This is mostly an overview of prototypes i’ve come up with and the techniques and sources i used to build them. I’ll try and give as many details as i can so that others who are interested can use some of the same resource for similar projects.

Project Steps

A couple years back i wrote short article in Make:19. It was about how i built small, MIDI-controlled cameras to capture live footage of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist during their live sets. The video was mixed in real time and project on huge screens behind them.

The cameras were small and unobtrusive but allowed us to get closeups of the DJ’s hands and movements.

Because we wanted the cameras to move to get different angles and to add some visual interested, i designed and built small pan tilt heads that were powered by hobby servos. The servos were driven by a circuit board called a ServoCenter. The ServoCenter could read MIDI commands we sent them from a laptop or other MIDI instrument. As we changed the MIDI values by turning knobs and sliders, the cameras would pan and tilt.

MIDI is digital music signal format. It allows all kinds of electronic and computer gear talk to each other, for control, synchronization, etc. Because MIDI is multi-channeled, we could control several cameras at once, from one laptop or keyboard. We could also record our actions and play them back later.

Since the Shadow/Chemist show, i have tuned and refined the midicamera setup. Also, i’ve taken the MIDI control concept further. I built a full size pan tilt camera head that can swing around a good sized camcorder. I’ve been attempting MIDI control of it, but it still need some work. But in theory, since it’s already controlled by a microcontroller, i can take the midi signal and covert into commands this camera head would understand. MIDI is basically a serial data stream, with some unique formatting.

To make a big impact with video, i built a 12′ camera crane, or ‘Jib’ as it’s commonly called. A pan tilt head would go on the end of this to point the camera as its being swung around. I thought it would be fun to automate the Jib as well, and to be able to control it with MIDI would allow me to do all kinds of cool things such as recording a complex camera move and playing it back, or simply remote control of the large crane while i’m in a different location, mixing the video stream.

Obviously these rigs are bigger than little servos could push around, so i bought bits and pieces of tech from different vendors who do all different kinds of motion control. I got stepper motors and drivers from – where they are used to run home built CNC routers. And the main control board was sourced from Makerbot Industries – one of their 3D printer motherboards. From there i wrote a simple application to take MIDI commands from my computer, or MIDI controller, and convert them to commands the control board would understand, which in turn drives the stepper motors.

The rest of the materials were simply off-the-shelf from local hardware stores, or parts i had collected from various salvage yards. the rigs are mostly made from aluminum cue to it’s stiffness but light weight. This makes the rigs easy for one or two people to deal with, so you can setup the equipment yourself then operate it – all without the need for a large crew.

In addition to these movie-centric camera rigs, i’ve also built a custom rig that slowly moves a DSLR camera up and down. This was built to record time lapse footage but to integrate what looks like a realtime camera move when the footage is played back at a fast rate.

The point behind all these camera rigs is to get interesting video footage operated by few people. Perhaps with more and better gear like this, some of the enormous cost and headache of producing video and film can be made more accessible to all kinds of creative people!