04/03/2014—Remember Swarm? Just in case you missed it last year, it was the second of a series of online films designed to showcase Lexus’s approach to technology and design. In the video—which fans and film blogs talked about for days—a small army of quadcopters playfully buzz through stairwells, sneak into elevators, and take over a museum after hours.

Here’s the thing: none of the machines are CGI. Instead, the amazing quadcopter choreography was all robotic hardware—the brainchild of Rogue Films’s Sam Brown, an acclaimed London-based director renowned for his creative music videos for the likes of Adele and Jay-Z.

Lexus had teamed up with the director—and a team of designers, engineers, and character animators—to push the boundaries of movement, enhancing quadcopter and motion-capture technology to create an experience filled with progressive science and personality. Here Brown tells us about his vision, and the challenges of directing legions of tiny, curious flying vehicles.

Lexus: Let’s start at the beginning. What were you asked to create?

Brown: The idea was to use and develop existing technology to articulate the idea “Amazing in Motion” but also to show how technology can tell a human story. What Lexus is all about is humanizing technology—making it relevant to people. That was a really big part of the brief.

You worked with quadcopters—experimental flying vehicles—first developed by KMel Robotics in Philadelphia. They’re inanimate machines, yet in the film they have a lot of character. Was that important?

We felt the quadcopters came into this project with certain stereotypes. The challenge Lexus gave us was to humanize them, to give them personality, to turn something that could be cold and impersonal into something with character.

How did you achieve it?

Our way of humanizing them was to think of them as children, to try to give them childlike personalities: completely open, inquisitive, up for a laugh, fun. We looked at stories like Toy Story and The Nutcracker. You could almost substitute the quadcopters with children; the way they engage with the world is very childlike. You put kids in any situation and they just throw themselves into it.

The quadcopters are the same—they’re enthusiastic little things that just want to have fun. That comes across in the story not only in what they’re doing but also in the music, which was inspired by the scores used in Tom and Jerry cartoons. That immediately takes you back to being a kid again.

The quadcopters are also wonderfully choreographed.

Another reference I had was Busby Berkeley, a choreographer who did these very elaborate song-and-dance routines. There was a big vogue in the 1960s for that kind of thing—vast choreographed numbers with lots of bodies moving around and spinning. I had that in mind.

How much did you and Lexus enhance the quadcopters?

KMel Robotics was already developing this technology for engineering purposes, but they were very primitive little things. The resources we provided helped them move their technology forward quite significantly, and in doing this project they suddenly found themselves able to do stuff they previously couldn’t do. The way they look was developed by us; we managed to take what was a fairly large package and reduce it to a much smaller one.

The other thing is that their motion was not inherently graceful. If you were to start a quadcopter at one end of a space, ask it to negotiate a couple of objects and end up at the other end, it would take the most efficient path, not the most graceful one. That graceful motion is entirely a product of our development. It’s something we had to teach them to do. In effect, controlling their motion was like meticulous puppeteering. Everything they needed to do had to be dictated by us.

—Alex Moshakis