If you want to improve your YouTube videos or time-lapse sequences, using technology to help move your camera while filming can be game-changing. Most people can be satisfied with some sort of panning rig that slides a camera on a rail, with perhaps another axis or two to tilt it vertically or horizontally. If you’re UK-based motion graphics professional Howard Matthews, you instead build a camera rig with six degrees of freedom including the camera’s custom focus setup.
The results are reminiscent of a CNC turning rig, with separate axes manipulating the “workpiece,” while the camera is manipulated by a robotic rig. This rig involves many creatively sourced and modified components, including items from a moving lighting fixture. A purchased linear rail, at around £100 was the most expensive part of this build. Though quite involved, as seen below, the results one can get using this kind of setup are nothing short of amazing.
His idea was to build sort of a baby version of a Milo rig, which places a camera on a robotic arm. As Matthews puts it, he as no idea how much one of them costs [probably a lot], and there was no way he would be able to fit one of those next to his desk. Gigantic rig or not, this is seriously one of the best videos I’ve been able to feature here:
The rig took Matthews around eight months to build. Since he’s self-employed, he’s generally extremely busy or not at all. According to him he, “Thought I’d better use some of that off-time to try and do something productive. The jury is still out on whether I succeeded.” I would vote ‘yes’ personally, but be sure to give his video a ‘thumbs up’ if you agree.
For a little more detail on the build, the work in progress videos below should fill in many of the gaps. Of note is that he uses a microcontroller for each axis, which then connects to a Mac computer via USB. The computer sends commands to each microcontroller via an app Matthews wrote in Swift, and the setup should keep the system open to expansion or replacement of driving components.
According to Matthews, his app “Lets you manually control the axes by dragging sliders on screen, or you can load an animation file – just a CSV file with a list of positions for each axis, one per 1/25s frame. Key thing was getting the app to keep track of all the axes current velocities, so if you tried to move (or stop) an axis faster than the motors could handle, it’d calculate what the fastest it could safely change the axis velocity at, and send that request instead.”
He created a virtual version of his rig in Blender, so he can check and adjust the setup before filming. If that seems complicated given the variety of hardware and software working together, Matthews says that “It’s a bloody wonder it all works, really, and it’s getting to the stage where I can’t remember how some things work until I look at the code again.”
If all that wasn’t enough, as touched on earlier, he had to modify a camera lens to be able to control the focus. As he puts it in his lens hacking writeup, “Not much point being able to have my camera move around if it couldn’t keep its subject in focus.” This is normally done with a fixture attached to the focus ring of a lens, but since he already had good autofocus lenses, an electronic solution was in order.
Although he accomplished his goal, he had to drill a hole in an expensive lens which had to be quite unnerving. The linear rail was the most expensive purchased component, but the lens would have potentially been much harder to replace!
If you’re wondering where he learned all of this, Matthews credits the Internet (specifically citing Make: and other great websites) with teaching him most of the knowledge required to make a setup and video like this. He adds that, “I’m gonna make a concerted effort to start giving back a bit. No guarantee I can make it as engaging and interesting as what’s out there at the moment, but I’ve gotta have a go.”