If you watched the night skies over New York City on Wednesday, you might have seen a UFO. It zoomed over the Hudson River like a colossal ghost—a ghost that looked like Ariana Grande.
Here’s the weirdest part: You weren’t hallucinating. To promote the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards, a pair of helicopters cruised over the Hudson. One towed a 250-foot-wide banner, and a second flew alongside it, beaming video onto the banner.
Obviously, flying a Jumbotron is not possible, so we had to find a new way. Branding By Air director of technology Ryan Osbourne
The result was an airborne video loop of Grande, Nicki Minaj, and the MTV Video Awards logo, all projected onto a screen twice the width of a drive-in movie screen, and almost as wide as the Statue of Liberty is tall. It was a feat conceived and performed by Branding By Air, an “aerial marketing” firm that’s launched everything from giant shoes to massive beer cans into the skies. This particular stunt was the first of its kind, earning Branding By Air and MTV a spot in the Guinness World Record books for the largest aerial projection screen.
“MTV is known for delivering firsts,” says Dario Spina, EVP of marketing at Viacom Velocity. “We like the innovation behind this. It takes an old-school piece of media and elevates it with new technology.”
Branding By Air director of technology Ryan Osbourne says his company has been testing the stunt for two years. The problem they wanted to solve was straightforward: It’s too dark to see the company’s other creative aerial banners at night.
“When the sun set, it disappeared,” Osbourne says. “Obviously, flying a Jumbotron is not possible, so we had to find a new way.”
Osbourne’s team conducted wind-tunnel testing in Australia, using scale models to optimize the aerodynamics of dragging a massive piece of fabric through the air. Seemingly simple things such as retaining a 16:9 aspect ratio on a massive flapping banner required a lot of engineering.
Branding By Air makes its own banners; its team stitches together rows of fabric to make a larger banner. That pieced-together approach helps the giant flag respond forgivingly to wind gusts and torque. Pockets at the top of the massive banner help lift it, while weight bags at the bottom of it help it fly square. All that gives the projector a flatter surface to project onto.
The stunt actually used three 4K projectors, stacked on top of one another in the Huey flying about 200 feet away from the screen. With all the equipment onboard, Osbourne says the military aircraft is the only type of helicopter muscular enough to carry all the cargo while flying steadily. The image from each projector overlaps on the screen, improving some aspects of image quality.
“You don’t so much gain lumens when you do that, you gain color saturation,” Osbourne explains. The setup has significantly more power than a movie-theater projector, although it doesn’t necessarily look as bright—it’s projecting onto a screen from much further away. “At peak performance, it’s 60,000 lumens,” he says, though this most recent stunt only required 40,000 lumens.
As crazy as it was to see this new form of in-flight entertainment over the Hudson, there are upcoming technological improvements that Osbourne hopes will make the experience even better. A few times during Wednesday’s flight, the video projection was off-target for a few seconds. And although the screen was big and visible, the projection wasn’t always tack-sharp; it could be difficult to make out what was being projected onto it.
But if everything went perfectly, it would have been boring. Osbourne is hoping new tech can improve the process.
“The first thing I’d wish for is that everything becomes a lot lighter,” Osbourne explains. “That way, I wouldn’t need a Huey. Those things are expensive to fly. Laser projectors are coming, and I can’t wait for that. Power sources, with the help of people like Elon Musk, would make things more accessible and safer.”
As for using drones instead of choppers, that won’t happen anytime soon.
“As far as towing a banner, they just don’t have the minerals,” Osbourne says. “They’re not quite strong enough. They’ll get there, but at the moment, we need drones that are flown by humans… aka helicopters.”