Casey Neistat didn’t have time to feel scared when he strapped himself to the drone that was about to fly him off the side of a cliff in Finland.
“I was directing eight camera people,” said the 35-year-old YouTube star, whose holiday-themed video of the feat went viral this week. “There were so many responsibilities on set, and there’s so much to think about just from, like, a pragmatic perspective when you’re actually being flown by one of these things, that there wasn’t enough room for that kind of emotion.”
It also helped that Neistat had “absolute trust” in the man operating the drone not to fly him into a tree as he snowboarded behind it, merely holding a line.
Justin Oakes is “as good as they get,” Neistat said in a phone interview Wednesday, by which point his video had already garnered more than 3 million views. As of this posting on Friday, the video had surpassed 5.5 million views.
Oakes, a former drone racer who now runs Droneworks Studios, said in an email that he’s been dreaming of making a drone powerful enough to carry a human “for years” but that it was only in the past year or so that it became clear it would become a reality.
With Samsung footing much of the bill, terms of which were undisclosed, Oakes and his team at his Houston-based company got to work. He said the math alone took about a month to complete before any physical building could take place. There was a lot to think about and even more to test.
“We tested the motors, propellers and batteries individually on a bench for stress and to measure available power. Then we assembled the mock-up frame and tested with 200 pounds of dummy weight,” Oakes said. “That was several months before the project filmed.”
According to Neistat, the original plan was to fly him over a Caribbean island on a surfboard. He brought the idea up to Samsung, whom he’s worked with before, earlier this year, but never expected the company to actually agree to do it.
“It’s just one of those things you say that you never actually mean,” he said.
When logistics made the island-hopping idea impossible, however, Neistat said the team settled on a holiday-themed stunt. They chose Finland for two reasons.
“It seemed very natural to make a Christmas holiday movie at the only place called Santa’s Village,” he said, referring to the amusement park in the Lapland region of the country.
The second reason was that it was legal to fly a drone powerful and heavy enough to lift a human. In the United States, for example, it’s illegal to fly a drone that weighs over 55 pounds. The drone used to lift Neistat weighed 165 pounds on its own. With Neistat attached with his board and the safety rigging, the amount shot up to 365 pounds. It took three people to operate safely.
“Definitely do not try [this] at home!” Oakes warned others who might be thinking of jerry-rigging their own human-flying drone. “It was certainly not something we threw together as a quick stunt. This was extremely complex for a team of pro builders to do in a proper office with pro tools and a budget to make everything safe. . . . No corners were cut.”
Neistat said that being competent on a snowboard was also essential to pulling off the feat, especially before lift off. While he was hooked up to safety equipment to film the flying scenes, staying upright was entirely his doing when he was being pulled through the trails of Santa’s Village and up a ski slope up to 35 mph.
“In all the shots where I’m being dragged, I’m actually riding,” he said, reasoning that if he were to have lost his balance, he could have let go of the drone.
“This is one of the more fun or exciting or certainly unique things I’ve done,” said Neistat, who previously snowboarded behind a car in the streets of New York City and played real-life Pokemon Go on a skateboard in two of his other viral videos.
But it’s not the flying off the side of a cliff and dangling some 150 feet in the air from a drone that he found the most thrilling about his latest project.
“The most fun part was being pulled by far, especially that scene where I’m actually on a ski mountain and I’m going straight up the mountain and the snowboarders are coming down,” he said. “If you’ve ever skied, that’s something you’ve always fantasized about. It was like having a 35 mph tow rope pulling you up.”