Meet the drone champion who captured Gran Turismo’s racing action

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This week, Sony’s Gran Turismo movie will be the latest game-to film-adaptation, but with a sports documentary twist. Rather than directly adapt the racing title, the film makers chose to tell the story of Jann Mardenborough, a gamer turner real-life racecar driver after winning GT Academy in 2011. While some recent adaptations have focused on the culture and competition around gaming, Gran Turismo is the highest profile example to date.

To put viewers as close to the action on the track as possible, Gran Turismo’s film makers brought on their own champion. Meet Alex Vanover, 2019’s Drone Racing League world champion.

Vanover’s ascent

Vanover’s interest in flying began early, beginning with flight simulators and then remote-controlled airplanes. But it wasn’t until 2016, when Vanover found a way to forge his passion into greatness. He stumbled upon the Drone Racing League in its inaugural season.

Alex Vanover Drone Racing League 2019 World Champion overlooks the crowd
Alex Vanover overlooks the Drone Racing League crowd

Pitching itself as the “sport of the future,” the Drone Racing League features the world’s top First Person View (FPV) drone pilots racing through courses at over 90 miles per hour. Pilots use an on-board camera, a set of goggles and a controller to maneuver their drones.

“My dad was a billiards world champion, and I always wanted follow in his footsteps to be a world champion at something. I saw drone racing as a perfect opportunity for me to do something I enjoy and be competitive,” Vanover said in an interview with GamesBeat.

By 2019, Vanover soared. Not only did he win his debut race, but he also became a world champion at only 19. However, Vanover was at a crossroads when the 2020 season was cancelled and moved online.

Breaking down barriers to entry

This first-person perspective and controller make drone racing a natural fit for a SIM. As far back as its 2017 Season, the DRL hosted SIM qualifiers where a pilot earned a spot in the regular season. The DRL SIM is published by the league and still used to scout rookie talent. The league used the SIM to host online races during its 2020 hiatus. More recently, the Drone Racing League held its SIM qualifiers for the upcoming 2023-2024 DRL Algorand World Championship season.

Of course, this system mirrors that of the GT Racing academy featured in the Gran Turismo movie and similar programs that are going on today. Like the DRL’s drone pilots, the GT Academy lowered the barriers to enter the sport. While drone racing isn’t as expensive as racing cars, the upfront cost can still be prohibitive. And unlike other sports SIMs, the skills learned in a drone piloting or racing SIM are directly applicable to their real-life counterparts.

As a result, players can transfer their digital skills to the physical sport. Learning on a SIM before touching a drone or a car is a viable way to learn. In fact, Vanover recommends this for any aspiring drone pilots.

Additionally, drones have many use cases outside of racing. The military is the most obvious example — the U.S. Air Force is the longest running partner of the Drone Racing League. Drones use cases are growing such as deliveries, disaster response, and of course, film making. In any case, drone racing is a valuable way to hone flying skills and stand out compared to other pilots.

Transferable skills

With the was DRL on hiatus for the pandemic, Vanover explored opportunities to use his piloting skills elsewhere. He began capturing his own drone freeform footage and discovered a new passion for capturing cinematic shots. Due to their maneuverability, drones can shoot footage that would be impossible through any other means.

“My skills transitioned well because in racing you have to be so precise and consistent to win a world championship. Film makers want these skills because you’re flying with an expensive cinema camera, and you can’t make mistakes because it shows up in the footage,” said Vanover.

After honing his camera work for a few months, directors, producers and other film makers started to take notice. To date, Vanover has worked on several big budget projects like Justin Bieber and Kid Laroi’s music video for “Stay,” Michael Bay’s Ambulance and Emancipation starring Will Smith.

While the DRL helped Vanover hone his flying skills, the league also helped him handle the demands of performing on set. “The DRL taught me how to handle pressure well. You have to perform at the very best of your abilities to win a world championship. I get that pressure on set as well because sometimes we only get one try at a shot,” Vanover said.

Filming Gran Turismo and parallel stories

Vanover’s precision, consistency and performance under pressure made him the perfect pilot to film Gran Turismo’s high-octane action. After a late-night call from the film’s producer and a flight to Frankfurt six hours later, he began working on the movie. While the shoot was supposed to last a couple of days, it quickly turned into six weeks of intense work.

“The original drone pilots just couldn’t handle the pressure on set and didn’t have the technical ability to chase these cars at over 100 miles per hour. That’s really where my drone racing skills translated even more directly,” Vanover said. “Gran Turismo leveled up the use of drones in film because we had to design new drones to go even faster. We were flying with gimbals as well at 100 miles per hour which has never been done before. When these shots come out, I feel like it’s just going to help not only my brand, but the whole drone scene is just going to blow up even more.”

<em>Gran Turismo</em> Trailer features Vanovers drone shots

Of course, Vanover saw the parallels between his own story and that of Gran Turismo’s protagonist, Jann Mardenborough. Both started off learning their skills on SIMs and rose to fame after competing in their real-life counterparts.

“It was really cool to work on the Gran Turismo movie because, it felt very similar to my story as well as other pilots’ stories. It created a little bit more passion deep down to make sure I’m getting the best shots possible, making sure that my part in this film is as good as it possibly can be,” Vanover said.

Similarly, both Vanover and Mardenborough faced adversity from industry insiders. Part of Gran Turismo’s conflict centers on traditionally trained drivers protesting against their SIM-trained counterparts. In Vanover’s case, many film makers resisted using drones until recently. However, he believes that the Gran Turismo film’s drone footage will highlight the endless possibilities of the technology for film.

What’s next

As the esports industry faces adversity, the Gran Turismo movie highlights how certain titles can help players foster real-world skills. Moreover, the sports industry is increasingly using SIMs (where appropriate) to practice and hone skills. While racing didn’t initially embrace SIMs, professional drivers are now using the technology to learn tracks before real-world races.

Vanover is optimistic about the future applications of drones. “While we’re still in a transition phase, there are definitely opportunities. As far as filmmaking goes, I think there’s going to be more stuff with the Metaverse and for people to get into filmmaking virtually.”

The now 23-year-old is also crossing over into new communities and expanding his audience. During our interview, Vanover was on his way to fly a drone around a tornado with Reed Timmer, the star of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers.

By dipping his toes into multiple communities, Vanover has expanded his audience. As an expert in the field, Vanover has also launched his own brand of drone motors, pre-builds and apparel under the Vannystyle label. As far as competing goes, Vanover didn’t rule out a return to the DRL.

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