We have all seen News Year’s Eve fireworks in London, either in person or on the television, but this year’s edition was one like never before. Brand experience agency Jack Morton pulled off a major logistical challenge with the recent 13-minute multi-location, live broadcast show.
Now in its 18th year of producing the show for the Mayor of London, the agency had to deliver it without a crowd for the second year running and this year included live entertainment for the first time. Along with extensive lights and firework displays, it was also the largest display of drones ever seen in the UK.
For the first time the London Borough of Greenwich hosted the main spectacle, which was not fully visible from the ground or locations in the capital. It featured fireworks, lighting and 500 drones, synchronised by GPS, that lit up the skies above the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. The Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was also a key location, with the West End Musical Choir singing a medley from the musical Mamma Mia. The firework display was followed by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne that ended the show back at the Globe.
We speak to Jack Morton production director Jim Donald and creative director Kara Porter about the challenges of delivering the show, which has so far attracted more than 3.2 million views on the BBC’s YouTube channel.
What was the biggest impact of not having to take into account a live audience?
JD: Previously we’ve had to have 3,000 stewards, miles and miles of barriers and thousands of toilets. Without that infrastructure in numbers, it allows us to spend more on different directions and bring in more creative elements, even though budgets are smaller than they used to be.
How did you keep the project under wraps?
JD: We just went through a strict NDA process with our suppliers and stakeholders and only shared information that people needed to know.
We work with trusted suppliers and stakeholders, but if you limit the amount that you share, you limit the risk of it being divulged.
Traditionally for a drone show you want to be rehearsing and flying three or four days, every day. We pushed our friends at Sky Magic [drone supplier] to do some hidden away rehearsals elsewhere in the UK but had to limit the flights on location to a minimum. Otherwise, you’re giving away too much.
How early in the planned process was it established that there would not be a crowd?
JD: The brief was changing throughout the process but it was always to create that broadcast moment. We were looking at the early stages of ideas in the middle of the summer, but it wasn’t until September or October that we got the green light for delivering the format.
What were the key learnings from last year?
JD: Operationally, we used different sites this year because there were some challenges with the previous sites we used.
KP: From a show point of view, we used different tools this year. Last year we were doing something brand new; mixing drones with pyro and lighting. This year we wanted to push the drone tech, lighting, and how we layered everything up. This year the lighting was stunning at all our different sites. At Royal Naval College specifically we had this beautiful multi-layered, rich piece where we’ve got lots of different special effects at play. We had stage pyro and the main pyro that we had on our two barges on the Thames, and double the drone fleet we had last year.
We wanted to make sure London was at the forefront with the tech we were using, and this was mixed with the beautiful architecture of London. It had a lovely old/new story combined with a message of hope and unity.
Why did you choose that location?
JD: It’s probably one of the lesser-known landmarks in London but it’s an amazing heritage site. That, mixed that with modern landscape of Canary Wharf and the Shard, gave an architectural mixture of what London represents.
How and why did you introduce live performance for the first time this year?
KP: We wanted to highlight lots of London-based talent, people and venues impacted by the pandemic, such as the Globe.
It was important to get a bespoke piece written by the poet Tomfoolery [Tom Roberts] that was performed by Hamilton actor Giles Terera, which touched on things that brought us together as a nation such as Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign and the NHS vaccine rollout.
What were the most challenges aspects of delivering a live broadcast?
JD: From a technical point of view bringing in multiple sites. There was a one-second latency in the TV image footage, which was because of the quality of footage that we wanted to get back from the Naval College to our central London site. So what we technically had to do is offset everything that fired in Greenwich by a second to align with not only our soundtrack but also the live performances. We had to seamlessly create a show that is creative in terms of storytelling and is visually stunning, but what we can’t have is the old days of events like Children in Need where there’s a delay in the commentators. It has to be bang on the frame.
It was about having the technical set up the Delta Sound put in that allowed us to offset pieces, so that when our soundtrack wass played, everything aligned to it.
Some people will think it was pre-recorded and that the drones were computer-generated, but they were all flying. We had weather challenges. We had a whole alphabet of contingency plans in case the drones couldn’t fly because it was raining or we couldn’t use fireworks because fallout would go in a certain direction. Of course there’s the challenge of Covid. We were all testing every day. You’ve got a whole mix of contingencies to deal with which make 12 minutes of TV quite complex to pull off in a live environment.
Do you think the format of using drones is the future of urban displays such as this?
JD: Drones are an amazing special effect and they have their place in the same way that lasers and live performance do, I don’t think on their own they are the celebratory piece but when you mix them with the other pieces they just bring it alive. It’s another tool in the box as it were.
KP: Drones were brought in last year to tell more of a narrative and they do that beautifully. You can do that with images and words in the sky and different ways to bring stories to life which relate to people sat at home at a difficult time, and it’s worked perfectly with Covid. It works as a layer in a rich story really well. You’ve got audiences that are really split – some people love drones and some absolutely love pyro and that’s what they love to see at New Year. It’s nice to have all these tools in our arsenal, so whatever happens, we’ve played with them and we can cast them in different ways again in future.
JD: Last year was the first time any of the industry used drones and we’ve used them for a second time so we’re learning as a team how to use them. They take quite a long time to go from one image to another as a transition, unless you’re just doing a flat screen format, where you just flick from one grid to another. So they have to be built in right at the heart of your storytelling.
Do you plan to use live entertainment again in future years?
JD: It had its place this year because we were trying to tell the story of live entertainment and live theatre coming back. In future years it depends on the story that we’re telling but we’ve proved that it works.
Jack Morton’s creative show team worked in collaboration with On the Sly Audio Production and West End Musical Choir for the music production, Titanium Fireworks for the pyrotechnics design, Durham Marenghi for the lighting design and SKYMAGIC for the swarm drone sequences.
It worked in conjunction with multiple organisations across the capital to deliver the experience, on behalf of the Greater London Authority. These included the BBC, The Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe, The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern, City of London Corporation, The Port of London Authority, The Royal Borough of Greenwich, Metropolitan Police, City of London Police, Transport for London, Civil Aviation Authority, and others from the wider city operations.