The performing arts industry amongst many other sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic and with theatres shut, Birmingham Royal Ballet like other companies have had to adjust and innovate, with director Carlos Acosta commissioning his first major digital film, "Empty Stage ", which looks towards the future, pointing to the full production of Cinderella which will hopefully fill the empty stages with dancers and auditoriums with audiences.
We heard that the production crew were looking for a local professional drone operator with equipment that was similar quality to their Sony Venice ground cameras. We contacted the producers, entered negotiations and were subsequently offered the contract.
With just a weeks notice we was told that we would need to be on set for just 2 hours in central Birmingham. The very next day we was on location to do a (building!) site survey and risk assessment. The focus was to be the clock tower on the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. However....on the way back to the office we received the call from the producers to tell us they had changed the location to Birmingham University where the tower of "old Joe" was now to become the Cinderella Clock.
As disappointed as we initially were (for selfish reasons after thinking of some great potential city shots) we made the U-Turn and headed to the Edgbaston campus and instantly pondered why we had never heard of this magnificent tower before! We also met the lovely producers and directors at the site, discussed options, done the second site survey of the day, and even got told off by security whilst doing a drone demonstration (after a trivial misunderstanding regarding permission!)
We spent the next few days ripping up the Risk and method statement we had created for the central city site and revisiting it for the new location. We was then dropped the bombshell that they also needed some footage from within the rep theatre! As we were unable to gain access all the initial planning was done with the help of our friend Google. On the day we arrived a few hours early so we could revalue our data having already put into place a "flying indoors plan" based on research and experience - especially due to the lack of GPS signal. Another example was the disabling of the return to home function.. We wouldn't want to be responsible for a major power outage if the drone suddenly lost contact and tried to shoot 100 metres up taking out the lighting in the process!
The first shoot was on at the rep. We were surprised at the size of the place, especially the backstage and storage area! We were given a large rehearsal room to set up our inspire 2 drone, check the settings were right for indoor flying and practice flying without GPS. We later took our seats in the main auditorium and awaited our call up, watching in admiration of the abundance of talent that was on stage.
When our call did come we were under strict time pressure. We had a slight hiccup whilst changing batteries from the practice session to realise the replacement needed a software update - well we couldn't expect everything to go smoothly could we!
Something which was out of our control was that the ground video crew had set a temporary ladder structure in the centre of the auditorium for the previous scene. We insisted this was removed before we started flying, as well as around 30 other crew which had taken seat in the front rows.
Another issue was that the tripod mode also didn't kick in as expected (it was fine the practice room!) so we took the decision to fly completely manually countering the inevitable drifting manually, no pressure!
After a quick curry we headed over to Old Joe, where the new environment was absolutely freezing whilst we waited through numerous rehearsals and live shoots. We was initially tasked with tracking the orange balloon as it lifted past the clock tower which coincidentally was stuck on midnight! Unfortunately the balloon did its own thing so the shot was again changed! We did however capture an impressive shot moving the drone from the performers below to the face of the clock with the city lights in the background.
The film was released this week and it is fascinating to watch the final edit, with the individual scenes coming together to make a very powerful sense of hope that the performers will return to live performance and with Boris's new roadmap things are defiantly looking up...to the clock face.
Of course scenes were cut and trimmed as is inevitable with any kind of production but our drone work can be seen in glimpses throughout and in the closing credits. It was great to be involved in another major production and we learnt a great deal from the experience as well as having the privilege of working with The Royal Birmingham Ballet and with such immense talent, on and off the empty stage. Incidentally as we turned on to watch Boris's address to the nation this evening we were surprised to see some of our footage featured during a related story on the BBC News!
To watch the film click here