Offering bespoke 360° creative design and production, Frome-based Celestial is slowly garnering a reputation in the live events sector for its spectacular drone show capabilities. Ever since the team’s first show at Edinburgh’s Hogmany in 2021, the specialist team of drone art curators has helped deliver creative solutions for the likes of Greenpeace, Amnesty, and Eden Project – as well as a residency of shows in Melbourne.
Celestial’s latest collaboration, Sky Song, which takes place at Adelaide Fringe Festival, sees a unique combination of integrated, cutting-edge technology, creatives and technicians join forces to share the stories from Indigenous artists on topics such as connection to country, ancestry, the passing on of knowledge, land rights, the devastation of the stolen generations and the hopefulness of reconciliation.
Narrated by singer, songwriter and campaigner, Archie Roach, Sky Song unfolds over five chapters, taking audiences through topics of belonging and connection to country, land rights, the hopefulness of reconciliation and more. Steered by the Adelaide Fringe and veteran producers, Gluttony, Sky Song quickly attracted some of the greatest First Nation talent working today.
“We were approached by Heather Croall, the Director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, to co-design a show in collaboration with a number of Aboriginal artists, poets, storytellers and musicians to create an emotionally powerful event,” said John Hopkins, one of founders at Celestial, retracing the roots of the project.
Famed for his work in live touring circles, John ‘JP’ Partridge was brought in by Celestial to handle production design for the unique project. “Very rarely do you get an opportunity to do a project like this,” he informed TPi’s Jacob Waite. “Plenty of concert tours get pushed across my desk but to embark on a project with such cutting-edge technology, which shares a unique message with a hard working crew involved was very special.”
In fact, it was a chance meeting with Celestial which landed JP the gig. “Celestial were setting up their business next door to where I work,” he reported. “When I first heard about this project, I was super excited. It breaks new ground, using drones as the ‘actors’ in an immersive performance.”
Launched on 11 March at Leconfield and Richard Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale, just outside of Adelaide, the 26 minute-long show featured over 1,000 s q m of projection onto one of the largest holographic fabric screens ever to be used in the southern hemisphere.
“Typically, our drones fly for around eight minutes consecutively, so we have three different swarms of 360 drones that launch at staggered intervals to extend the overall flight time. Underneath the drones were huge holographic screens, designed by JP, which projected virtual drones shows, married up with an integrated soundtrack and lighting,” Hopkins explained, referencing the 75m wide by 15m high Showtex Cielorama outdoor projection gauze.
To fill the safety zone between the audience and the screen, and provide lighting from the ground and sky, JP also designed a grid of 800 LEDs which were embedded in the ground to create a large lighting canvas. “It provides this ability to send lighting from the ground to the screens and to the sky, which is an exciting prospect – lights are typically situated on a truss, whereas with this project, you have the prospect of firing light metres into the sky,” JP explained.
The designer harnessed Syncronorm Depence² to previsualise the entire show with two weeks of pre-programming in 3D. “The screens are so large and vast it is not feasible to build them for rehearsals, so they were built in Australia, so we had to rely a lot on the 3D previsualisation in the UK,” JP explained, noting the logistical barriers posed by the nature of the project. “Designing a show that has not only ever been done before, but in a hybrid fashion, with half the team in the UK and half in Australia was a challenge and a big learning curve. When you visualise something so much to see it come alive before your eyes is simply incredible.”
Celestial’s airfield in Somerset and the team from The Institute for Drone Technology provided a backdrop for the creative team to rehearse the drone show beforehand. “While new moving lights or technologies don’t particularly stir emotion among audiences, when they are met with drones it is such a rare experience – witnessing unknown technologies, which is fascinating on a creative level,” the designer enthused. “The pixel pitch of the projection drone is exactly the same as a star in the sky, so you look at this huge cosmos of light and it’s really impressive.”
In addition to the holographic fabric screens, Novatech supplied over 100 lighting fixtures including Claypaky Sharpy Plus moving heads and Stormy 1320cc LED Strobe fixtures as well as six Barco UDX 4K-32 laser projectors. Lighting control was achieved by MA Lighting grandMA3 consoles. While overall show and video control was handled by Novatech’s bespoke OneSystem Constellation racks.
‘THERE’S SOMETHING SPIRITUALLY BEAUTIFUL ABOUT RECONNECTING WITH THE STARS’
“We are truly humbled to be involved in what is likely to be a world first. Collaborating with Celestial, Adelaide Fringe and Gluttony to tell First Nations stories through creative technology like never before,” Novatech Managing Director and Sky Song Project Lead, Leko Novakovic stated. “Sky Song is such a great piece of moving storytelling.”
To soundtrack the experience, Novatech deployed a custom sleek and discrete system designed with L-Acoustics SYVA at the core. In addition, a Riedel Communications Artist mainframe system, with Smartpanels and wireless Bolero beltpacks for all AV and drone operation communications. First Nations singer songwriter, Nancy Bates of Deadly Management was the soundtrack content supervisor, she worked with Cactus Cactus Studio weaving together the different stories, poems and songlines.
Novatech worked consistently on the project for around eight months. “It was great to see months of hard work come to fruition,” Novatech Project Manager, Michael Roberts said, reflecting on the “unique” nature of the project. “The audience stood up and applauded each show. Adelaide Fringe Festival has done an amazing job in bringing this whole team together to share indigenous stories with super high-tech, which really works.”
Sky Song Soundtrack Supervisor, Nancy Bates said the more audiences take time to listen to First Nations stories, the richer we all become specifically “rich in our humanity, rich in a way that gives to the world, and not in a way that takes from her,” she remarked.
The main technical challenges involved the viability and stability of the screen in the outdoor elements, so Adelaide-based Nexstage were tapped to install a large, steel 70m+ truss tower infrastructure to support the video projection.
Equally, aviation laws do not correspond with how quickly this new artistic medium is evolving. “There are lots of regulatory hoops we have to jump through as a company,” Hopkins detailed. “Often, aviation laws are not up to speed with drone swarm technology,” so we regularly get push back. In most cases, regulators are unaware of what we plan to achieve with hundreds of flown drones, so it’s a case of explaining the health and safety measures in-place and demonstrating our creative capabilities.”
According to Novakovic and Roberts, Sky Song was the epitome of harnessing modern storytelling conventions to share ancient stories. “A lot of indigenous artwork centres around dot painting, which is not too dissimilar to the pixel dots created by lighting fixtures and drones,” Novakovic pointed out, adding that he believes that Sky Song has changed the narrative of live shows with drones going forward.
“I can see this style of integrated show becoming a thing of the future,” added Roberts.
Hopkins believes that the artistic medium of drones, akin to “bringing the stars to life”, has a profound emotional impact on audiences. “There’s something magic about making an audience look up at the stars and away from their phone screens,” he theorised. “There’s almost something spiritually beautiful about reconnecting with the stars, which is why this show is so special – it’s a show which embodies indigenous wisdom – it’s been beautiful telling ancient stories using modern technology.”
As well as technical innovation, Celestial maintains there’s also an important message to share with this project. “Telling ancient stories in an easily digestible manner is a powerful tool in next-generation storytelling,” Hopkins concluded.
Sky Song is a collaboration between Adelaide Fringe, Celestial, Gluttony, Deadly Management, Archie Roach, Electric Fields, Iwiri Choir, Nancy Bates, Major Moogy Summer, Jack Buckskin of Kuma Kaaru; Ali Cobby Eckermann; Dusty Feet Mob, Mali Isabel, APY Arts Collective, Cactus Cactus Sound, Novatech Creative Event Technology, The Institute for Drone Technology and Leconfield and Richard Hamilton Wines. Supported by South Australian Tourism Commission (Major Partner) Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund – an Australian Government initiative.