A long time ago in Vietnam

Way back in the spring of 2014 when drones where still a relatively new thing we had a phone call about a job filming out in Vietnam for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to happen due to it sounding too good to be true but in this instance it actually happened. It turned out to be a shoot for Warner Brothers and the big Hollywood reimagining of the Peter Pan story in the film ‘Pan’, staring Hugh Jackman.

I’m finally writing a blog post about the experience as I now have the images to go with it. I didn’t get much chance to take many photos of my own during the shoot but I recently managed to meet up and get some off the AC we were out in Vietnam with so I thought I would finally post them.

It was a trip of absolutely amazing adventures and scenery but also a fair amount of technical hitches and hurdles. This was still back in the day where it was always advisable to have a soldering iron on set, all heavy lift drones were custom made out of mainly RC plane and helicopter parts and the first direct drive Movi gimbal had just come out. We had recently got our first Red Epic camera, the Movi M10 and the Paralinx Tomahawk HD link. We were putting together a proper cinema package but the drone was still a Skyjib 8 with Axi 4120/20 motors and wooden props. The machine was a reliable beast but wasn’t necessarily the most smooth in flight. We had quite a few issues in test days before heading out with vibrations in the drone translating through to the camera due the weight it was carrying and how fast those chunky Axi motors were spinning out little 15” wooden props. We were supposed to have 2 whole new heavy lift drones with the new U7 motors built to take out for this job but due to an apparent worldwide shortage in bearings for the new U7 motors and a variety of other issues these new drones were never completed in time. So we were stuck with the reliable but not so smooth Skyjib 8 and a load of spares for the shoot.

The other issue with this Skyjib was that it was the version 1 frame where, due to the frame assembling in a certain way, it was impossible to remove the arms without pretty much dismantling the whole frame. We had to take the arms off to fit it into a peli case for travel. On the night before we left I started this task. I had been flying drones for about 2 years by that point but had still never completely built one from parts. So when I found myself with my only drone for this job in bits on my bed and the thought of having to reassembling it a few days later in the jungle, having to hope it would all work as it was supposed to again so we could film the biggest job we’d ever had, I was pretty stressed to say the least. I had also seen that the temperature was supposed to be about 40c out there so I had other concerns about ESC’s not overheating under the strain of a Red Epic, prime cine lenses and a lens control system.

From start to finish in was a massive adventure and test of stamina. From the 12 hour flight (helped by being in business class) we went straight onto an overnight train that seemed specifically designed to separate every muscle in your body through vibrations. On arriving in the morning in the Vietnamese mountains in Hang En we had a 3 hour trek through the jungle, followed by a train of porters carrying all of our equipment, until we reached the mouth of the 2nd biggest cave in the world. The cave was so big we were camping, in a fairly large camp, on a beach next to a river inside the cave. It was a colossal and massively impressive place. This is where we had our first major technical hitch with the Chinese generator that had been brought for us to charge our batteries from. As I was reassembling the Skyjib the porters were setting up the generator and plugging in our chargers. I heard 3 quick bangs and turned around to see smoke coming out of all 3 of the power inverters for our chargers. So we suddenly had no chargers and because the batteries had been late turning up from customs before we set out none of them were charged. Great!

It took the massive efforts of our locations managers and the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese guys we were with to somehow get a local electrician to trek through the snake infested Jungle at 1am bringing some golf cart batteries with him and then taking away our inverters to be fixed. We managed to trickle charge a few batteries so we could actually fly later in the day. Despite some rain and some further video link issues we manage our first flights in Vietnam in the mouth of the second biggest cave in the world.

Our second location in Tam Coc was equally amazing in a hidden river valley in surrounded by rice paddy fields and golden Buddhist temples. Arriving in the 2am pitch black we each got on to a single wooden canoe with a lantern on the front and headed down the river. It suddenly became apparent that the river was heading into some kind of cave with stalactites hanging down from a low ceiling. We were actually going under a mountain to get into the hidden valley beyond. As the sun slowly came up we could fully appreciate the full magnificence of this stunning location.

We spent all day in the 40c heat and humidity doing flight after flight over the river and mountains shooting some stunning shots, all the time wearing our local pointy woven hats for shade! With no hard ground to fly from, being surrounded by water and rice paddies, we resorted to cable tying together 4 of the local canoes and placed a sheet of ply wood on top for a landing pad. We ended the day with some lovely shots.

Our third location on the island of Cat Ba was on the top of a mountain. We spent three days at this location, each morning climbing up the steep mountain paths through snake filled jungles carrying all of our gear with our usual trail of porters. The mountain had a pretty rocky pointed summit with no flat spaces. Again we had to make a make shift landing pad with the aid of peli cases and ply wood. A tented area was set up to keep everyone cool in the blazing sun and with the ramshackle array of sun shades we had set up to keep the drone cool the whole scene started to resemble a bit of a mountain top festival/gypsy camp. The main goal of this area was to capture CGI plate shots to build the background of Neverland for the film. We had a fair amount of issues with very high winds making it difficult to keep the kind stable shot essential for the plates we were trying to capture with the less evolved equipment we had in those days. The scenery, especially at sunset, was again absolutely stunning in this location.

After this location our shoot was done. We got to tag along around to the unbelievable Halong bay whilst the ground unit captured some more CGI plates then we were back home.

The whole trip was our first real step into big time film production and was a real test for the kit and us in the early stages of drone development. The run up to the shoot was certainly one of the most stressful times of my life but the shoot itself, although also occasionally very stressful, will always be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The places we were taken were the real Neverland, without the need for any CGI enhancement. It was a privilege to have seen and worked in these places and for someone like myself who loves an adventure it was a perfect trip. It also taught us a lot in terms of how we operate as a drone team. What was important in terms of the kit, how to operate and keep everything running in extreme locations, the importance of communications and how to survive a relentless film schedule! It’s been almost 3 and half years since we were in Vietnam but its great to finally put a few photos out a give a little incite into an incredible trip.

2 thoughts on “A long time ago in Vietnam

  1. Wow Ben, what an amazing trip. It’s great and inspiring to hear about it. The movie business is incredible in how it throws up these amazing challenges and adventures. Thanks for sharing. Jimmy

  2. Amazing! It’s clear how much of an eye opening and unique experience this was, as even after 3 and a half years you can recall so many details! The pictures are amazing too, although I bet nothing can really show what 40c in that humidity feels like! The cave camp and ‘drone festival’ pictures really put things into perspective. Looking forward to more posts about the exciting shoots you’ve been on, thanks for sharing! Jason

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