Lights! Camera! Lift Off? Fusion Studio Brings Sky Elements Drone Show to Boiler Gold Rush

by Taylor Frymier

Three hundred little robots rest upon a field like an army of sleeping pond skeeters. The anticipation from the gathered audience is palpable; their excitement buzzing through the night air.

Three hundred blue lights affixed to the drones’ backs blink awake and begin humming. All at once, they rise in a susurration of shooting stars to cast Purdue Pete in constellation.

Three hundred dancing lights lift the legendary strong man’s sledgehammer to bring it crashing down on the words “Corn Camp” (the program from which Boiler Gold Rush evolved). From the rubble, brick by brick, the iconic Purdue Bell Tower rises in triumph.

Hundreds cheer as a car pulls into the proverbial shadow of the tower to drop off an incoming freshman. The intrepid young Boilermaker, guided by their BGR team leader, passes iconic Purdue locations. They cross the tracks, ride the Boilermaker Special, walk past an unfinished Block P.

Three hundred drones tell the story of a new Purdue student. Their chronicle studding the night sky, a tapestry of engineering and entertainment culminating in the celebration of Purdue’s interdisciplinary legacy with a giant floating Motion P adorned in fireworks.

This was the Sky Elements Drone Show brought to Boiler Gold Rush by the Fusion Studio for Entertainment and Engineering and imagined by Purdue students.

“It was twelve to fifteen minutes of months and months and months of collaborating,” said Director of Orientation Programs Craig Johnson.

“Until you see 300 drones on the ground, you see 300 drones go in the air, and you see 300 drones move around to display this imagery, in a show that our students created…” Johnson trailed off, the wonder of the spectacle obvious in his voice. “I just become more in awe of what we were able to accomplish with them.”

BGR, Drone Show

All summer long, ten students from across campus worked with Sky Elements staff members to arrange, design, promote, and, ultimately, implement the light show. Orientation Programs brought the students together and organized them into three teams: a story team, a technology and flight team, and a marketing team. They then worked for months to develop the storyboards, animations, choreography, and framing necessary to harvest sizzle reels, then put it all into skyward motion.

“Not only did Sky Elements give us the show, they’ve basically been engaged in a months-long learning experience for these students,” Rich Dionne, chair of theatre and co-director of the Fusion Studio, said. “Again, what they’ve given to us as a gift.”

“We’re talking about storytelling,” he continued. “We’re taking a story, animating it, and then creating flight paths for drones from the dots in the animation. The connections between entertainment and engineering seem to speak for themselves.”

The Fusion Studio serves as a hub for theatre technology innovation at Purdue. Promoting the best practices, trends, and developments in interdisciplinary spaces, they strive to create a thriving community of industry partners, academic institutions, scholars, and practitioners.

The Fusion Studio’s mission from the start has been finding ways to bring Purdue’s STEM emphasis into focus with entertainment education and to enrich engineering initiatives with storytelling opportunities. This interdisciplinary institution helped join all the parties necessary to bring the incoming Boilermaker class a BGR kick-off abuzz with school spirit and shooting stars.

“That is, in some ways, exactly what the Fusion Studio wants to be doing on this campus,” Dionne said. “Finding new technologies, new interactions, new intersections and encouraging us to start exploring how to teach in those spaces.”

From a Fusion Studio perspective, its co-director sees the Sky Elements drone show as an interesting and unexpected pilot project for creating experiential learning opportunities with leading industry partners. “I also see it as an opportunity to create, or at least start exploring, connections across campus in spaces that we haven’t looked at,” he said.

To accomplish this, the Fusion Studio hosted a reception last Friday with invited guests that included faculty and staff from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance, the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, and Student Success. “It’s about opening folks’ eyes to the potential of liberal arts, honestly,” Dionne said. “It’s about giving the UAV folks an opportunity to realize that ‘Oh! You can use drones to tell stories. Who do we talk to about that? The work is more about exploring the teaching that happens at this intersectional space and encouraging that teaching.”

Another way that entertainment and engineering merge at Purdue is through the Multidisciplinary Engineering program’s Theatre Engineering concentration, a first-of-its-kind, ABET-accredited, engineering concentration focused on the entertainment industry. It represents a greater effort to recognize student interest in innovative paths of study and careers that incorporate the strengths of both STEM and liberal arts.

As an interdisciplinary unit—owned by neither the College of Liberal Arts nor the College of Engineering but supported by both— the Fusion Studio is looking forward to big things in the future. While not currently housed in a physical space, Dionne says there are plans to move into four studio spaces in Lambert Fieldhouse soon. These spaces will include labs for animatronics, wireless and autonomous scenery, 4D experiences, and a capstone studio space for Theatre Engineering students and other students in intersectional spaces. The Fusion Studio has even been in conversations with Hospitality and Tourism Management which is leading to talks about food engineering.

“I think most of our peers in liberal arts recognize the importance of technology and engineering,” Dionne said. “You couldn’t be on this campus if you didn’t.”

Sky Elements Drone Shows is a leading drone light show provider in the United States. Their team has brought the art of drone light shows across the country for community events, sports teams, businesses, artists, and major brands. In the days near the Purdue event, they did a show for both the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball teams. They’ve promoted The Super Mario Bros. Movie in Santa Monica, and even broken a Guinness World Record for the longest sentence ever formed by drones.

And they created the Purdue show without charge and with the added benefit of creating opportunities for students to develop skills alongside a team of industry professionals.

“They’re a leader in this work. For them to take a chance on us has been really humbling,” Johnson said, “and such a great opportunity for our students to get some hands-on work and behind-the-scenes action with this element of the entertainment industry.”