Cirque du Soleil's new short film features a human performer dancing with a fleet of helicopter drones playing magic flying lamps
Cirque du Soleil's new short film features a human performer dancing with a fleet of helicopter drones playing magic flying lampsCirque du Soleil, ETH Zurich, Verity Studios AG

Canadian theatrical company Cirque du Soleil has teamed up with Swiss research institute ETH Zurich and spin-off film production company Verity Studios AG to show how small flying helicopter drones could be used as performance art.

Entitled Sparked: A Live Interaction Between Humans and Quadcopters, the 10-minute video features 10 quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) flying in sync around a performer on a sound stage while hidden within colourful lampshades.

A lone repairman is struggling to repair a series of lamps when all of them turn off. The lamps suddenly begin flying by themselves and interacting with the man, mimicking his movements, to the accompaniment of music by composer Danny Elfman.

"What we wanted is to explore what we could do with an emerging new technology, the quadcopters here, and give it some meaning, give it some magic and bring it to another level," said Welby Altidor, Cirque du Soleil's executive creative director, in a behind-the-scenes video about Sparked.

"We saw right away that there was a potential with quadcopters to explore... what type of interaction they could have with humans. It was fun to see what else we could put on them and if we could make them disappear, so we ran all sorts of tests. We even had flying heads and lights [on the drones]."

ETH Zurich has been researching flying autonomous machines for over 15 years and founded Verity Studios to commercialise the system it has built to control the drones.

"Using algorithms that we've developed, we can dynamically control a large number of flying machines with great precision to do things that would be impossible to do with human pilots," explained Raffaello D'Andrea, a professor at ETH Zurich and founder of Verity Studios.

"We have synchronised groups of flying machines with music and built structures with ropes and bricks in front of live audiences, performed various balancing acts and even explored human-flying-machine juggling."

Cirque du Soleil and ETH Zurich are convinced that drones could be used to great effect in performing arts, and they're not the only ones.

Last month, Disney filed patents with the US Patent and Trademark Office for several designs that would see drones being used to levitate giant floating puppets and projection screens, as well as to replicate the scene with thousands of floating lanterns from the 2010 film Tangled.

Cirque du Soleil has previously experimented with web technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript with Google Chrome in 2012 to create a free browser-based performance game called Movi.Kanti.Revo that users can interact with.