Meet the team behind THAT dazzling Jubilee light show: With 400 dancing drones, six months’ intense planning, a secret rehearsal in a Yorkshire sheep field and a command centre in the Queen’s tea tent, JENNY JOHNSTON reveals how the spectacle came together
When a giant illuminated corgi, a teapot, a jumping horse and other symbols associated with the Queen appeared in the skies above Buckingham Palace last Saturday night at the end of the Platinum Jubilee concert, the world gasped.
How bonkers. How beautiful. How brilliantly British. We’d never seen anything like it, everyone agreed.
This is not quite true. Three members of the public — and some baffled sheep — had seen the corgi and his chums before.
For two weeks before Saturday’s display, which involved 400 drones taking off from the palace gardens and lighting up the sky with a meticulously choreographed ‘dance’, the organisers staged a full dress rehearsal at an ‘off-grid’ location.
It may sound very James Bond, but in reality it was more James Herriot.
‘It was at a farm in Yorkshire, which the farmer kindly lets us use,’ says Mungo Denison, director of Skymagic, the Leeds-based drone company who masterminded the event. ‘Because of the secrecy, we couldn’t test at the palace, but we did a full rehearsal, sending all 400 of the drones up, so the farmer, his wife and the shepherd had pole position for viewing.’
They had to be particularly careful with the sheep. ‘In the past, they’ve managed to get into the command centre and have tried to nibble things!’
When a giant illuminated corgi, a teapot, a jumping horse and other symbols associated with the Queen appeared in the skies above Buckingham Palace last Saturday night at the end of the Platinum Jubilee concert, the world gasped
On Platinum Party night, the showstopper images were visible across London. ‘The big ‘Thank You, Ma’am’ display, and a giant ’70’, could be seen two kilometres away. The sky is the biggest canvas we have,’ says Mungo.
Many assumed the Buckingham Palace display was the result of computer-generated wizardry, or fancy light projection. Then, when they heard about the drones, they had visions of ‘400 pilots sitting in the palace gardens flying them’.
Not so. In such displays — which are increasingly taking over from fireworks — only a small team is needed. There were seven core members of the Skymagic team at the palace — four in the garden, launching the drones and three front-of-palace, to ensure that everything happened with military precision.
Mungo and his technical director, Stuart Fairhurst, were in the garden. They have staged similar displays all over the world, often for presidents and royals in the Middle East. ‘I once directed a display in Abu Dhabi with 100 snipers aimed at me,’ says Mungo — just in case he was a terrorist.
Being ushered into the Queen’s garden was next level. ‘Our command centre was in the tea tent the Queen uses for garden parties,’ says Stuart. ‘The palace gardeners had mowed the lawn for us.’
They had been able to do a few mini-tests in situ in the days before the event — sending up 20 drones at a time ‘to try out some positions’. But it was a first for everyone to see 400 drones being laid out in a giant grid (for safety reasons, display drones have to be two metres apart).
Stuart explains: ‘We usually use chalk to mark out the positions the drones need to sit on, but we didn’t want to mess up the Palace lawn so we used the little plastic tripods you find in your takeaway pizza box to stop the lid hitting the topping. We bought 400 and pressed each one into the palace lawn.’
Many assumed the Buckingham Palace display was the result of computer-generated wizardry, or fancy light projection. Then, when they heard about the drones, they had visions of ‘400 pilots sitting in the palace gardens flying them’. Not so
The contract was a coup for this company, which has only 20 full-time staff. Skymagic was launched in 2015, when drone displays were in their infancy. Their first show used 40 drones, but now the sky really is the limit. The world record for the number of drones used in a display is just over 3,000.
The team won’t reveal what the Jubliee display cost, but the starting price for a basic display of 200 drones is $120,000 (£96,000).
Drone displays are popular as they are more environmentally-friendly than pyrotechnic displays and can be customised to a degree that fireworks cannot, with specific company logos for example.
Audiences have been wowed by drone displays at mega events such as the Tokyo Olympics and the Super Bowl. It was more than six months ago that the Jubilee party organisers asked Skymagic to devise ideas to tell the story of the Queen’s 70-year reign. The brief was that the images should be celebratory, suitably regal, but not too stuffy. They should reflect the Queen’s service, lifetime of duty and her hobbies.
Their designers got to work with paper, pencils and crayons. ‘The corgi, the teapot and the horse were some of the earliest ideas, and immediately got the green light from the BBC,’ says Mungo.
Drone displays are popular as they are more environmentally-friendly than pyrotechnic displays and can be customised to a degree that fireworks cannot, with specific company logos for example
Another must was a huge image of the Queen’s head on a postage stamp.
Next came the process of getting the designs perfected on screen.
The firm uses animation software where initial sketches, once plotted into the computer, can be overlaid with images. This process is painstaking.
Mungo says: ‘Getting a dog that looks like a dog isn’t that difficult, but it had to be recognisably a corgi, so there was a lot of poring over images, making the ears more pointy.’
Getting horses moving in the sky is trickier still.
‘Because of our work in the Middle East for big horse-racing shows, we’ve learned the hard way that getting a horse jumping is incredibly difficult. Get the back legs wrong and it will look like a pantomime horse — or a donkey! ‘People who know horses really know horses. They will tell you that the horse in your display is too old because when it’s jumping, the shoulder is too low.
‘As the Queen is such an equestrian fan, the horse had to be just right. The designer must have watched a thousand showjumping videos.’
A key stage in the process was creating a 3D replica, on screen, of not only Buckingham Palace, but everything around it, down to trees and lampposts, so the drones knew where to go in relation to their surroundings. GPS plotting was vital in positioning the corgi, say, at exactly the right point in the sky so it would look as if it were peering over the palace.
‘It was quite tricky to get that right, and get the bone in just the right position so it wasn’t obscuring the corgi’s face. In the same way, the horse had to seem to jump over the palace.’
Crucially, the power of a drone display is that it doesn’t simply project an image into the sky — it gives a complete 3D experience.
While the design team was focusing on corgi ears, the aeronautical experts were getting the drone fleet prepared.
Securing the necessary permits for a drone display can be a logistical nightmare. Civil Aviation Authority permission is required, but in this case it was made more straightforward, ‘because the skies over Buckingham Palace are among the most secure in the world,’ says Mungo. Another key factor is the weather. High winds and downpours can cause havoc with drone displays.
Crucially, the power of a drone display is that it doesn’t simply project an image into the sky — it gives a complete 3D experience. While the design team was focusing on corgi ears, the aeronautical experts were getting the drone fleet prepared
The Skymagic drones are kept in two locations — one outside London and the other in Singapore.
Its drones are fitted with powerful LED lights which are capable of producing 16 million colour combinations. Each drone is battery-powered but a charge can only last for ten or 12 minutes.
This isn’t generally a problem. ‘Most displays don’t last for longer anyway, because, as in firework displays, the audience can get bored after the initial dazzle. Technically, we can just bring one fleet of drones down and send another up if we want a longer display, but we didn’t need to here.’
Watching hundreds of drones take off , in formation, is a spine-tingling experience, even on YouTube.
Mungo says: ‘Watching a whole fleet land is just incredible. When they are ten metres out, they turn red and then these beautiful red droplets come through the sky, landing exactly where they take off.’
Both Mungo and Stuart speak of the drones as if they are living things. ‘They are our children,’ Mungo laughs. ‘And some can misbehave. Thankfully, they all behaved very well at the Palace and did exactly as they were told. But we have had some naughty drones who haven’t lit up when they were supposed to.’
He also recalls a display in Hong Kong which fell victim to hackers who brought all the communications down. Although drones are programmed to land safely, in this case the 300g devices descended into the surrounding water and Stuart says the team watched them all disappear. ‘That was quite an insurance claim.’
For Buckingham Palace, all 400 drones were in the air at the same time. ‘The same drones which made up the teapot made up the corgi, for example. We had them all in the air at once, but the process is that you might not need all 400, so you can have 50 or so with their lights off.’
All communication between command centre and drones is done via radio signal. No one sits twiddling a console as all the commands are pre-programmed so the drones get into place themselves.
‘On the night, we only had to give them three commands — ‘turn on the propellers’, ‘take off’ and ‘go to show’.’
Obviously hearts were in mouths as the drones lifted off and transformed themselves into the corgi and his friends.
What was the atmosphere like down below? ‘Electric,’ says Mungo. ‘We could hear the cheers go up and it was just amazing. Most people there had never seen a drone display. All the Buckingham Palace staff were watching, and even the police protection guys were clapping us on the back, saying they’d never seen anything quite like it.’
And Her Majesty? We will never know how it felt for her to see her own image projected onto the biggest canvas on earth. Or whether she has since queried why there are strange little holes all over her back garden.
For more info on the drones, go to skymagic.show.
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