Motion Control Timelapse Unit

2011 finished with such a flurry that it seems to have taken forever to get around to this review. Certainly here in the UK 2012 looks to be a colossus and I can’t see there being much time for reviewing anything more than my bed!

( If you like the soundtrack you can find Emma here on myspace here on soundcloud here on FaceBook and here on iTunes )

We’ve had a really phenomenal response to our Motion Control unit . It’s always nice to know you made a difference and you’ll be sure to see some comments go up on the site soon. Everyone who’s seen the results wants it on their production so its truly rewarding when the results speak for themselves.

We’ve been involved with the Channel Four series Shipwrecked for over 6 years going back as far as 2001 and we’ve also had a heavy hand in selecting crew and kit. It’s an iconic reality TV program based in the Cook Islands in the Pacific and whilst it’s idyllic and close to paradise its an horrendous environment for kit. Salt, sea, sand and humidity, not to mention heat combine to put any item of kit, ( or crew ) to the test. I’ve had to rig Jibs on beaches in temperatures over 40 degrees celcius which is pretty unpleasant to say the least especially when you’re covered in sand and Mosquitos.

The trick is to keep it simple and lightweight. With these considerations it’s never easy to introduce new technology into the mix.

When we first got into talks with the producers selling them on the idea of this piece of kit wasn’t easy. We’re always fighting the word ‘budget’, and this was no exception. If it hadn’t been for our experience the decision may well have gone against us. As I, ( somewhat boringly ) repeat, crews are here to help production, not to hinder it. I guarantee you will never find an operator who goes out to make a program look bad, sometimes it pays to listen to what your teams are suggesting and give them the freedom to do a better job. I’ve had the good fortune in recent years to work with PM’s who trust me and trust my opinion and I hope I haven’t let them down.

So, onwards. The Rig.

Any specialty piece of kit we invest in we first consider functionality and this includes portability. When we began the hunt for this unit we had to ensure it could be quickly bought to a location and rigged easily, so we specifically looked for something that would fit in the longest Peli case around. It seems perverse but c’mon, you have to be practical!

Just by way of clarification. A Motion Control Time Lapse Unit is a combination of items. Ours is a slider, a pan/tilt head and a camera. We had in fact, begun engineering our own unit before the shoot but had to drop it as the deadline wasn’t on our side.
A quick search of the web will show you there are some great heads on the market that allow for a Pan and Tilt TimeLapse but as our motto is ‘Always over deliver’, we decided to go that little bit further and stick the head to a rail.

Therein lies the rub. Thats an awful lot of small motors in a less than hospitable environment to put to the test, and you can see why we wanted to ensure it was portable in a Peli. The island of Aitutaki, where Shipwrecked, ( and some series of Survivor ), is filmed is in an atoll, to get to it each morning requires a 15 minute boat ride across a Lagoon that is simply one of the pearls of the Pacific

Anyone who has ever shot a time lapse will tell you how many things can conspire to ruin the shot. Weather, equipment failure, power supply, lighting, not to mention the number of shots I’ve had ruined by people dancing in front of the camera. Statistically speaking I would say 2 out of 3 time lapses result in failure.

With a moving timelapse all those problems become compounded. It’s no longer a simple locked off shot where the movement within the frame dictates the outcome. You have 3 axes to consider, pan, tilt and track, ( as well as all the previous problems ). As a result you have to factor in the position of the sun or moon, ( there are apps for that ). Failing to do so will result in a shot ruined by the shadow of your own kit.

The extra axes means you also need to carefully consider the speed of each movement, if the pan is too quick for the tilt or the track the shot wont work. We all understand the psychology of camera movement, and whilst that can be corrected to some extent in post, it will always remain unbalanced in a three-ways moving T/L. Rob, who used the unit recommends, ‘test, test, test’. Test your shutter speed, your ISO, test you track, your pan and your tilt, you get the picture. He’s a bit boring with it but having seen his results I’d be inclined to heed his wisdom. It’s hard earned, judging by the tales he tells of having to sleep next to the unit during some of his stunning night timelapses. He also warns, watch your horizons and as he was shooting on a very small island, he had a lot of horizon to contend with

The Unit.

So its all quite basic and affordable. We use a Stage Zero dolly system with an Acuter Merlin head and Canon cabling controlled by an MX2 control unit to talk to each of the separate units and camera, we use a Canon 7D. The cabling isn’t standard and doesn’t actually allow the separate units to communicate so we had to adapt it to suit our needs. It is not a simple alteration either and its one I would steer clear of unless you have a resident John Livesey, ( our own personal genius ). Fortunately the manufacturers have realised this and now sell the adaptor separately. We’re currently waiting to take delivery of that part and are looking forward to losing the slightly brittle cabling in current use.

For any of you thinking this looks easy here’s a spoiler. It is not like a normal time-lapse, flying in the face of our usual ethos this setup has many bits and pieces to worry about. With three separate units, lots of cabling and lots of movement to think about you can quickly ruin a good nights sleep. It requires constant cleaning and studying to make sure that all the moving parts are working and in good order. You have to treat this thing as your baby especially if you’re using it commercially. Clients want, pay for, and expect results so you do have to remain on your guard.

It’s as usable as you know how to use it which may sound flippant but like most things, the more you do something the more confident you become. As much frustration and stress this unit has caused we feel more confident with its capabilities and possibilities and with every shot constructed, the more creative and testing we can make the set-up.

We’ll be improving the unit and making it more efficient by adapting the power source so that it all runs on more proven batteries. A sure fire way to get a DoP kicking things over is to run out of power four hours into an eight hour nighttime shot.

In summary, its not a piece of kit for the feint-hearted. It will however yield some simply stunning results. Be patient, be thorough and be creative.

If you haven’t seen the video on the front page of the site, there’s an SD version available here.

Happy Hunting.

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