How’d They Do That? The Incredible Story Behind Casey Neistat’s Human Flying Drone Video
BY Zacc Dukowitz23 March 2017
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen this video. But how the heck did they pull this off?
Last weekend at the New York City Drone Film Festival we sat in on a panel session that went over the incredible story behind the making of this video.
Although the video is whimsical and a whole lot of fun to watch, the reality is that making it was a very serious endeavor, and it took an entire year and TONS of testing to make this happen.
Let’s dive in.
How Was the Idea for the Video Born?
A little over a year ago Samsung launched their Gear 360, and partnered with Casey Neistat to help get the word out.
In case you’re not familiar with 360 cameras, they literally film in 360 degrees, so that you need to wear VR goggles to view the entirety of the footage captured.
They had VR goggles at the NYC Drone Film Festival and were letting people wear them and watch the 360 video Casey filmed with a selfie stick while being pulled by the massive drone, and it was an amazing (although somewhat nauseating) experience to watch the 360 footage. You could move your head around, as if you were actually on location where the video had been filmed, and it was as if you were simply seeing the world around you.
When the 360 first came out back in 2016, Casey brainstormed about ways to use it.
It was important to provide at least three points of interest, so that you actually saw something if you looked around in the virtual world the 360 camera captured. If there was only one point of interest, or even two, that wouldn’t really be taking full advantage of the 360’s capabilities, since those shots could be captured just the same using a regular video camera.
So, of course, something spectacular had to be done in order to really leverage the capabilities of 360 video.
Drones had already been used to film surfers, but what about a video where a drone was carrying a person?
You could film not just the person in flight, but the reactions of those on the ground and the surrounding landscape, providing a spectacle that would allow for multiple points of interest.
Around this time Casey began talking with Paul Leys of Samsung, and they looped in Justin Oakes and Elaine Lozano of Droneworks Studios. After chatting, Justin did some quick calculations on a spreadsheet and figured out that it was actually physically possible to make a drone that lifted a person into the air, and the idea for the project was born.
Making the Drone
It took a year to create the custom octocopter that carries Casey Neistat into the sky.
During the panel we learned that the Droneworks team named their unique creation Janet, and that’s the name we’re going to use to refer to her for the remainder of this article.
The panel: “Janet”, Justin Oakes, Elaine Lozano, Casey Neistat, Paul Leys, and Sam Sheffer
Building Janet was an incredible undertaking. Every single piece was custom made, and tested to failure to ensure safety and reliability.
Elaine Lozano of Droneworks Studios said that during that time they had 5 to 50 boxes being delivered every single day containing parts and pieces for building the drone.
There is a huge amount of redundancy built into Janet. She can lose batteries, flight controllers, and even multiple propellers and still stay in the air (they even tested her with only four of her eight propellers).
Despite her impressive size and power, Justin said that Janet is not actually that sophisticated. She’s really just a big, incredibly powerful RC helicopter.
Janet’s Specs and Details
- 50 minutes of flight in good conditions, but only 4 during the making of the video given various factors (like how cold it is in Finland!)
- 16 7-cell batteries
- Every part of the frame was cut from carbon and custom made by the DroneWorks team
- Every component was tested to failure
- Fits into 8 different cases, and took about 2 and 1/2 months to transport to Finland, where the video was shot
- Uses an analog FPV system
- Flying is fully manual, but it does have a GPS as a failsafe
- Can only be flown by Justin Oakes (and maybe a few other people in the world)
- Handles smoothly, “better than ALEXA or RED” according to Justin Oakes
Making the Video
Regulatory challenges were top of mind as Janet was being built. Once they had her built, where would they actually be able to fly her?
The U.S. wasn’t considered at all, due to the potential red tape flying a person with a drone would entail. The fact that Janet weighs over 50 pounds, and most countries don’t allow drones to fly that weigh over 50 pounds, meant the list of potential countries that would allow them to fly Janet at all (let alone fly her with a person in tow in the air) was pretty short out of the gate.
After an exhaustive search, Finland was one of the only countries completely open to letting the Samsung/Droneworks team fly Janet. Once the decision was made and the plan drawn up, it took about two and half months to transport Janet, in bits and pieces, to Finland.
Location was also a challenge. To film the video they took over a town called Santa’s Village, a hard feat in and of itself given that they filmed closed to Christmas in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
And then there were issues with simply getting enough time to shoot. It turns out there’s only a three hour window of light in Finland during Christmas time, from 11:30am to 2:30pm, which left very little time to get all the shots needed.
Add to this the fact that Janet could only be in the air for about four minutes before her batteries needed to be switched out, and that switching the batteries took 20-30 minutes, and you can see how hard it was to get any filming done at all.
Safety was a huge concern, both for Casey, who of course was being flown high into the air by a drone, and for those folks standing around, who could potentially be harmed if they got too close to Janet.
A team of 50 people—50 PEOPLE!—supported the making of the video. A stunt coordinator and crew of stuntmen were required to keep everyone safe, and to appear as extras in the background during the skiing portions of the shooting (though the people giving Casey high 5s as he snowboards through town are actual Finnish citizens).
A truck was required just to transport Janet’s batteries and extra parts, and Casey was attached to the drone with an invisible wire, which ensured that even if he lost his grip on the rope connecting him to the drone he wouldn’t fall.
The highest they took Casey was 200 feet in the air, although the Finnish authorities had given them permission to go as high as 400 feet. (200 seems like plenty to me.)
Piloting Janet was its own subject during the panel, because it was so difficult to do.
Justin Oakes was the pilot, and he had a team of three people supporting him as he flew Janet, keeping the path in front of him and space surrounding him clear so he wouldn’t be bumped, and allowing him to focus all of his attention on flying and keeping Casey safe. Justin said he had gloves custom made just to fly Janet in the cold climate of Finland, which could fit a transmitter into them.
In short, after learning about all of the challenges and logistics required, it seems pretty amazing that this video was made at all.