Hobbes, a design and animation studio out of Detroit, MI, partnered with VWLS and Firefly Drone Shows to produce the music video for “High in Heaven,” performed and shot by drones. The video features a 300-foot-tall realistic face that lip syncs to the vocals using facial capture data to drive 200 drones. Directed by Hobbes, operated by Firefly, and featuring vocals by Josh Epstein and Louie Louie, “High in Heaven” captures the essence of the new media and is yet another exciting step forward in the application of art and technology.
In 2018, Hobbes teamed up with Firefly Drone Shows to bring world class aerial performances to the skies. The Hobbes team undertakes the design of the various shows, focusing on animation, flight paths, and lighting. Firefly then takes the reigns, piloting their fleet of custom-built drones to bring the designs to life.
Two years into the partnership, we were itching to experiment and explore new possibilities with the medium. We aimed to connect with our audience in a more meaningful way and kept coming back to the same idea: creating a larger than life human face in the sky. With the go-ahead from Firefly, we were able to quickly develop the idea from a concept into a tangible prototype.
Designing the “drone face” was a key step for “High in Heaven.” As the sole focus of the video, it was crucial to hit the right balance of likeness and abstraction for the look we wanted. The portrait is defined by confident line work, which lends itself to the drone format, and is reminiscent of stone carving features, contributing to its monolithic quality. Moves by Maxon made it easy to start with the very likeness of Josh and gradually shift into the “cosmic entity from space” look we were after, born from the stars and gazing out into the landscape.
Features from Maxon’s Cinema4D are like a swiss army knife for drones —specifically Moves by Maxon, which ended up playing an essential role with its real-time face capture capabilities. Using this app, Josh and Louie were able to record multiple performances from their studios in California and send us the data to import seamlessly into Cinema4D. We then used pose morphs to blend between the performances, tuning based on the track. For example, we would dial in the “energetic” takes when the song picked up or the “stoic” takes when we needed the face to be more monolithic or observant. Our vision was always the same, but the timely release of Moves by Maxon earlier this year couldn’t have come at a better time for this project.
The single hardest challenge to overcome with drones is speed. Firefly Drone Shows must adhere to the FAA regulations on keeping drones below their 15mph limit when flying as a swarm (though drones can fly upwards of 50mph on their own). This poses a critical issue when you want realistic facial movements from a 300-foot head. Flying the drones in sync with Josh and Louie’s facial trackings would force them to fly well over the limits allowed. To counteract this effect, we slowed down our animation by five times and shot the drones flying at 20% speed. We then sped up the footage by five times to sync it back up with the vocals. This technique gave us the best results and addressed many of the issues with a fleet of drones.
We were fortunate to have been able to complete this project despite the spread of COVID-19 and the difficulties it presented. Thankfully, at the inception of the project, the Hobbes team had already begun working remotely and Moves by Maxon made recording Josh and Louie’s facial tracking data as easy as sending an email.
Social distancing guidelines were adhered to for testing, flying, and filming the drones. Firefly’s private test field accommodated physical distancing during flights; after all, we need 500 feet of clearance to fly any show.
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