FREMONT PASS — The whirling drone zooms across the reservoir.
“Watch for the flip to yellow. There it is,” says Mark Bellncula. “And action. Here we go.”
It’s a little after 10 p.m. when Bellncula opens the shutter of his camera — a Nikon D810A specifically made for astrophotography — and the LED-strapped drone starts creating his art. The tiny four-prop craft climbs to 400 feet, making loops at about 18 mph. Then it spins downward in widening circles until it’s about 30 feet above the water. Then it rotates, turning the yellow light away from the camera and exposing a blue light as it spins tighter circles to form the bottom of the sphere.
After about 5 minutes, the drone begins its return flight across the Clinton Gulch Reservoir. And the Breckenridge artist finally gets to see his creation on the tiny screen of his camera: a 350-foot tall, multi-colored globe — he’s calling it “Marbled Sphere CR” — hovering above reflective waters, crowned by the Milky Way and framed by towering crags.
“The art I’m making isn’t the photograph. It’s a space-time sculpture,” Bellncula says of a process he calls “Lume Machina.”
Bellncula is a 50-year-old artist who spent more than 30 years as a director and stop-animation motion designer for advertising and design studios, including 20 years in New York, before arriving in Breckenridge several years ago. He spends 30 to 40 hours plotting his drone’s flight missions. This spherical flight, for example, travels through 93 different waypoints. Sometimes he spells a word, like “argh” or “later.” Sometimes he forms shapes.
He uses a specially coded program made by a friend that converts GPS coordinates into flight patterns for his drone. Many artists deploy drones. Some by the hundreds to shape all sorts of aerial images for major events like Olympic opening ceremonies. Others can recreate a fireworks show with dozens of miniature aircraft. Those displays can cost millions. And Bellncula uses only one drone to draw on both the x-and-y axis, meaning his creations are not flat images but three-dimensional. Now, with lightweight machines powered by long-lasting batteries and a program to help sculpt flights into art, Bellncula travels around central Colorado capturing his one-of-a-kind images.
“As far as I know, I’m the only person making 3D patterns,” he says.
Once he selects a dark, mountainous venue and carefully assembles GPS waypoints to build the pattern, he sets up his camera on a tripod and a flight-tracking tablet on another tripod. It’s a meticulous process involving dozens of essential steps. One miscue and the mission fails.
That’s what happened a week earlier, when miscommunication between the drone and the tablet’s software left it unable to fly.
“I learned a lesson last week about being thorough and the need to double check and triple check,” he says. He suspects a career behind a computer, with liberal use of the ctrl-Z undo function has left him less attuned to mistakes away from the computer.
“Out here I don’t have that luxury,” he says.
Bellncula first floated the idea of 3D drone light sculptures while working at a studio in New York in 2013. Everyone loved the idea, but the technology wasn’t quite there to make it happen. Back then, he had to build his own drone.
“At first I thought maybe this would be a way to make a ton of money because no one else is doing this,” he says. “But that’s really not working so far.”
He processes his high-resolution photographs in such a way that he can print a shot as big as 3 feet by 4 feet. Watching his process involves a flickering light dancing in the distant dark. After processing the photograph, the creation is finally visible. It’s a long journey from creation to exhibition. He envisions someday displaying his super-sized photographs in a gallery. He hasn’t sold a piece yet and he talks, somewhat dreamily, about photographers and artists who sell their work for thousands of dollars.
“There’s no reason I can’t sell a photo at that price considering all the work I put into this,” says Bellncula, who calls himself a ski bum and whose day job involves converting television shows into a format that can play on mobile devices.
He’s planning drone light sculptures above fracking drill sites and skyscrapers. He’d like to light up skies above the Texas and Oregon coastlines as well as the desert landscapes of Arizona and Utah. He wants to find a wet parking lot that could reflect his work like a mirror.
He aspires for technology that would enable super bright lights so he could sculpt something above, say, the shimmering Strip of Las Vegas. He attends drone conventions, where ever-expanding battery and light power give him all kinds of ideas.
“All I need is time and money,” he says. “Well, mostly money. I have plenty of time.”
Back at Clinton Gulch Reservoir, a former mining impoundment now owned by Vail Resorts as a water bank for snowmaking, Bellncula rolls through a lengthy checklist as he prepares his drone, tablet and camera. He’s got extra tape on his vintage 35mm lens, making sure it stays locked on the infinity focus setting. He’s got rocks in bags keeping his tripods steady.
He’s already captured a red and yellow “C,” like the one in the Colorado map logo, with his drone sketching the top half of the letter and the water reflecting the other half. This time, for his fifth and final flight of the night, he’s switched up the gel coverings on the DJI Mavic Pro’s lights — replacing blue and yellow with orange and red — to create a globe with different colors. He delays the flight for a minute to let a jet heading east finish its flight through his frame.
He keeps a running narrative of the process, noting every step on the preflight checklist as well as the drone’s flight, not unlike, say, NASA rocket scientists tracking their space shuttle from mission control. He’s happy to see the drone program connected to 16 different GPS satellites as he manually pilots it off the ground and lets the navigation program take over. As soon as the drone reaches its zone in the middle of the lake, some 400 feet away from the camera, it starts painting and Bellncula opens the camera’s shutter.
He worries about a gust of wind that slightly bobbles the drone at the bottom of the globe. A car on Colorado 91 flashes headlights across the water. The wind sends tiny ripples across the surface of the reservoir, dashing his hopes for a mirror-like reflection for the bottom of the “C.”
As the drone flies back to its landing pad, Bellncula closes the shutter and gets his first glimpse at his creation. A giant orb, 350-feet tall, hovers over the lake.
“Oh look at that. Oh yeah,” he says giddily. “That’s a good one.”