…of the aerial kind.
In visual effects we all know it takes an army to create many of the elaborate sequences in big blockbuster films. And, in the case of The Rise of Skywalker’s Pasaana speeder chase, it turns out you need an army of flying drones as well.
21, in fact.
That’s how many aircraft specialty aerial cinematography and photography company XM2 PURSUIT had on the shooting location in Jordan during production; the UAVs were utilized to help film plates for the chase, as well as to acquire photogrammetry elements with which to build up digital environments that would later be crafted by ILM.
Three teams from XM2 PURSUIT were involved. First, there was main unit/second unit, which flew Arri 435 and Arri 235 cameras using their heavy-lifting cinematography drone called the Sierra. Then, the VFX array and plate unit flew three Alexa Mini camera arrays (XM2 PURSUIT’s Stingray set-up) and an Alexa 65. Finally, an environmental unit carried out photogrammetry and Lidar capture.
“Working in Jordan was like a military exercise,” recalls XM2 PURSUIT Group CEO Stephen Oh. “Due to the location, terrain, weather and accessibility, there was a lot of planning and discussion necessary. At many of the locations, phone reception was non-existent. So it was critical that clear instructions of what needed to be acquired was communicated.”
The ultimate delivery from XM2 PURSUIT to the Rise of Skywalker production from the aerial photography would be plates, tiles, photogrammetry models Lidar models and textures, as well as actual shots and action plates. Oh says his teams worked closely with production throughout the shoot. “ILM had people on the ground that travelled with XM2 PURSUIT teams and we all worked as a unit or units throughout the desert landscape.”
The drones XM2 PURSUIT has available for aerial photography range from those small enough to fit in your hand to ones that weigh 100 kilograms and can hold multiple cameras for array work. Its large lifter – the Sierra – is dubbed as the world’s biggest cinematography drone, and can carry an Arri 435 film camera coupled with 400 foot magazine, as it did for the Pasaana sequence. Takes up to four minutes at 24 fps are possible.
When developing the Sierra, Oh notes that the toughest things to work out were allowing for the carrying of electronic and physical components that were beyond the thresholds of previously flown take-off weights. “One does have to remember that we are not just carrying dead weight, the weight is actually worth a few hundred thousand dollars. It’s very valuable cargo that needs to be perfect.”
The other principal system relied upon for the Rise of Skywalker desert shoot was XM2 PURSUIT’s Stingray array gimbal, which held three Alexa Minis. The set-up can be calibrated as a toe-out (Stingray) or toe-in (Manta) array. “Both gimbals can cater for Red, Alexa Mini or Alexa Mini LF cameras, with full wireless controls,” describes Oh. “The gimbals are also designed to work on the drone and then attached to vehicles for ground plates, if necessary.”
“Designing the gimbal to work in hard and remote environments was one of the key factors of the end product,” adds Oh. “Our gimbal needed to be strong enough to handle the weight of the aircraft as it also acted as the landing gear for the Sierra. We did this so to not have anything that could obstruct the lenses on the arrays and also reduce moving parts, which in turn reduces potential failing points for the flying platform.”
XM2 PURSUIT now operates out of multiple locations, including Australia, USA and the UK, with aerial photography contributions also made to the upcoming films Fast & Furious 9 and No Time to Die. For Oh – who has been part of the explosion in drone photography for the past two decades – the work on Rise of Skywalker represented a particular landmark for the company.
“Watching the movie was and always is a great feeling knowing that our DNA is in there. Watching the final Pasaana chase, I actually recognized the rock formations which was made up of multiple different locations. Lots of memories started pouring back into my mind. It was great to see.”