Drones Portray Flying Lampshades in Cirque du Soleil’s Short Film “Sparked”

Cirque du Soleil drones

The Flying Machine Arena is a drone wonderland. Researchers have used the sensored space to make quadcopters build structures with ropes and bricks, perform balancing acts, synchronize with music—they’ve even run tests allowing humans to juggle with flying machines. But the latest production goes a little further.

Recorded using the arena, the new Cirque du Soleil short film “Sparked” combines human dramatic performance with ten computer-controlled flying machines. In a world of special effects and post-production tricks—the result is a magically synchronized human-machine dance with no added ingredients.

The film—a collaboration between Cirque du Soleil, the Swiss university Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), and ETH spinoff company, Verity Studios—shows the fertile ground where technology and art mingle.

Raffaello D’Andrea, professor at ETH Zurich and founder of Verity Studios, has been researching flying machines for 15 years. His team has developed swarm-like algorithms to dynamically control large numbers of quadcopters with a precision that would be impossible with human pilots.

Meanwhile, Welby Altidor, executive creative director at Cirque du Soleil, wanted to explore how to bring magic and meaning to the emerging technology of the quadcopter. Alone, neither had the background to pull off a production like “Sparked.” But working together? Well, drones with lampshades obviously.

The film is also a great reminder of just how advanced, capable, and widespread autonomous flight control algorithms and drone technology are becoming.

Markus Waibel, co-founder of Verity, says, “Within hours the entire film crew had become comfortable with the flying machines hovering nearby or brushing past them as they swooshed through the air…I have no doubt that this level of confidence and comfort with the technology can in no small part be attributed to the system’s reliability.”

We may see more drones in live entertainment soon. “Sparked” is only the latest addition to Flying Machine Arena’s growing collection of drone performance projects. And Disney has also paired with ETH Zurich and patented their “PuppetCopter.” (Indeed, “Sparked” recalls classic Disney animation Fantasia.)

All this is part of a larger trend in which algorithms and robots are partnering with artists and filmmakers to make really great, mindbending works.

Many scenes in the film Gravity, for example, were enabled by robotics firm Bot & Dolly’s pair of camera-equipped robotic arms. Or check out the firm’s 2013 video short “Box” to see what happens when their robots are paired with a projector to create CGI-worthy effects in a live-action performance. (Google acquired Bot & Dolly last year.)

As the line between the digital world and real world blurs further, the creative possibilities—from light and sound to human movement—are thrilling.

Sveta McShane
Sveta McShane
Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.
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