybird. Kmel robotics dealt with the technical facilitation.
Budget / Sponsorship
Funded by Saatchi Worldwide and produced by Prettybird UK, the budget was held & managed by those parties. The most significant part of the budget – the use of the Vicon rig (IR cameras) – was sponsored. We have estimated in the past to recreate this project in full, with necessary upgrades and to make it fully tour-able, could cost somewhere in the region of £300k.
Issues / Challenges
Huge amount of challenges, and an extremely high risk production. The team’s willingness to work all hours and the client’s trust made it work. Unexpected factors included:
– Creating work arounds in the choreography so the desired shapes could be achieved – such as you couldn’t fly the drones above each other (due to turbulence).
– How delicate the Vicon rig was – meaning each IR camera needed to acutely positioned and if knocked it has huge implications on recalibration & timing.
Get in times were limited and so a challenge, this meant the team had to test in a different environment to that of the show. Entering a new environment on the day of the performance was a particular concern & the team had to adapt quickly to new conditions.
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.
Learning & Future Potential
The team learnt a huge amount through successfully dealing with all of the challenges (as stated above) that this project brought up. There is huge potential for a flying light shows like this, both indoors and outdoors. Since June 2012 there have been significant advancements in drone technology & IR motion capture systems. Worldwide demand for bespoke (yet similar back-end) shows prove that tour-able solutions have huge future (& current) potential. But, the technologies are still very expensive and not particularly robust meaning these shows are hard to create.
more information at
Marshmallow Laser Feast: Show Directors
Quadrotor Design & Development: KMel Robotics
Event concept created by: Jonathan Santana & Xander Smith when at Saatchi & Saatchi
Producer: Juliette Larthe
Sound Design: Oneohtrix Point Never
Production Supervisor: Holly Restieaux
Marshmallow Laser Feast team: Raffael Ziegler, Rob Pybus, Devin Matthews, James Medcraft
Typography & Design: Farrow Design
Set Design: Sam & Arthur
Thanks to Vicon for the tracking system and also to Francois Wunshcel, Johnny Milmer, Andreas Muller, Marek Bereza, Erik Sjodin and the openFrameworks community.
Filmed by: James Medcraft, Sandra Ciampone, Mike Tombeur
Photographs from www.creativeapplications.net