How Ambient Skies Helped Northrop Grumman Demonstrate Their Latest Defense Systems With A Dash Of Creativity
It’s not often a production team finds themselves in the middle of the desert, watching drones falling from the sky ablaze and cars blown to pieces by the latest in military-grade weaponry.
Meticulous planning and preparation was necessary to produce the requested deliverables, as our production occurred alongside a live shooting practice. An extraordinary level of coordination was involved both before and during the event to ensure safety, and guarantee NG achieved their goals, while we simultaneously got what we needed to fulfill our vision.
Behind the Scenes
As one of the few Phantom-certified production companies in the Southwest region, we were able to capture a spectacle that is hard to see fully, even when it’s happening right in front of you. To do this, we developed a completely customized remote-triggering system for a heavy lift drone (FreeFly Systems Alta X) carrying the Phantom T1340 - a camera capable of reaching 3,270 fps at full resolution. The results are visually breathtaking and sure to entice NG’s customer base.
There were a tremendous amount of challenges with this project. On top of being in the middle of the desert for multiple days, we needed to develop a strategy that would allow us to capture multiple angles in high speed down range. For safety reasons, our team was only allowed down range when the RSO (range safety officer) called for a cold range. There were very minimal opportunities for us to reposition the cameras we had down range. This combined with the ask of capturing enough content for 8 unique deliverables meant that our team had significant goals to achieve. To accomplish everything we hoped to walk away with, we needed to split up into teams. We had our main range/ technical crew which consisted of high speed ground photography and high speed drone photography. And then we had our principal photography crew. Which captured hero imagery and different defense systems and the people behind the tech.
The event was to take place at Big Sandy Range, close to Kingman Arizona, August 5th 2021, in front of a live audience. There was “live fire” practice during the week prior on September 30th & October 1st. During pre-production we directed our client to allow for image capture during the “live fire” dates during the week before. However, one of the biggest challenges of this project was the turn around on post production. We needed to have 4 unique vignettes edited in full to be showcased on TV’s & Jumbotrons for the event itself. That’s right, a 4 day turnaround time on 4 unique videos after 2 insanely long 15+ hour days of intense production. Yes, our in-house editor Logan Fetters didn’t sleep, but we managed to exceed our client’s expectations.
To pull this off, we spent several months working closely with the client in pre production to understand their “play by play.” While our client is Northrop Grumman, they partner with several other leading military defense companies like Pratt & Miller on this event. Everyone involved needed to be on the same page 100% to successfully walk away with what we came to do.
Storyboards by Erik De Jong
R & D
Getting a phantom camera in the air was not easy. To pull it off took a little more R&D than getting a phantom down range with pan/tilt and triggering control. This required building accessories that just didn't exist yet. To learn more about how we accomplished getting a phantom camera in the air, check out this interview with our drone specialist, Josh Lambeth from Birds Eye Productions.
At The Range
For down range cameras, the team came up with 2 viable solutions that were by no means a simple task to pull off.
A - Flying a Phantom T1340 camera (capable of capturing up to 5,000 frames per second), that has never been flown before. We chose to roll with the FreeFly Alta X heavy-lift drone. However, there were many concerns around the weight of the camera itself and it took a lot of testing to feel comfortable. From there, we needed to get custom cables created to control both the power & remote “triggering” of the camera. The main reason we came up with this solution was so we could control the position of our camera down range at any time. But here’s the kicker, the targets being shot down were also drones. We overcame many interference challenges and avoided our drone (est. value $500k) being shot down.
B - Putting a Phantom Onyx camera (capable of capturing up to 12,000 fps), on a remote pan / tilt head, down range. However, down range meant up to 3,000 feet at times. We flew in multiple spools of fiber snakes from LA so that we could control the pan, tilt, record & video feed of the camera that was far away. In addition, we built a small safe housing with high quality plexiglass to keep the camera safe from terminal effects that could potentially burn the camera set up (est. value $500k). On top of all of this, we were in the middle of the desert with mountains everywhere in between. Laying down over 8,000 feet of heavy duty fiber snakes took hiking, dealing with a few rattlesnakes and a ton of hard work to ultimately route 3 different feeds from our video village down range in different positions. This forced our lead tech Leo Reyes to execute extra Cat5 & SDI cable feeds onsite late at night to get our cameras to the desired positions as the fiber feeds weren’t long enough with all of the hills in between.
We also installed 2 long form time-lapse boxes that operate off of solar and they ran for the course of 2 weeks to capture the full event from setup to break down. Taking photos in intervals of every 5 minutes, we ended up with some visually stunning time lapses that also included a few monsoons.
For cameras, we landed with:
Phantom Onyx 2640v
Phantom 4k Flex
2 x Red Weapon 8k
1 x Red Komodo
2 x DJI Inspire 4k Drones
1 x FPV home built drone
5 x GoPros
1 x Still Camera
2 x Long form time-lapse boxes
After day two of “live fire” practice, John & veteran filmmaker Dustin Farrell cracked open a couple beers and stayed into the night to capture a stunning timelapse that needed a 4 hour internal. It was well worth the results they were able to walk away with.
Well, that’s not all. While the live fire days went off without a hitch, the event itself had a large-scale hurricane-like storm come through very heavily with a live audience in attendance. We all ran into the one large tent with a bunch of expensive gear getting wet in the process. After a 2 hour flash flood, the event carried on, but the large tour buses that brought all of the participants then had the challenge of getting to the highway with flash floods in between. Everyone made it home safely.
All in all, there were 7 different video deliverables and a still photo component to this project.
Needless to say, we came, we saw and we conquered the Bushmaster’s User Conference, a.k.a. “BUC,” thanks to the collaboration we had working closely with our trusted client partners at Northrop Grumman.
Bushmaster User Conference