High in Heaven: 200 Drones Shape Celestial Face for Music Video

(High In Heaven)

Two hundred drones animated a 300' face as it lip-synced original song “High in Heaven” from a stage set in the clouds. Released October 22, the music video, with music by VWLS and ft. Josh Epstein and Louie Louie, was dreamed and realized by motion and development studio Hobbes.

“During our two-year partnership with Firefly Drone Shows, we had always talked about making a face out of drones,” notes Hobbes creative director Nick Forshee. “No matter how big we can make a drone show feel in person, it never quite translates to video. Our goal was to break through that barrier by making something more than spinning stars and circles. Our goal was to capture the human face performing a song driven by the actual performer.”

One of only a few companies fully licensed by the FAA to fly drone light shows in the U.S., Firefly Drone Shows handled all of the regulations and set parameters, such as the boundaries, speed, and length of the show, before motion development began.

Hobbes utilized 3D animation tool Maxon Cinema 4D and the AR toolkit Moves by Maxon to create the celestial scene. Moves by Maxon’s realtime face capture enabled the team to record four unique performances. “With pose morphs, we could dial up the ‘energetic’ performance when the song picks up and dial in the ‘stoic’ when we needed the face to be more monolithic and observant,” explains Forshee. “We were able to use a surface deformer to glue single points, or drones, onto the face mesh. From there, we monitored for speed and collisions. Once everything checked out, we sent our finished show to Firefly who then converted the data for 200 individual flight paths. We were able to accomplish a lot without really going too deep into C4D.”

While the drones can reach up to 40 mph, regulations do not permit them to exceed 12 mph during a performance. “This proves to be pretty difficult with lip sync, especially the bottom lip,” notes the creative director. “We’d work in real time, then slow the finished flight paths down 5x to ensure that we did not exceed our speed thresholds. Once we filmed this ‘sluggish’ 15-minute show, all we had to do was speed the footage back up 5x to sync back to the original song length of three minutes.”

The drones feature a range of colors and levels of brightness, but Hobbes stuck to a theme of blues and whites for “High in Heaven.” Most of the show operated at 50% brightness while full white was saved for impactful parts such as the face exploding.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not hinder the project. “We joked that this project was the perfect project for COVID times,” quips Forshee. “The Hobbes team was already working from home. Moves By Maxon allowed [the musician] to record his performance and email his data to us, all the way from California. Social distancing at the test field was easy considering we were all looking up at a 300' canvas in the sky!

“Drones are hands-down the most interesting medium for animation right now,” concludes Forshee. “You only have 200 ‘pixels’ yet together they are as large as a skyscraper. Paired with the real-world constraints and open-ended opportunities, it’s a perfect remedy for making addictive progress.”

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