Motion Control & Time Lapse Equipment Review

Motion Control and Time-Lapse Round Up

At izmostudio, we produce high resolution stop frame animations to create automotive media. Most of the time, we move the subject in front of a locked down camera to make the final animations. Now that time-lapse is such a fast growing market, I thought it would be cool to do a blog on new equipment that is making production easier, more creative, and affordable.

Up until recently, fully motion controlled camera rigs, which give the photographer the ability to control three or more axis of movement, have been very expensive. Even big automotive budgets only afforded rental of fully motion controlled equipment. Whilethe Milo is still the king of  MoCo  for the studio, and probably always will be, there are other viable options now available.

Thanks to all the new DSLR’s shipping with HD video capability and the increased interest in time-lapse photography, there are now several innovative and affordable options for motion control. Depending on the needs of the project, this equipment round up looks at the equipment options available for both quick smooth video pans and long programmable stepped motion for time-lapse sequences.

We will start out with the lower cost options and move towards the higher price tags. While one can certainly achieve the same visual effects with the lower cost, and do it yourself (DIY) options, it’s worth understanding, from my perspective anyway, the less money spent on the equipment, the more complex the setup time. Consider every axis of movement adds some complexity to the setup, so its worth thinking about that and planning all this before light, people, weather, start moving and your exposure is drifting while your batteries are running low. Aggghh!

FIXED POSITION – Intervalometer
The easiest and most obvious way to record a time lapse movie is to lock your camera down on a good heavy tripod. Take a sequence of pictures over a period of time and, wow, you have a movie recording of scene motion. What you need to accomplish this is an intervalometer. This is a cable release that communicates to the camera your instructions for exposure, how long to wait between exposures (interval), and how many exposures total. iPhone time lapse calculator
There is much to think about with this first step, so make it easy, and try this free iPhone application by Dan Thompson.
Depending on the scene brightness range or your creative intent, it is also common to bracket at each step for High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) time-lapse. An intervalometer I like to use is the Promote Control, because it is so simple and quick to setup. Some cameras have time-lapse exposure control built in, and most offer one as an accessory. Of course if you are not moving around much, a laptop with camera control software works great too. Here are intrevelometers at each end of the budget spectrum:

  • Promote Control
  • Digisnap 2000
  • DIY

DOLLY & SLIDER
Once you get a few nice fixed position movies accomplished, it’s time to add a new layer of calculation to your planning and pizazz to your movies. The goal of dolly’s and sliders is to achieve linear axis motion during your captures. Think of a 3D space and the movement like this:

X = left/right, or lateral
Y = up/down, or vertical
z = push/pull, or in and out

Depending on how the dolly is supported and the orientation of your camera, all three of these can be achieved easily. The catch is achieving the slow incremental movement and programming how much movement over a specified period of time. There are many DIY dolly sliders being made today. No doubt many more than I’ve found, so if you know of one you want to share please post a link here.

One more thing to know before the equipment round up. Motors. There are three common types:

  • DC motors
  • Stepper motors
  • Servo motors

The motor choice is a balance of cost, speed, repeatability and what you require.

Under $1000
At the heart of most DIY dolly rigs, is the Arduino controller, and the best resource I know of is the OpenMoCo forum, where you will find a great community of time-lapser’s and innovative dolly builds.

$1000
If you are like me, and just want to get to making great images, then here we go. Next step up is the Jay Burlage’s (aka MiLapse) Dynamic Perception Timelapse Dolly and the MX2 Dolly Engine, which is based on the OpenMoCo mentioned above. You can definitely burst out the creativity and experiment with this lower cost entry at around $900 dollars, which also includes the intervalometer to control the camera.

Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly

Dynamic Perception MX2 Dolly

One nice aspect of this dolly is that the rail is standard #1030 aluminum, so you can make any size you want. What you should know about this dolly is that it’s made with DC motors, so demanding uses like composite, video, and special effects are limited.

$2000
For the mid-range budget, there is Ditogear’s Omnislider. This is super clean slider with a joystick for controlling movement, dampening to ramp up to speed, and record/playback of motion. To me, a system that records the motion is a key component, because it is one less calculation you have to make. For example, if you’re doing a night to day pan and you miss calculate the lateral distance too short, your move could stop before the sun rises, or even worse during.

Ditogear OmniSlider Dolly

DitoGear Motion controled dolly slider

Then you have to start over some other day. It’s a big time investment. So having the a system that records a distance from point A to point B, and then plays back over a specified time, is super nice to have. DitoGear Omnislider

As a bonus for outdoor users, their controller has some nice weather proofing features. Ditogear is also addressing common problems like lens condensation with their new DryEye Lite system, which prevents dew and condensation buildup on the lens in humid, long term, and changing temperatures. Nice!

$3000
The Kessler CineSlider with the Oracle Controller and elektra drive is an amazing price point for the build quality and amount of control. The CineSlider comes in a couple different lengths, and for the $3000 I priced it, with the five foot slider. Might as well, right? Cars are big and reflective so we need lots of movement.

There are also lower cost dolly’s like the Pocket Dolly, which not only costs less, and it works with the same motors and Oracle Controller. The thing to note about Kessler systems is the motors come in different speeds and average about $200 each. So whether you are doing a time lapse or video, you will have to plan this into the budget. On the plus side though, all the sliders have a hand crank and tension control for nice smooth manual slides.

Kessler CineSlider and Oracle Controler

Kessler CineSlider & Oracle Controler

The real pièce de résistance here is the Oracle Controller. It’s super easy to use, very precise, and has what Kessler calls, SmartLapse, for recording moves in real time and time-lapse playback. While it’s not based on open source, it does sport CAT5 / CAT6 cable with RJ45 connectors and standard 12v battery power. So, if your outdoors or a traveler, this is really nice common connectivity.

Have a look at this equipment with Tom Guilmette. You can see some excellent tutorials and the Kessler setup here: http://vimeo.com/12070782

$8000
Being kind of a gadget geek, I drool when I see the Camblock Motion Control. This rig is also a great topic transition into the next topic of pan/tilt heads,

camblock motion control system

camBLOCK multi-axis motion control

because with the Camblock motion control system, you get full multi axis motion control from a PocketPC and every thing fits in one case. Yes, it’s the most portable, configurable (think tinker-toys), and functional. CamBlock and the Camblock Vimeo group.

PAN TILT HEADS
The next layer of motion to add is what is known as panning and tilting the head. This gives you motion control output of two more axes of movement, and of course, more planning. Both the Dynamic Perception and Ditogear dolly/slider time-lapser’s have been creative, and use astronomy star tracking heads.

$200
The MX2 controller will work with these low cost motorized telescope heads, where the MX2 takes over for the hand controller by connecting with a special cable.

photo of acuter merlin mount

Acuter Merlin Star Tracking Mount

* Acuter Merlin
* Merlin SynScan AZ GoTo
* Orion Teletrack
* Skywatcher Multifunction
* Celestron Skywatcher

The DitoGear OmniSlider seems to work well with the Mead DS2000 series#494 and #497 heads. I haven’t seen this in action and I’ve been told Mead locked out any ability to place custom firmware on their controller in 2010. If you plan on going this route, check in with Patryk Kizny at DitoGear, as he has done some really nice movies with the Mead head, like on the Chaple video.

$2000

kessler crane revolution pan/tilt head

Kessler Revolution Pan/Tilt Motion Control Head

Kessler’s Revolution Pan and tilt system is once again really nice build quality and quite affordable considering. Controlled by the same joystick mentioned previously, Oracle Controller, this would be a good buy if you are considering a rig that will do both video and time-lapse. At the time of this post the controller will only record either a linear dolly move or the pan/tilt. There is a Smartlapse controller upgrade coming in a few weeks that will record two axes of simultaneous movement. So, the only way to have a three axis Kessler rig is to buy two Oracle Controllers. Added to the cost o the Cineslider, this would make the total cost so close to that of the CamBlock, that its a better option for a portable three axis motion control rig.

SUMMARY
Compared to just a few years ago, motion control is expanding really fast. As you can see from this post, there are many affordable points to jump in for exploring your creative motion genius. Stay tuned to izmostudio as we develop new creative visuals for automotive media. And for some amazing visual inspiration, and MoCo networking, jump over to Tom Lowe’s Timscapes.org

Steven Poe

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