Everything You Need to Know About Creating the Ultimate Drone Light Show Experience

drone light show in the night sky

There are a whole range of components that go into creating a drone light show, as every show is a delicate balance between storytelling, motion design, animation, and logistics. In tandem, components are woven together in the night sky to create an experience that can capture the imagination like no other.

Between the technical and the creative, an awful lot of hard work has to be accomplished to create the ultimate drone light show experience, and every goal links back to one thing- storytelling. At Celestial, we use the night sky as a new artistic medium to tell stories on an epic scale, and that’s what it all comes back to.

Stories connect us, bringing us closer together and giving us a lasting, shared experience. We want to inspire people to once again look up to the stars and reconnect with the universe. By doing so, we hope to share a sense of belonging that we have with our world and our skies.

While we pride ourselves on the technical accomplishments of our drone displays, it’s when we’re able to create a profound sense of connection with the audience that they become truly meaningful.

Creating an experience that brings these stories to life takes a huge collaborative effort that covers all of our drone light shows’ creative and technical aspects. Once we have the concept behind the story in place, some of these components include:

  • Writing
  • Music 
  • Art & Motion design
  • Storyboarding
  • 3D visualisation & Animation
  • Location scouting
  • Flight logistics

Now, there’s a lot to unpack, so let’s dive a little deeper into each of these processes. We’ll use our ‘Fare Well – Edinburgh’s Hogmanay 2020‘ show as a reference point.

 

Writing

Writing isn’t always a necessity when it comes to our drone light shows- but when it is required, it becomes one of the cornerstones of the entire experience. Whether it’s a script or a poem, the words used in our shows really pave the way for what the visual experience will become. 

For the Hogmanay celebrations, a beautiful, specially commissioned poem from Scotland’s poet laureate, Jackie Kay, provided the foundation for the show. She wrote a poem that would:

“speak to Scotland and the Scottish air […] but also a poem that would speak to people wherever they were in the world.”

By conjuring up vast-scale images of stags, birds, and St Andrew’s cross in the night sky, our carefully designed animations were able to reflect and bring to life the words in this wonderful poem.

As you can see, the collaborative process that it takes to create these experiences is in full effect from the word ‘go’, and that’s what it takes to make something that will resonate. By bringing in the creative voices of esteemed writers and poets, the Celestial team are able to reach new ambitious heights, further elevating our creative methods of communicating profound stories in the night sky.

 

Music

Music is something that can enhance almost any visual medium, and when it comes to putting an experience like this together- it really is a crucial element. It’s an essential part of that communication between the audience and the experience, helping us evoke certain emotions that inevitably make these shows more memorable.

To truly get the most out of the music in our drone light shows, we like to approach it from the perspective of creating a soundtrack. This gives us the opportunity to work with exciting composers and musicians to create a piece of music that follows the ebbs and flows of our visuals- this allows us to heighten all of the emotions of the experience at the perfect time. 

The soundtrack contributes hugely to the overall experience; it creates an auditory barrier from the rest of the world and provides a far more sensory journey. The barrier that it creates, combined with the visuals of the lights in the night sky, really transports you into an almost other-worldly experience that can unite people through a shared sense of wonder.

 

Art and motion design

Next, we get to the visuals. This is a place where we can really push ourselves creatively. The beauty of drone art is that it’s epic in scale and limitless in possibilities, so when it comes to creating our art and motion to inspire the animation- we have an endless scope of creative avenues to explore.

The critical choices we make with our art and motion design are all based on the story we want to tell. We want to pull out the key details and imagery to inspire what we eventually see in the skies. Yet again, this provides us with more opportunities for collaboration with talented artists and designers. Together, we compile all of these ideas and drawings to map out a vision to recreate in the stars.

Finding those key details is extremely important, as it’s here that we can extract as much emotion and meaning as we can from every part of the experience. By honing in on these details, we’re able to magnify them in the night sky at immense magnitudes and in perfect clarity. 

Gary Wilson, the visual development artist we worked with for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, drew on the inspiration of stories of the past, including cave paintings and the stars as a starting point. This, in turn, provided a visual reference point rooted in the story we wanted to tell. You can see how these processes fall into the creative melting-pot that we need in order to produce the ultimate drone light show experience.

 

Storyboarding

Once all of these ideas are in place, it’s time to map everything out. Storyboarding is a vital part of our process, as it’s where we dictate the rhythm and flow of all of these components and visualise how they all come together.

Creating a storyboard also ensures that our shows maintain focus around the crucial aspects that make them so powerful and epic. It makes sure that everything in the process stays clean and that everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet, as there is always something to refer back to when making decisions.

 

3D visualisation and animation

This is where we start turning our vision into a reality. Once the show is thoroughly planned and mapped out, we can translate our ideas into our 3D software and start breathing life into the story. This part of the process runs a fine line between being both a creative and a technical endeavour. 

On the creative side, we need to bring these designs and images into a virtual sphere by finding the best ways to interpret our 2D visualisations of movement in a 3D space. 

The best part about our displays is that you can watch them from almost any angle and still be able to appreciate them in all their splendour. This means that first and foremost, we need to create a smooth and eye-catching animation that captures the movement and energy that’s required to tell our stories. 

This is where we can start to get a true sense of the scale of the spectacle that we are creating. It’s also where we have the chance to map out the stars in unique new ways to communicate our stories, and it’s an incredible thing to see all of these ideas coming to life on screen.

On the technical side of things, we still need to remember that we are working with drones, meaning that the logistical details of where and when they take off and land are absolutely crucial. 

Our shows need to be programmed and timed to the second, ensuring that all drones are on the correct flight pattern. This means aspects like scale are hugely important so that the drones go up to the right heights and are spaced in a way that maximises their effect against the night sky.

In some instances, we take a photoscan of the location so that we can have a totally accurate sense of this scale. This has the added benefit of ensuring that any potential obstructions are accounted for in locations where buildings or trees may hinder somebody’s experience.

 

Location scouting

Finding the perfect place for our shows is another vital piece of the puzzle. Looking back to Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Underbelly’s creative director, Charlie Wood, phrased it best when he said: 

“We felt that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay isn’t just Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, it’s Scotland’s Hogmanay. […] To start Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in Scotland, in the Highlands […] I think that sums up our spirit and what Jackie Kay is talking about. It’s a poem for Scotland”.

If we look back upon our own personal experiences where we’ve witnessed something incredible, it’s always where we were and who we were with that really stand out. The location acts as yet another part of the canvas that we can tell our stories on. By using the beautiful landscape of the highlands, we were able to truly capture the story’s spirit and emphasise its meaning and message of valuing the past while looking towards the future with a collective sense of hope. 

 

Flight logistics

This is where every part of the process so far comes to fruition, and it’s also where organisation is key. When you’re on location with 300 drones and a full display to accomplish, it tends to be all hands on deck to ensure that everything is perfect before takeoff.

All of this is weather permitting, of course. While we can fly our drones in up to 20 mph winds, anything more volatile and we end up risking the equipment and the show itself.

One of the first things to do is to create our takeoff/landing zone. This is measured out to fit the specifications from our to-scale 3D animations, as that’s what defines the flight map for the drones. Each drone needs to be spaced out evenly and on its mark for the display to function properly. 

This zone also allows us to create a safe perimeter, ensuring the audience’s safety while the drones are close to the ground. With safety also in mind- we have AI built into our drones to prevent them from colliding with one another; this reduces the risk of damage and potential safety issues.

From there, we do final checks over the drones and assemble the crew for a final pre-flight briefing. Once the drones are in the night sky, it becomes a live show, so having everybody on the same page makes sure that the show goes smoothly.

With all drones assigned to their positions on the takeoff area and everyone in place, we can finally countdown to takeoff. At this point, the only thing left to do is to hit the big, red takeoff button- then look up and enjoy the spectacle unfolding in the skies.

 

Final thoughts

As you can see, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into creating the ultimate drone light show experience- but, more than anything, it’s a massively inspiring, creative and rewarding endeavour for all involved. 

As a creative process, it’s like putting tent pegs in the ground across all aspects of our productions and hammering them into place until the finished product manifests. It requires a bold team of creative collaborators to dream up these ideas and then put in the time and effort to make them a reality.

Ultimately, we believe our displays are more than just a drone light show. With the amount of collaboration, creativity and grit that it takes to tell compelling stories in the night sky, it becomes something that we like to call ‘sky theatre’. It’s how we communicate our art, and the scale that we’re able to showcase it to audiences far and wide is what makes it an experience that’s not to be forgotten.

Click here to find out more about our drone light show projects and what you can accomplish with Celestial.

In a crowded world, tell your story in the sky.