In 2012, Mark Roberts Motion Control (MRMC) launched Bolt, a new breed of motion-control rig that was faster and smaller than ever, and introduced a new generation to the creative possibilities of motion control. Now, nine years later, it is doing the same thing again with the Bolt Model Mover, its smallest motion control rig to date, and with a new entry level price point that widens the technology out to a whole new tier of companies and production houses.
In doing so it is completing a journey started over five decades ago, when the young Mark Roberts started servicing the animation stands that were widely used in the industry at the time for everything from newsroom graphics to producing movie credits. Along the way, motion control has come out of the shadows, journeyed from being the province of bespoke machines to (comparative) mass production, become digitized, computerized, and is now capable of speeds and movement that the early pioneers could only have fantasized about.
A brief history of motion control
Motion control started very much as a backroom technology. Developed concurrently by individual post houses, its existence was rarely alluded to as the companies involved fought to keep their technologies proprietary and largely secret. No one wanted the competition to know how they had achieved certain shots, and, though it was used in a limited manner on 2001: A Space Odyssey, it wasn’t until Star Wars: Episode IV in 1977 that motion control was widely acknowledged and became a must-have technology for the industry.
MRMC started developing its first digital rigs that featured more axes than animation stands in the early 1980s and released the Cyclops early the next decade. Up until then, all rigs were essentially bespoke and designed to individual client specifications. That kept them expensive, but Cyclops was the first rig to be designed to be reproducible, allowing the nascent industry to begin to scale and take off.
The Milo, released in 1994, took this to the next level. The first one was bought by Israeli virtual production start-up RT-Set (which later went on to become an integral part of Vizrt), as it needed a bulletproof and reliable way to measure precisely what a camera was doing in the virtual world. A robotic arm that was designed from the ground-up to facilitate repeated motion was the best way of doing that.
Many more Milos followed, with the company making over 50 of them over the next two decades. The machines remained large, however — the Milo weighs around 700kg and moves at two meters per second — so as the technology advanced, MRMC began looking at making a smaller, lighter and crucially much-faster rig. These were designed very much with the new generation of high-speed cameras in mind. These had evolved from cumbersome units weighing tens of kilos and the size of small fridges to much smaller, lighter units weighing only a couple of kilos and requiring a rig that matched their film speed and capabilities.
Enter the Bolt
The Bolt was launched in 2012 and, though it can and is used for everything, it was primarily designed for use with the high-speed cameras such as the Phantom that were becoming readily available at the time. If you’re shooting at high speed then you need a high-speed rig, and with Bolt the camera arm can reach five meters per second for simple moves and the whole unit can move at five meters per second on its track. That gives you a combined potential 10 meters per second, or 36kph.
Using new motors, the Bolt can get up to this speed and decelerate again almost instantaneously (the Milo takes three to four meters to reach top speed and the same again to stop — which can mean you need a whole studio just to catch a moving shot of an exploding beer can, for example). And while the Bolt weighs almost the same as the Milo, it has a much slimmer form factor, making it considerably easier to accommodate on-set.
Cost-effective motion control
The Bolt effectively democratized motion control. From secretive backroom technology to marketing USP, companies now advertise the use and availability of MRMC rigs as they are a byword for quality. Users know that it’s not just about speed and speed alone, it’s about the precision replication of that movement time and time again, it’s about the software integration, the special filming modification to the arms, the safety additions, the accessories, the service, the support, and lastly, it’s about the reputation. Perhaps that’s why, just in New York, for example, there are 20 Bolt units currently in operation.
The new entry-level Bolt Model Mover starts from $67K, the Bolt Junior from $123K, and they have a tendency to pay for themselves very quickly. While often offered as part of a full-service deal, their individual rental costs are currently in the region $4K per day, providing rental houses with a speedy ROI, while for productions, their ability to repeat and repeat movement precisely works to shorten expensive time on-set. Motion control shots tend to be accomplished in less takes.
And as well as becoming cheaper to buy — manufacturing efficiencies continue to drive down costs, and finance deals are also available as MRMC plays its part in bringing the industry back online after the pandemic. The units are becoming easier to use too. Most of this is down to software development, with a new Tracker app for iOS promising to deliver ‘director’s eye’ control and being able to replicate the movement as seen through an iPhone camera. Proprietary solutions for even easier live, realtime control of a rig are in the works.
The hardware continues to evolve as well, with a new revision of the Milo pan/tilt/roll head on the way, as the MRMC team of mechanical, electronic and software engineers are constantly working to bring new advances to the motion control technology stack.
All of which makes motion control very much a technology of today. Even in an era of increasing digital effects, the need to precisely control cameras is an ongoing one, and the different uses to which that can be put are why there are so many different rigs today. From the Bolt Model Mover all the way up to the massive Titan X, there is a motion-control rig to suit your needs.
It is interesting to note how those needs are changing too. The ability of the Bolt rigs to shoot in a COVID-safe manner, even being controlled from another room, has proved to be highly popular. And there is an interesting uptick in their use for virtual production again too, echoing the use the original Milo was put to around three decades ago, as motion control’s repeatability of camera moves is once more in demand in virtual environments created by the Unreal Engine.
And how one of the most impressive pieces of physical engineering you will ever see on a set or in a studio is a key component in bringing state-of-the-art photorealistic virtual worlds to life is a nice irony. One that you feel the pioneers of motion control might appreciate.
Assaff Rawner is the CEO of Mark Roberts Motion Control (www.mrmoco.com) in Surrey, UK.