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From the Spring 1984 issue of Graffitti

Equipment Reviews:
Low Budget Motion Control

by Philip Denslow

Some of the many recent high-tech terms used in animation, such as slit scan, streaking, multipass and gomotion, may sound like arcade games you'd find at your local bowling alley. but actually you've probably experienced them in movies like 2001, Superman, Star Wars, Dragonslayer, as well as various TV commercials. Motion control is the phrase used to describe these techniques as a group; it usually means animation and special effects created with equipment controlled by a computer. The computer allows a degree of precision, repeatability and convenience not normally available. (Some will claim that most of these images could be shot on normal, human-controlled animation equipment; they are probably right, though the human operator would be eligible for a sanitarium afterwards and I wouldn't want to be the one asking for a reshoot.)

Although motion control has been around for a while, only recently has the technology become available in a price range that seems reasonable to those not willing to work for the bank for a few years. Previously, a fully-featured computerized animation camera stand could cost as much as $200,000.

Motion control can now be yours for under $20,000. This price can be thought of as 260 hours of shooting time at a camera typically charging $75 an hour (and up) for this type of work. If the camera service shoots 10 seconds of film per hour, this would produce about 40 minutes of film. These techniques require a lot of testing and reshooting, so the final product may only be 20 minutes. Thus owning your own equipment could pay for itself in a relatively short time. The ability to more freely experi ment would be an added benefit.

This comparatively low-priced equipment can provide an entry i nto the highly competitive and lucrative TV commercial field, allow low-budget filmmakers to try new and unusual techniques, enable a camera to be more productive, or save money for any production company wanting to get into this area.

Two low-cost systems currently available are The Cameraman and Cinetron 312. Each system comprises three separate elements: the computer, the additional electronics to control the motors connected to an animation stand and computer programs (software) the user manipulates to achieve the desired effects. Both use brand name personal computers to control the axes, or paths, of motion, such as east/west, north/ south, zoom or truck, focus, rotation and pan.

The Cameraman has six axes of motion (enough for most applications) and uses a Radio Shack computer. The Cinetron 312 comes with 3, 6 or more axes of motion and uses either an IBM, Apple or Hewlett-Packard computer. The Cinetron 312, with computer, 6 axes and software, costs about $20,000. The Cameraman, with computer, 6 axes and software, costs about $12,000. Installation of either system onto your animation stand costs extra.

The software for The Cameraman is more comprehensive and has such features as streak mode and curve fitting; also, the electronics used are extremely simple in design (fewer maintenance problems). Professionals may feel more secure with the Cinetron system because of the company's long history of making large and expensive motion control equipment.

Another approach to low-budget motion control animation is to buy a personal computer and make the rest yourself. This requires expert knowledge in the areas of electrical engineering, computer programming, mechanical design and animation/special effects. If you don't have all this, maybe you have friends who do. (Or, you can view the project as an education; at the UCLA Animation Workshop, we are building our own motion control animation stand.)

Most of the visual wonders created with motion control may eventually be duplicated with images formed directly from information within a computer. Right now, motion control is cheaper but it won't last forever. However, with the appearance of lower priced motion control devices, there is the increased possibility of experimental filmmakers coming up with as yet unimagined visual treats that will keep this technology at the front of animation innovation for many years to come.

The Cameraman is available from: West End Film, Inc., 2141 Newport Place, N.W., Washington, DC 20037 (202) 223-2938. The Cinetron from: Cinetron Computer Systems, Inc., 6700 1-85 North, Norcross, GA 30093 (404) 448-9463.

Graffiti: published by ASIFA Hollywood. For more about ASIFA activities call (818) 842-8330.