POV (Perspective)
A DP POV On "MoCo"
  • Wednesday, Sep. 16, 2020
Rich Schaefer

While motion control in itself is not new, there have been many new additions to what is available today and what motion control can now do. The new generation of high-speed robots is very exciting; the Kira 2, the Mia, and the Bolt series of robots can move a camera at more than four meters per second.

As a DP, I am always dreaming of moving the camera in amazing ways, where I can just fly the camera to wherever I want to show the viewer beautiful things with unusual perspectives. To a certain extent, TechnoCrane, Steadicam, and gimbals have given us filmmakers these paintbrushes. On a more precise and exact level, this is what motion control gives us.

But, what exactly is motion control? Often called “MoCo,” it is simply the use of a robot to move a cinema camera. Mounting the camera on a robot gives us filmmakers the unique ability to execute very accurate movements, as well as the ability to repeat these movements precisely. This cannot be achieved in conventional ways. So why use MoCo? Let’s say you need three versions of the same actor on screen at the same time with the camera in motion. Or perhaps a product has four variations, and you need to shoot the same movement for all of them. In comes MoCo. You can now film the multiple exact movements to seamlessly produce those shots, which then get married together in postproduction. Once we mount a cinema camera to a motion control robot, so much is possible.

So what is new with motion control? High-speed robots are the latest significant addition to the MoCo world. The Kira2 and several Bolt models are capable of moving the camera at speeds greater than four meters per second--that’s more than 13 feet per second! The potential for filming high-speed events like drops, explosions, splashes etcetera, is fantastic.  

Today’s motion control software is becoming easier and more accessible. Dragonframe is very affordable, and a good option for DIY rigs and Motorized Precision’s MPstudio is user-friendly. Both have user interfaces that have similar layouts to today’s popular editing systems. Most systems have a timeline where you place and edit keyframes. Also, many are compatible with certain ergonomic controllers for ease of use. MPstudio uses an Xbox controller to move and program the robot. Marc Robert’s Flair uses a pendant or game controller. Kaisu Cinema has a unique hand gesture robot control pendant.  

Motion control systems are becoming more and more capable of triggering and controlling external devices. They can simply connect two wires to trigger an effect, or perform very complicated tasks like controlling the direction, speed, ramping up/down, and the exact position of a precision turntable. Lighting, stepper motors, conveyors, air cannons, water blasts, and just about whatever else you can think of can be controlled, and MoCo systems can do it at an exact time during a robot move!

Now pair a high-speed phantom camera with one of these fantastic machines, and the eye-candy making potential is mind-blowing! These new high-speed robots can move fast enough to get some really awesome shots with explosions, drops, bursts, and breaks. They can make some truly amazing imagery!

Did I mention that focus is controlled by the robot? It is, and since the robot knows where the camera is and where the target is, it also knows where the focus should be. So, the MoCo will perfectly pull focus during the camera move. It can also pull zoom and iris if needed.

Most systems can be set up in about an hour. Runs of track will take some more time. For me, programming a move and running through a quick rehearsal can be as short as four minutes. More complicated moves can take 15 minutes, and very complicated moves can take maybe 30+ minutes if they have lots of events and external devices.

With motion control, move data can be both imported and exported. When a move is exported, the data of exactly where the camera is and its motion path are transferred to postproduction. Visual effects artists can use all that tracking data for AR (Augmented Reality), the blending of real-world imagery and graphics, and visual effects. In addition to AR, the motion control data can be used for full-on CG work.

Because the robots can import move data, complicated shots can be pre-vized before filming, and the robot can perform the pre-viz moves live on set. This can be incredibly useful for complex visual effects shots or sequences.  

The future of motion control development is super exciting. We have some fantastic stuff coming down the road. I have demoed Motorized Precision’s working prototypes of VR control powered by Unreal Engine. It is unbelievable; it’s almost like Minority Report or Iron Man. All you do is simply put on a set of VR goggles and grab two hand grips. From there, in the virtual world, you can grab your camera and target and move things around to shoot as you wish. Because it runs on the Unreal Engine, you can load in your background or your entire 3D world and interact with it in real-time through the goggles. You can control a live robot, build a move to send to a robot, save it to play it back later, or bring the move data into 3D. With this technique, you can get a handheld or human POV vibe on a Motion Control robot. Keep in mind that this would be a repeatable MoCo move; that move data can go to post for amazing natural visual effects. Overall, motion control with VR is an amazing tool to help bridge the gap between the virtual 3D world and the real world.

Motion control is a tool that enables us to go beyond human capabilities; it allows for a high level of precision, making sophisticated shoots easier for all of us. MoCo is definitely one of the many important paintbrushes we have as cinematic artists!

Rich Schaefer is an award-winning cinematographer with more than 25 years of experience in the entertainment and commercial industries. His credits include Orange Sunshine, Frenemies, Star Struck, Awkward Family Photos, and the upcoming film, The Last Champion. Schaefer has created content for many prolific brands including Neutrogena, Toyota, Microsoft, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett Packard, Nestle, Target, TRULY, and Chase. A recipient of two NATAS Northwest Regional Emmy Awards, he is a member of the Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild. Schaefer resides in Southern California, where he owns and operates High Impact Pictures, Inc.


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