Rotor DR1 is a story about a 16-year old boy who becomes separated from his father during a worldwide viral outbreak and finds a drone that he believes can help him reunite. The movie is the brainchild of Chad Kapper, a director and producer known for Sarah’s Choice, Without Warning, the highly successful YouTube FliteTest channel, and now, Rotor DR1. On this episode of the Drone Radio Show podcast, Chad talks about the making of the movie, drones and his quest to make the first movie ever using an online community to help decide what happens.
- [01:28] Who is Chad Kapper and where did the idea of a movie about drones come from?
- [02:18] Challenges of making a movie where a drone was one of the co-stars
- [05:56] Community Collaboration in Film Making – How it evolved and how it worked in guiding the plot line of the story
- [14:21] Chad’s filmography and what led him to this project
- [17:37] The story of Flite Test
- [20:17] Turning the Rotor DR1 Series into a Feature Film and how people can see the movie
- [21:06] Rotor DR1 – the story behind the drone
- [23:03] Making the movie – what it was like to work with a drone and how the movie was produced
- [29:29] Lesson Learned through making Rotor DR1
- [20:03] How will collaborative Film making evolve in the future?
- [31:07] What is Chad most proud about as a result of this experience?
- [33:07] Final Comments from Chad
- [34:06 ] Closing
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Can you tell me about yourself and about the movie, Rotor DR1? Hi I’m Chad Kapper. I’m the director and executive producer of Rotor DR1, which is a movie about a sixteen year old boy in a post-apocalptic setting who’s trying to find his father. And he’s accompanied by his autonomous drone.
What was the idea behind this movie? The very first concept was really a movie about drones. And I thought it would be great if all the characters were drones. That was the original concept.
Do you have an interest in drones yourself? Yeah, I started a channel in 2010 called Flite Test, that’s the You Tube channel. And now has over 375,000 subscribers. That show is kind of like Myth Busters but for radio control flight.
What were some of the challenges of making a movie where a drone was one of the co-stars? There were a couple concerns. One was, could we get enough performance out of a drone to build up character? I didn’t want cartoony faces or anything like that, so would there be enough to make a feature length film with just drones. And two, was really on the budget because I knew it would be a low budget film.
How did your film go from a story about drones to a story about a boy in a drone? Well the initial seed idea, I mean that was probably 3-4 years ago. It’s whenever multi-rotors really became stable, because when I first got into it, it was 2009-2010, around there, multi-rotors were not very stable. They’re very difficult to fly and they weren’t like they are now. So around maybe 2011-2012, they became more stable and there was a lot of different models coming out and it was very interesting to me. They had a different personality, other than, like radio controlled planes and helicopters. They looked like something. They looked like a war bird or commercial aircraft or an R.C. Plane. Where multi-rotors were something completely different. They didn’t look like anything. They just look like a multi-rotor with different configurations. So that got me interested in, you know, what if we could create a feature film around drones. Now from that point, it just kind of incubated for quite a while and I talked to my son and a couple friends about it and we bounced ideas back and forth and, eventually we decided to do a feature film or a series/feature film. A year prior to going in the pre-production about the only thing that I could do, because I wanted to keep the ball moving forward, I started building a set for the main character in my basement. And I knew two things. I knew that it was going to be a post-apocalyptic setting and the main character lived in like a hideout. And I knew the main character was going to be my son. I mean I really always imagined that main character as my son. So those were kind of the immovables.
How long did it take to produce the film? Over the summer was the kind of pre-production phase where we got online, talked to the community and developed what the concept is. We fleshed out a little bit and we created what we call a concept trailer. That was June to August. After we built that concept trailer and really got the online conversation moving, we went into official pre-production for the series. The series went from September to Christmas, like two days before Christmas I think. So it’s about twelve weeks. We created one episode a week, but we did ten episodes, so there were two episodes that we had another additional week gap. We would release an episode and then we would get audience feedback and incorporate that into the next episode. We actually developed the story line, and added and subtracted the characters based on audience feedback.
Is this the first time that a movie was made using community collaboration? Well, to this point we’ve been talking about it a lot, and there’s a lot of press and a lot of discussions, and I’ve heard of nobody else even coming close to this level of it. There’s definitely people that have done collaborative works of art, but to do a feature film or a series of this magnitude, of this level of audience input – no I’ve not heard of anything like it.
How did you craft this idea of a movie based on community collaboration? Lot of people ask me that very specific question. I get that more than any. And it’s interesting I don’t know, because when I started Flite Test, that was the same thing I wanted to do – a hosted show about radio controlled flight, which was my hobby. I worked in marketing. Marketing videos is what my company produced for about seventeen years, and I think, just over the years I’ve learned to be able to take input from a lot of people and distill it down to its essence and what speaks to an audience. So I just kept that methodology and I thought, well if I create my own show, who’s my client? My client would be the audience. So I asked the audience, what do you want to see on the show, where would you like to see the show go? And from that, from the very beginning stages, it was always interactive in that way. And YouTube allowed for that format. It worked so well for Flite Test, that I continued that process, but this time in a narrative style, storytelling.
Did the community collaboration originate from Flite Test? It was a separate community that branched off of the Flite Test community. I made a huge assumption. I thought since I was so passionate about this, that the whole Flite Test community would be. And while there was a lot of interest, something that I didn’t realize is just because they like Flite, doesn’t mean they like movies. So we had, what I would call, like a splinter crowd come across and we got about 7,000 subscribers and probably about 4,000 Facebook followers. But it was the right amount, I think. If we had like 50,000 subscribers, it probably would have been overwhelming.
Yeah I would imagine just managing the social media pages in themselves wold have kept you pretty busy. Oh yeah, even with the subscribers we had, it was just coming in constantly. And one thing that we did, and this is why I meant if we had more it would have gotten overwhelming – we read, between me and the team, every single comment, every single thing that came into the forum, through Facebook, through YouTube. We made sure we at least read everything. We couldn’t respond to everything, but we read it all.
How did the process work? Was there a lot of structure to it, was a free flowing? How did you engage the community in this movie making process? Well it was it wasn’t super structured, it was really chaos. I brought in a friend of mine to produce. His name is Tom Nicholson. He was the producer and he was also a character in the film. He and I had worked together in the past and I needed somebody that no matter how difficult it got, would keep moving forward. And that’s Tom. Once getting him plugged in, I didn’t have to worry about stalling or getting off track. I knew he would keep it moving forward. So that was an important piece, because we didn’t know what we were in for. We didn’t know what our process was yet. We were just doing it. But I remember the bulk of the process involved shooting one episode, writing another and editing yet another all at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed and overwhelmed in my life. This is definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Did the comments from the community have much of a role in the overall plot of the movie? Actually, quite a bit. It’s weird because there’s so much, it almost gets lost. I should be able to pull out a lot, but the number one that we always go to is “drone racing”. There were a lot of discussions and talks and recommendations that we incorporated, like underground drone racing. And that was really great that they brought that because I remember thinking, “OK whatever”, like I was kind of nonchalant about it, because I was already around Flite Test and we did a lot of different things and I thought, it didn’t really intrigue me until we started exploring it more, like we could do this and then once we got into it, I was like “This is amazing, this is cool”. I know if we didn’t have the community involved, we would have never gone there. We wouldn’t have incorporated it, and that becomes kind of the centerpiece of the whole movie. So that’s probably the biggest, but I mean every aspect from the character of Maya, (originally it was just Kitch and his drone). The community wanted a female character that tagged along. That whole character came from the community, and then we went to step further and even let them choose. We we narrowed it down to two actresses and then we let the community choose which one got the role.
Was there ever an instance where what the community wanted was at odds with what you are the team wanted? It’s a collaboration, but just like any collaboration there has to be a leader. There has to be somebody that makes the final call. That was me. I was the director, so I always made the final call. We didn’t give the community any definitive decision that they weren’t allowed to make. If we said, do you want A, B or C, we let them pick. But what was funny was it never worked out like you anticipate. We do A, B and C, and then they would make up a D. But a lot of times the A, B and C choice lead to the D choice, and we were all surprised by it. I can’t say there was really a point of contention where I really wanted it one way and the community wanted it a different way. Like the character of Kitch, that was kind of locked in my head. Now his personality, I was completely open to small degrees of shift. But if they said, make Kitch a girl, I wasn’t willing to do that. That didn’t come along. They wanted a female presence, but they didn’t want Kitch to be a girl. It went pretty well, but I think it was because I was truly, truly open to the input and the only time I really put my foot down was if it was too deluded, like it was too evenly split. What I mean, there might be five groups that almost equally wanted something then I would just make a decision.
Is the movie a compilation of the series, or did it require a lot of editing or reworking on its own? Yeah, It had to go through quite a bit to become a good movie. Not that the series wasn’t good. They’re just very different animals. A weekly series with a cliffhanger at the end of each one is different, and the pacing is different. When we put them all together and we trimmed them down, we were still two hours and forty minutes, which is way too long. It took a lot of massaging. It took a lot of adjustment and we even shot additional scenes. We cut a whole character out. There was quite a bit of adjustment. But it’s funny because as much adjustment as we made, there’s a lot of people that watch the series, and nine months later, they watch the movie and they feel like it transitioned well. But if they actually saw all, like all the little nuts and bolts in the things that changed. It had to change a lot to work properly.
As for your own filmography is Rootor DR1 coming at the beginning of your career or at the middle? Oh Boy. I hope it’s the beginning. I’ve always wanted to be in film and when I started my company in 1998, the very first thing I did was an independent film which nobody will be able to find because there’s probably only one hundred copies out there. It was called Nine Days Wonder. And it was all shot on the Canon XL1, which was a digital, one of the first, mini DV Prosumer camcorders. So I remember making that thinking all this is going to be so great and then I got done with that and I’m I couldn’t even watch it. It did win an award at one of the Ohio film festivals but I just couldn’t stomach it. So at that point my son was a year old and we had to make some money. So I got into doing commercials and marketing videos and still very much wanted to be involved in film making, so I would volunteer time on other people’s projects to do whatever I could whether it was 3D animation, shooting, doing Assistant Director work.
I mean, I would do anything just to get involved in other people’s projects just so I could learn more about it and contribute to something creative. My biggest opportunity that I had in filmmaking was Pure Flix, which is a faith film company out of L.A. A friend of mine introduced me to them and they offered for me to do a film for their line up because they produce their own films. So I was hired as a director to direct Sarah’s Choice, which was a pro-life faith film. That was my first real official feature film. And it was really a great moment in my life to be able to work on that because a lot of people that have ever watched a Christian film, they’re generally pretty preachy and very biased and heavy handed. And I’m sorry to generalize but this was an opportunity to work on one and try to keep all of that out of it. Try to keep it very open hearted. If it was going to have an agenda or message, make it entertaining and have a message with an open heart not a judgement type of thing. That was a real challenge to be able to do something like that and especially not even really being my genre. I mean Rotor DR1 is more my my taste, so to have something that’s that much of a departure from what I would choose to do, and then have that kind of challenge – it was difficult but it was probably one of my favorite times of my life to work on the film. And I got to work with really great people on it.
What were the next projects? Flite Test, but that’s not a movie, it’s an online series. That was in 2010. Sarah’s Choice was 2009 then Flite Test. And Flite Test kept me busy for five years.
Turning the Flite Test. It was your interest in drones that led you to create this online community? Yeah I got into the hobby and it was frustrating because there wasn’t a lot of good materials out there. And even the people that were in the hobby weren’t always the friendliest. So yeah it was difficult and my background was production, and I wanted to do the show. I was having trouble getting it to work or to look like or to be what I was trying to get to that feeling of how I wanted it to feel. So I made a half a dozen episodes with me and a friend and we were just trying things. Then I ran into Josh Bixler, actually at his house or his family’s place. He would invite people out to go flying, so we had a mutual friend, and he would just fly with the excitement of a little kid. He would talk to people, just like …I’m trying to think of somebody that would be a good example … but he had this openness and this willingness to share and teach and help and I said, “Have you ever been on camera? ” He’s like, “No” and I’m like, “Well, if you can do this on camera, I think we have something”. So I was really passionate about my hobby and I wanted to make a show that could help people learn and feel the excitement that I did and not feel so alone. And being able to go out to YouTube, we were able to do that.
How large is the flight test community? Well it’s 370,000 subscribers on YouTube and then we have, I don’t even know maybe, 40,000-50,000 on Facebook. We have our own Website that people purchase stuff and they can register on the website and we have a forum and, I don’t know what the actual number is for the whole community of Flite Test, but I can tell you it’s very dedicated. And they’re amazing people. And I can go anywhere in the world, put a notification out on Facebook and find probably 3-4 people that know Flite Test and will come fly. I mean it’s really amazing.
Were you surprised by these numbers? Oh it’s tremendously humbling. I mean, I’d never expected that. I mean half of the community is international. You know only half of all those numbers are really in the United States.
You finished the first season of Rotor DR1. Are there plans for a second season? Yeah it depends on how this goes. We went way over budget. We ended up somewhere just south of $350,000 dollar range. So we need to hopefully recoup some investment. And once that’s done then that will justify doing it again, but we would all love to. We would absolutely love to do another season.
When was the film released? October 20th was the official street date.
How can people see the film? They can either buy Blu-Ray or DVD on Best Buy, Amazon, or you can watch on Hulu for free if you want to watch it with commercials. Or if you have a Hulu upgraded account you can watch it without commercials. Oh also video on demand with Vimeo.
The drone in film looks pretty unusual. Was it a custom build or an off the shelf model? Yes sure as heck wasn’t off the shelf! It was completely custom from the ground up. Well I mean the framework itself was based on a multi-rotor or frame design that I designed for Flite Test. It’s called the Any Hub which is just really, two circle plates with soldering connectors for power distribution. That center hub was the core of it. Once we had built the core, we built around it and had a friend of mine, John Pinkerton who graduated high school with him. He’s a very, very talented artist and he does these, he calls it like creepy cute sculptures. Just really oddball stuff that is amazingly beautiful. So I went straight to him and said John I want to do something very unique looking, maybe a little steam punkish. I gave the backstory of it and what it is and really he did his first design. We just tweaked it. We stayed with the same color palette and all of that and just kind of adjusted it and tried to make it, think through its function and make form and function mary together to do something that made it look like it could be real. So yeah it was definitely a process in creating DR1, was probably a scary process because you just want to get it right.
It did make for an interesting character. I give John kudos for this, but I don’t think we could have done a better job for the character because he really fits the tone in the feel of the whole movie.
What was it like to make a movie when one of the actors was a drone? Well it was challenging at times for a number of reasons. But fortunately we were very lucky to have Eric Monroe. He has been involved with, actually he’s the one that introduced me to Josh Bixler. He’s been involved with Flite Test since the beginning. And he’s probably one of the best heli-pilots that I know. He’s just locked-in; I know that he’s flying and it’s not going to crash. And he didn’t crash once through the entire film. So to have Eric, and be able to get through the whole film without him crashing, even for a really good pilot, is a feat. So that helped a lot. But there’s other issues, like we were shooting in very, very cold weather at times. I mean it was like minus fourteen I think on our coldest day, and it kills the battery. You could fly for like two minutes and you’re done. So there’s that and then, of course. the safety concerns and issues of being around the kids and not wanting to get too close and things like that. A a lot of times we could compress the shot by using a long lens, and it would look like the model was closer to them than than it actually was.
How did the actors react to being on set with a drone? I don’t know, they seem to handle it pretty well. I think having, again a really good pilot makes the difference. I mean if somebody’s there and you get uneasy about it, but I think when you have a good pilot and they’re locked in, then it gives you more confidence not to worry about it.
How large was the production crew for this film? Oh boy. It started out bigger and then we trimmed down as we got more efficient. But I would say it depended on the shoot day. On our biggest day we probably had 35-40 people. And on an average day we probably have fifteen. But then there were times it was our cinematographer, me and my son. And that was it. We were just getting shots and I would hold the boom if we had audio or anything.
What camera did you use to shoot the movie? We used the Canon C300. It’s a great camera has great dynamic range.
What did you learn through the making of Rotor DR1? Let’s see. I learned that I bit off more than I could chew. I was pretty bold going into it because if somebody says hey I’m going to go make a movie, you’d be like “Okay, you know that’s a tall order”. I said I’m going to go make a movie, and I’m going to complicate the process, exponentially. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I mean I did, but I didn’t. I think I was just so excited that I didn’t realize the tremendous challenge that it was going to be. But I think what I learned, the biggest lesson was – it can be done. You really can collaborate with thousands of people – harmoniously.
I mean so many people think that it’s impossible. People would get angry when I tell them about the process, because they might subscribe to the Artur Method of Film Making and one vision and it’s all around the director and it’s all about them. And this turns that on its head and I think the idea is that – why would you do this? Why I think you can actually make better entertainment. And I think you can get, believe it or not, I think you can get decisions made quicker. Because there were times, internally we would get hung up on something. And we’d say let’s ask the community. We’d post that, within five minutes we’d have an answer. And we were all like Okay, there go. So it’s a lot of lessons.
Are there still opportunities for people to collaborate? Unfortunately we don’t have much to engage in right now. But I would encourage anybody that finds it interesting to at least follow us on YouTube or our Facebook page. So when we do kick up season two or whatever’s next, they can be informed. Because it was really, part of this was designed to be a franchise, not part of, I mean the whole world. Because what we wanted to do is create characters in a setting in a story line that could go into games, could go into T.V. shows, could go into another movie, could be a prequel. We wanted to make sure that if we went through all this trouble to build out this world and this technology and the virus and all the elements in this world, we wanted it to be a playground that we could do more collaborating in, which we succeeded. Like all that’s there. The only thing that we’re missing right now is we gotta get the return on investment. Once that’s done it legitimizes everything. And we can, I really think we can blow this up and do a lot with it.
What can people do to support the effort? Well really just sharing it. And watching it and sharing it with friends. Just like any movie. Making it known that it’s there, because it does have an audience. It’s not a movie for everyone and I always put that disclaimer. because some people see a post-apocalyptic and they think it’s going to be this action adventure and it’s not. It’s more of a character film. It’s a really weird gendre, because it’s – my favorite description, somebody said it’s like The Walking Dead for my family. So it’s safe enough for your family but it has this kind of feel and it has a look and just a beautiful look to it. Tyler Clark our cinematographer did an amazing job shooting it.
Getting back to Rotor DR1, are there plans to produce a model for sale? Yeah we wanted to. See that’s part of biting off more than I could chew. We wanted to make models available, but the model’s very complex. And it’s kind of big and there’s a lot to it, so to create a commercial version of Rotor DR1, the actual model itself, it takes a lot of resources which we are looking into. It’s just, again we had to release the film and see how it did. But now we’re getting good ratings. We’re getting a lot of press. We’re getting publicity, positive comments. So I’m pretty optimistic. I think by January there’s going to be a lot of traction that we can take into these different areas, because I would absolutely love to see DR1 as a model that people can buy and fly easily. Right now if they really want to they can download models in 3D, print it, but it’s so much work so I don’t want to make people think that they can just all of sudden print it out and fly it. It’s a lot of work to build.
How do you see collaborative film making evolving into the future?. Well, it’s a bold statement but I think this is going to be the primary development of entertainment in the future. Because it’s already going that way. It’s just translating it into narrative storytelling or feature film style is very difficult. And we had to try it. I don’t know if we’re going to be the ones known for it or doing it best. But at least we broke the ice. You know we least prove that it’s possible. And I think people are just getting bored with the same formulas. Like I said we have a new genre. It’s like a post-apocalyptic family film. It’s weird. But we didn’t choose that, the audience did. They decided this is how they wanted the content shaped. So I don’t know. I’m really excited about it. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but I do think it will be eventually, it’ll be a primary method of film making.
What are you most proud about as a result of this experience? I saw so many people that otherwise would not have had an opportunity to ever do anything like this in their life, now have their name in the credits of a movie that’s widely distributed. And they can point back and say, hey I had input on that. And that’s touching. I mean that is what really drove me, that’s what gets me excited about it. And I think, well I know, I mean we have a very excited community about it. And I every time I hear somebody say, “yeah that was my idea or that they put that in because of this conversation we had or whatever”, I just I love that. I think that’s amazing. So I think that’s it. I don’t know what that is but I think that the reality that you can live in Australia and have input and communicate and talk regularly with the filmmakers and build something with them. And we didn’t ask for anything from them. There wasn’t Kickstarter, where they had to buy into it or anything. I mean they didn’t have to subscribe they could just comment on Facebook. We wanted to have that that openness and that inclusion and I hope people can remember that.
And from what I can tell the collaborative nature of the film seems to have created some broader connections? Oh yeah and even on forums it’s funny because people have become friends. So whether they still talk to me or the filmmakers at all, they’ll talk to each other and they’ve developed friendships with each other, and I think that’s amazing because they would have otherwise never met or talked or anything. I just I love any concept that brings together a healthy vibrant community. I think it’s amazing.
Finally Chad, do you have an observation or a comment that you like to close with? You know there is one thing. I thought of it earlier. And people have asked about it and haven’t really talked about it. And I thought I want to get it out there because it was something I was proud of and it might not seem like a big deal. But one of the things that we’re really proud of in the whole film is we didn’t use any CGI, other then there was a billboard in a sign. But as far as any of the multi-rotors or any of that it was all mechanical and real. And it’s funny because in this day and age people just, there’s so much CGI out there and we didn’t use any of it. Other than two shots. And it was to save money on a billboard and a sign. So yes that’s just a little tidbit that people might be interested in.
- Rotor DR1 Movie Site (www.rotordr1.com)
- Flite Test You Tube Channel (www.youtube.com/user/flitetest)