Meet the Cavan man with a real head for heights, but still with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Reporter SEAMUS ENRIGHT caught up with LIAM ALLEN who is flying high in the United Arab Emirates filming with his drone…
Liam is the camera-carrying drone pilot heading up such incredible film projects as the new Emirates airline advert featuring amazing footage of a woman standing atop the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
The 30-second promo has gone viral on social media, occupying the top spot on most trend lists worldwide, and making an instant star of Nicole Smith-Ludvik, the professional skydive instructor who stars in the commercial.
But few are aware of the abundance of work that goes on in the background in terms of planning such an ambitious shoot, where the slip of a thumb or dropped Wi-Fi reception could cost hours of delay and thousands of euro.
The new Emirates’ ad sees Nicole, dressed in a flight uniform, nonchalantly flipping through a series of message boards reading: ‘Moving the UAE to the UK Amber list has made us feel on top of the world. Fly Emirates. Fly better’.
Liam, working for the globally-renowned Choppershoot Productions, was tasked with capturing the moment the camera pans to show Nicole perched on the Burj’s uppermost point, whilst expertly absorbing the awe-inspiring views of the Emirati skyline behind.
Aside from the incredible logistics of placing a person on top of the Burj’s uppermost observation deck, Liam says there are a myriad of regulatory hoops that need jumping through, not just to film, buy also fly a drone around one of the richest cities on earth.
“It was really exciting to be part of a project like that, and of that scale,” Liam says.
The Emirates’ shoot itself has pushed numerous boundaries, including the fact that Nicole is only one of very few persons ever allowed to scale to the pinnacle of the record-breaking 163 floor hotel.
Behind the scenes
From a physical perspective, while anchored by harness, Nicole only had a circumference space of only 1.2 metres on which to pull off the stunt. Subsequent to the ad release, and in response to some online commentary that the footage simply couldn’t be real, Emirates posted a behind-the-scenes video showing the preparations to ensure their stunt woman was safe and secure at 828 metres above street level. It included building a mock platform at ground-level, with numerous run-throughs, before they were totally comfortable and filming finally took place.
From a technical point-of-view, Liam says working on any project in Dubai’s centre can pose difficulties, particularly given the countless GPS signals pinging around the city at any one time, where a stray radio wave can place even the best planned project in jeopardy, not to mention risking the loss of whatever expensive kit is being used that day.
“In that area, the signals are all over the place. So, when you’re flying a drone, you need to be so aware of how many GPS signals you’re getting. If it’s very busy, you could lose the drone and that sets it all back to square one as well,” he explains.
Still in control
Liam jovially reflects back to when as a teenage he would get chided by his mum about how he’d never get a “real job” from playing video games.
Fast forward almost 15 years and Liam still has a set of controls in his hands, albeit instead of expertly dispatching virtual space mutants, he now uses his tech-savvy and steady-hand to deliver jaw-dropping cinematic footage and adverts for a wealth of globally recognised films.
Liam has been living and working in Dubai for almost the last 10 years, having graduating from Ballyfermot where he studied film and television. Along with stints with outside broadcast units in Ireland, his journey since has also taken him to ply his trade in New York.
The 12 months Liam spent in New York saw him, on his downtime, exploring his creative impulses by filming architecture – everything from Gothic revival skyscrapers to the Beaux-Arts inspired Grand Central – with his newly acquired SLR handheld camera. “In New York you’ve got all these beautiful buildings depending on where you are, built up over the era, which have a vanishing point down the street. There are just all these lovely angles, and so I was capturing these things at the weekends and making little edits of this and that,” explains Liam, who returned to Ireland after his Visa ran out.
It was while at home, in April-May 2012, between shooting footage at a rain-sodden rugby match in Dublin and an interview with a farmer somewhere in the Midlands, that Liam began scanning jobs pages looking for anything, anywhere, that piqued his interest.
“I was applying for film jobs in Indonesia, South Korea, anywhere there was an interesting job really. And right in the middle of them was this one for being a helicopter camera man, an aerial cinematographer.”
Liam, who grew up between Virginia and Ballyjamesduff, and was schooled at St Oliver Post Primary in Oldcastle, sent off his CV with little thought other than it would be buried in the piles of other emailed résumés. That is until he got a message from Choppershoot Productions owner and director, Hatim Saleh.
Liam knew little about the oil-rich Middle East capital other than the stereotypical misgivings many do in the west – images of a camel here and a Rolls Royce over there, luxury shipping and historic conservatism.
Ultimately Liam was offered the job, and “with both hands” took it.
He has since lived and worked in Dubai for the past nine years, and even got married to wife Reem during lockdown last year.
The field of expertise in which Liam finds himself thankfully has no shortage of work either, unsurprising in a city that is constantly expanding, and those pushing development are eager to show off every conceivable angle to their latest uber-modernist design.
The only change is that Liam no longer spends as much time “chewing through packs of gum” to calm the nerves while hanging from the side door of a helicopter, with the industry instead shifting towards embracing the surge in drone technology and capability.
“In a helicopter the difference is, if you miss a shot on a turn or curve, you know immediately it’s going to, not just take more time, but cost more money as well. So it’s very high pressure in that respect. Drones though have definitely calmed things down somewhat. We’re a lot more relaxed now and my day usually means going out with a technician and a guy who’ll control the camera sets. So I just focus on the drone flight.”
Sonic the Hedgehog
Along with the Emirates airline ad, Liam has worked on the blockbuster Sonic the Hedgehog film released last year, starring Ben Schwartz as the voice of the Sega’s iconic anthropomorphic Erinaceinae, andJim Carey as his arch nemesis, Dr Robotnik.
“Working on Sonic was really surreal moment for me, with the character being such a big part of my childhood playing video games,” recalls Liam.
“They came to Dubai to shoot a very specific scene in this beautiful area below Abu Dhabi, and because everything is later added in with CGI, they basically instructed us to fly a drone as close too and as fast as possible over these huge rolling dunes. So it was a lot of fun, and definitely cool to be part of something as big as that.”
Liam and his team have even had a hand in the recent star-studded faux-spy trailer for Dubai tourism involving Jessica Alba and Zac Efron that’s doing the rounds, and he notes that the industry is heading for its “busy season” as temperatures begin to cool and more work can be done outside and for longer periods.
Closer to home his credits include working as a camera man on Philip Doherty’s TV series, The Begrudgers.
“All the time,” replies Liam when asked if working on projects such as these are absolute ‘pinch-yourself’ moments.
“You wake up some days, go out into the desert and watch a sunrise, and you’re home before it hits you that it’s part of your jobs for the day. It can be incredible. There are so many magical moments, it can be hard to believe sometimes.”
For anyone interested in getting involved in the industry, Liam is quick to advise getting acquainted with the technology first, and do it well.
“Start flying, and start filming. Start figuring out where is the good lighting coming from. A lot of the time our work is situational. Weather is a major factor too. It could rain for five days but, the one day after that, the conditions could be perfect, so you have to be ready to go whenever it allows.”
Liam who, when he’s home, loves nothing more that shooting and posting incredible drone footage over Cavan online for viewers around the world to watch, adds: “The lovely thing about drones is everyone is delighted with the end product because we live our lives on the ground.
“When we see footage at ground-level we’re far more critical because we’re guided by our eyes and what we’ve seen before. Whereas footage from the air is so alien to us. You can’t be but excited by it.”