From Short Film to Television to Features, it’s hard to watch anything nowadays without witnessing that ubiquitous drone shot in the first couple of minutes. Sure it looks great, but what’s it adding? But what if our hovering camera friend wasn’t just there for kicks? What if he had an important role to play in our story? Mackenzie Sheppard’s Donny the Drone does just this by giving its titular drone a role in front of the camera as we witness this sentient machine appear on stage to accept a prestigious “Person of the Year” award. Sheppard returns to Directors Notes to discuss his latest film, being held hostage and working with Guy Pearce.
Where did the idea of this ‘hero’ drone come from and what made you want to tell this story on screen?
The idea came to us when Andrew (co-creator) and myself met for a story jam to feel out what our next move from Man in Phone [love this short] could be. We both wanted to do something that made an inanimate object, animate. Personify a piece of technology. We were both also interested in the ideal morality and technology. Right and Wrong, Light and dark. These basic ideas simmered and the idea of giving a voice and epic story to a drone was born out of a series of conversations.
Andrew took a first pass at building out Donny’s story and we built up the idea very quickly after that.
We knew right away that Donny the Drone had to be an epic globe spanning journey and have a magical element. We wanted to avoid overly techy explanations of how drones work.
Donny the Drone – Storyboard images
Having a drone as your protagonist meant you got to add a lot of great aerial footage, shot all around the world, to your film without it feeling unnecessary, just how much fun did you have collecting all this footage?
Aesthetically, I knew that Donny’s story had to be epic.
I went flying across the world in my head. Seeing things from Donny’s perspective from high above and then also down up close and personal. At this point we hadn’t designed Donny and we had no idea how or if he could emote with his body. So we just came up with cool and impactful things that Donny could do. Our original script had a massive variety of landscapes and settings. But pretty soon, even with the idea of shooting everything with a crew of 3 people, I knew we would have to narrow the locations down to the story essentials.
I decided I would shoot this in between commercials over the course of 2017. People always like to tell you “…make your short in one location and with one character”…Screw that!
We shot a bit of it in Arizona with one DP (Oliver Millar), I then went with our PM Kai to an island in Japan to shoot another portion myself, and then for the rest of the film — the speech, the Refugee desert scene, Bangladesh, etc. — Ian Holliday was a our main DP.
Donny the Drone – Behind the scenes photography
Luckily we were able to make an emergency call to the American Embassy, which patched us through to the Pentagon.
There were big gaps between shoots because I would get booked for TVC jobs and then have to readjust everything. It was frustrating at times when a TVC would not happen and then I’d have lost a window to go have fun shooting Donny, but the film made itself in the time that it needed in the end.
We have some crazy shooting stories and a life threatening one. While we were in Bangladesh we were taken hostage and detained. The mafia of the ship breaking yard we were shooting next to wanted to literally make us disappear and “do us in”. They made all sorts of threats and wanted to us get in their car and “come with them”, but I knew we had to resist as much as possible. Luckily we were able to make an emergency call to the American Embassy, which patched us through to the Pentagon. From there, hostage release negotiations were put in place, but not before we were tricked and handed into the hands of the ship breaking bosses surrounded by AK47 armed guards. It was the scariest 14 hours of my life. As soon as we were released, we evacuated to Bangkok on the earliest flight out.
Donny the Drone concept art
Whilst having this drone as the central character to your piece feels like a novel twist, I’m assuming it threw up some interesting challenges for production?
My idea was always to design Donny into a real life puppet that could be flown in such a way that made him inquisitive and expressive. Even without a face, a regular quadcopter-drone can look cute and emotive. But it also can look menacing and aggressive depending on how you fly it. I had always admired how ET was such an emotional character, but basically, couldn’t do much besides waddle around. I knew Donny had constraints as to what he could and couldn’t do, but we told the story around those limitations.
When I worked with my Concept Designer Raf, the only boundary I gave him was that it had to be a basic quadcopter shape that we could put existing hardware/RC parts inside. I knew we couldn’t afford CGI doubles and overly complex models that would have to be tracked into shots.
Donny was fully 3D printed based on concept art by Henrik Solmberg. Tomo Imai handled the 3D printing design, and then our master painter Ohta-san from Japan, did all the painting and texturing. I couldn’t have made Donny with out them.
Donny the Drone – First designs
I then handled all of the puppeteering. Everyday shooting was a rigamarole of getting Donny up in the air, figuring out shots on the fly, trying to hit invisible marks in the sky for focus and framing…it could be really challenging to nail a moment at times. Especially if wind picked up, or if Donny snagged a branch and went down.
We always flew responsibly and were very cautious. But the nature of Donny’s character meant that he had to fly LOW, FAST and BE ALIVE. So this made for some intense moments. For example, there was a time when we were filming on a closed road, Donny flying low and fast as we tracked him on a 600mm zoom lens from the car. I had to keep judging the distance of trees whizzing by, and turn Donny left and right to avoid the obstacles. If I missed something Donny would eat the ground or a tree and he would disappear from view. We would then scramble back into the bush, rocks, boulders, and find him. Thankfully, we never had any major breakages. Donny was a tough little guy, and never gave us too many problems.
And can you tell us a little bit more about your production – how big was your crew, how long was production, etc?
The credits make it seem like lots of people were there everyday. But in actuality, it was usually 3 people. All of the location work was always 3 people. Never more. A DP, assistant, and myself.
As I said we shot intermittently to save on costs. We would wait for the right airfares and moments to travel and keep costs low that way.
How important was it you got someone with such gravitas, like Guy Pearce, to voice Donny and what do you think his vocal talents add to the film?
Up until we had finished the offline edit, we had been using my voice as a temp Donny voice. Which needless to say, I got pretty damn tired of hearing. Haha.
But finally at the end, I decided I needed someone from completely outside the project to breath the SOUL into Donny. To give a completely original take of their own.
I had known Guy Pearce for a few years from a project in Japan, so I decided to send it to him and see if he was interested. He replied really positively and agreed to collaborating! I was thrilled!
Donny is a complex character, but I think he is just as human as all of us.
What do you hope someone takes away from a viewing of Donny the Drone?
We hope that Donny the Drone forms a snapshot of where society is at in 2017-2018. I personally feel like we are in a grey zone when it comes to what role technology is playing in our lives and whether it is right or wrong. I hope Donny allows us to reflect on how we define our ideas of right and wrong not in only how we use technology, but also how we use ourselves in impacting the world.
Donny is a complex character, but I think he is just as human as all of us. I think good and evil runs through the heart of everyman. It comes down to the decisions we make and how we navigate our lives that defines which side of that line we stand in. Donny is doing the same thing as we all do. But in a much more accelerated way.
What are you working on next?
Donny’s life goes beyond the short film and we are working on the long form version.
Outside of that, we have other things in development including a web series for a new Originals Platform that we are excited about. You can expect more from us very soon!