All posts by Biolapse

Lots of things going on! Welcome!

Hello Everyone!

I hope you are doing well! Things are going pretty good on my end. Lots of exciting things going on. I had recently released some footage of some plants I shot, and the videos really sort of took off. Not so much on Instagram, but on Facebook surprisingly. Between all 6, I have about 120k views, most of them on just 3 of the videos.  The Biolapse Facebook page only had about 450 followers, and in the last week that number had tripled. I am pretty excited about all of this. I have quite a few new follows and wanted to take a moment and…..

Please allow me to introduce myself.

I seldom talk about my personal life or about myself on here, but I wanted to take a brake and do just that. My name is Chris Field and I live in Littleton Colorado. I have been into photography for about 8 years, and building motion control systems for timelapse photography for about 5 years. My friend Kyle and I started The Chronos Project and have sold Motion Control systems for time lapse photography all over the world. We even ran a successful Kickstarter for a focus control system, and eventually we both got burnt out on building and selling. This was a side project for each of us and we got spread so thin on selling, building, and such that we could not keep up on R&D. The competition marched on and we just sat back and let it go. It was fun, but I have a full-time career in telecommunications that I enjoy and pays well. I am a single father, Kyle has a family and a full time job. It just got to be too much, it was fun, but had to end. It was a welcome break. One day back in 2013 or I set up one of my Chronos rails in my basement and aimed the camera at a flower and filmed it. I was immediately hooked and knew that was the direction I wanted to take my work. Fast forward to now, and I have managed to take this to a pretty ridiculous level.  My goal is to be able to film plants at the same level as you see on Planet Earth. I am not there yet, but I am getting closer and closer. I have found this to be my ultimate hobby. There are no “off the shelf” systems that allow for long term studio timelapse. I have had to build most of my own tools. Lighting coordinators, environmental controls,  motion control systems, etc. I build my own sets, grow my own plants, I do all of this as a one man show. This means I get to wear many hats. Electrical and mechanical engineering, computer coding, set design, environmental control, photography, cinematography, timelapse photography, system maintenance, botany, etc.  There are a handful of people in the world that do this sort of work, and that means I get to show people things they have never seen before and film things that have never been filmed.  I hope one day I can do this as a career, but in the meantime it seems to keep me out of trouble and out of money.

 

I am extremely transparent about this sort of work, and If anybody else is interested in doing this sort of thing I am always happy to give tips and advice to save people a lot of the headaches and frustrations I already had to work through. At the moment I have multiple “Live Sets” that I have been growing the last few months and I am ramping up to start filming them. While those were growing I spent lots of time learning how to create lifelike environments for the plants, and this next project will take my work to an entirely new level.  I will share some bits here and there but this blog is primarily used for BTS stuff.

 

This post has ended up a bit long, so I will be adding some TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) summaries.
TL:DR – Welcome to my crazy hobby, I build robots and film plants. This will be a long post, and sometimes it gets a bit techie. Natalie Portman thinks I am totally hot.

 

In Today’s Episode, …..

Studio heat issues

Otto Woes

Lil Wayne Evolution

Project 3

Possible new robot

 

Studio Environment. (non-techie)

 

My studio generally heats up to about 85 degrees during the day. I am actually surprised it is not warmer than it is. Heat is generated not only by the 6 LED grow lights, but also by Otto’s motors, Motor drivers, and the computer that runs it. This is all in a fairly small room that is about 11x11ft.  85 may not seem a lot, but it I stressing some of the carnivorous plants so I have been looking at ways to get it down.

I has installed a 8 inch round duct that I ran which exhausts air outside using a pretty powerful fan. The duct goes from the closet in the studio through the ceiling, then the laundry room and connects to a exhaust outlet on the side of my house. The intended purpose of it was to provide some fresh air exchange as there are no working vents that run into that room. I generally have the vent fan (which is fairly powerful) to kick on for about half an hour and suck all the air out of that room and blow it outside late at night.  New air gets pulled in from the family room in the basement. The air quality is certainly better with this. I have tried setting this to kick on 15 minutes every half hour to help exhaust some of the heat out of the room, but all it seems to do is suck all the humidity out of the room instead.

I have a friend who loaned me a portable AC unit. It is a 12,000 BTU model with an exhaust outlet. I connected the exhaust outlet to the vent I had run to blow hot air out of the room while the AC sends cool air into the room. So far that has not had much of an effect. The room still sits around 80 degrees during the day. I am going to try to wrap some insulation around the exhaust ducting as it gets very hot and I think it is radiating heat back into the room and sort of cancelling itself out. Hopefully that will work.

I had also lowered the power output to all of Otto’s motors. Cutting the power in half has reduced the temp of the motors by about 50%. Yet the room remains warm. I think the grow lights are the main culprit to the heat. If they were not LED the room would probably be cranking up to the high 90’s.  Once I was done installing the AC and lowering the power to Otto’s motors, I started setting up a new timelapse capture and realized I had somehow busted Otto.

 

TL:DR = My studio is getting warm and might be harming the plants. I installed an AC unit and lowered the power output to my big robot Otto in efforts to try to cool the room with mixed success. I have a fine beard.

 

 

ROBOTS

I love me some robots! But those robots are a total and complete pain in the ass sometimes.

 

Otto Woes
(Extra dose of techie. Otto is my big robot, named after “Auto(pilot)” on Wall-E)

 

So after all that work on trying to actively cool the studio, Otto was a complete mess. There was this sort of a ticking sound when the motors would run, and the X axis was totally jacked. It moved very erratically. I spent about 2 hours trying to find the issue. Re-adjusting the dipswitches to adjust the power levels did not help. I swapped the command lines to the Pan and X axis to see whether or not the issue transferred to the Pan axis. That did not help, so the issue had to be further upstream. I replaced the cable between the DMC-16 and the stepper driver box, no good. I was getting pretty frustrated and figured I probably jacked up the X axis driver. Before swapping that driver out, I tried resetting the DMC-16. Boom. Fixed. Everything wan smooth as silk, I tested all motors and everything was good except the Pan axis.

 

If it is not one thing it is another. So I went through the troubleshooting process. Generally troubleshooting things is not that hard, but it is time consuming. It all boils down to the fundamental concept in electronics of the “Known open” and “known short”. I have found this concept works not only in electronics, but in troubleshooting telecommunications, data networks, and even bug hunting in code. After another 30 min fussing with the Pan axis I swapped the output from the DMC-16 (this is the stepper signal generator) from the 4th channel (the pan axis) to channel 10 which was a spare driver already installed. I then moved the plug from the motor from the 4th channel to the 10th. Basically, I just swapped everything to the spare driver and everything is working again.

 

The motor driver box I built which I call the MPS houses 10 Stepper drivers. Just a bit of a clarification, Stepper motors do not spin, they position. You tell it how far to move, where as DC motors spin as long as they have power. In order to control a stepper motor you have to have what is called a “Driver”. This driver accepts step and direction commands via pulses from the signal generator (The DMC-16 in this case) and will create various voltage patterns on its output. These cause the stepper motor to move clockwise, or counterclockwise, and how far you want. This gives steppers an advantage over DC motors as you can get them to move exactly where you want when you want giving you extremely high precision moves.  I have 2 types of drivers. The CWD556’s which are fairly powerful and allow me to get some pretty fast speeds. Then there are the Leadshine DM432c’s which are less powerful but they run oh so quiet and oh so smooth.  I had hoped when building Otto that I could get this rig moving at live video speeds, however the design of the Z axis (the elevator that raises and lowers the camera) causes some wobble which makes video work near impossible. I have 6 spare Leadshine drivers, so maybe this weekend I will replace the CWD556 with a spare Leadshine and call it a day.

 

I have also been encountering issues where the Canon 6D does not take an image when it is told. Luckily right now I am shooting and extremely slow growing Nepenthes (pitcher plant). The intervals are 30 min between frames, and if it misses a shot that stretches to an hour between the prior frame and the next one.  This will not be visible on the end result, but it is something I need to take care of.  Every time I do a camera test in Dragonframe it passes with flying colors. The camera is not dropping connection, so I am a little bit confused by this behavior. I did send some logs to the guys at Dragonframe (they are probably tired of hearing from me, but have been pretty responsive) to see if they can extrapolate anything from that data. I did read that using a non-powered USB 3.0 hub can cause problems, but considering the camera is not dropping connection, I don’t know if that is the issue. I did go ahead and order a pretty solid powered USB 3.0 hub from Anker which looks pretty solid to rule that our as a culprit.

 

The Canon 6D is also acting a bit squirrely. It just shuts off from time to time, which is obviously a problem as I may not catch it for half a day. When I first got the 6D, I had an aftermarket ac power supply which I had suspected was the issue. About 4 months ago I splurged on the overpriced Canon version it did seem to clear about 80% of this issue, but to this day once in a while I will check on it and find that it had shut down again. It may run for a few weeks without issue, or may shut off pretty quick. I am in the habit of occasionally turning it off and back on but that does not seem to really help a whole lot.  The power adapter comes in 3 parts. The plug to the wall, the AC-DC converter, and then a mock battery with a cable that plugs into the converter. The only part I replaced was the AC/DC converter unit. Due to the 90 degree L shape of the plug, I could not route the mock batteries cable through the channels in Otto. So to get around this problem I cut the cable near the battery pack and installed a connector enabling me to route the cable through the pan tilt frame on Otto. That MIGHT be where the issue is, so I got the canon brand Mock battery and cable which are intact and replaced the modified 3rd party battery. I am testing that out, if it stays on for a month solid, I’ll know this is the fix. However that leaves a cable hanging rather than nicely tucked in. Function over appearance, but having a long history in running cable, fiber, and routing cables in switch rooms I am somewhat picky about how it appears.

 

The fact is these systems are pretty complex and while it runs 99% of time the without issues, it can be pretty tough to root out some of these bugs, Vs, buying a turn-key setup for this sort of work which does not exist. (yet. More on that later)

 

TL:DR = The work being done to decrease the power to Otto’s motors caused problems with Otto. Fixing that issue caused a new issue, that is fixed. Still working through issues where the Canon 6D shuts off randomly. I think Otto has developed resentment towards Lil Wayne.

 

 

Lil’ Wayne
(Very Techie, this is my Smaller 4 axis robot, just recently reworked and kicking ass, just like the rapper Lil’Wayne)

 

So my smaller robot which I have dubbed “Lil Wayne” has made quite some progress as well.  This system runs a bit different than Otto.  The heart of this system is the highly capable eMotimo TB3 pan tilt system. The TB3 had never failed to impress me with its functionality and ease of use. However in the studio, the simple 3 point keyframing system just does not cut the mustard. When working up close with small plants the area that is in focus (this is called the Depth of Field, aka DOF) is usually very slim. Any motion where the camera adjusts location requires a tweak to the focus. The closer it is to the plant, the more it needs to be tweaked. In order to keep the focus on target, I rely on Keyframes.

 

Keyframes are basically just camera position and focus position targets. The first keyframe is where the camera starts out in its beginning position. I will then move the camera to the next location and mark keyframes so the system knows where the camera is supposed to be positioned, then move the camera again, lock it in, and again. The Dragonframe software remembers these positions and does the mathematics to make all of these targets into one smooth motion. Lenses seldom have linear focusing, meaning when you are focused up close and move ¼ of a turn, the focus does not shift the same as a mid distance focus target.  So if I have the camera positioned close to the object and lock in the keyframes for the pan, tilt, slide, and focus, then move it away from the target, and lock in those keyframes and run the routine, the object will start in focus and quickly drift out of focus, and then achieve focus again as the camera comes to its final position. To overcome this I normally have to add at least 7-8 keyframes on the focus to ensure it stays locked in the whole time. The TB3 does have the ability to control the Pan, Tilt and one extra motor, be it a linear slide or a focus motor or whatnot. The problem is the 3rd axis only allows for the beginning and ending keyframe. Therefore the stock firmware on the eMotimo TB3 can’t meet my needs. Luckily it does have the ability to integrate with Dragonframe, where it tethered to the computer via USB and I can put as many keyframes on there as I want.

 

As long as the eMotimo stays connected. Which was becoming a huge problem, as it would generally drop after about a day of shooting. I had tried everything. I replaced the USB with an active extension just in case my cable was too long and the signal was weak. No good. I adjusted the USB ports on the computer to ensure they were not going into power saving mode. Still it would drop. I tried all sorts of things to no avail. I tried loading the Dragonframe DFmoco software directly on the TB3 however eMotimo did not use the correct pinouts for the 3 motor drivers built into its custom PCB. I spend about an hour working on the code and was able to change the pins for the step commands, but not the direction. I am decent with coding things, but not that good at reverse engineering it. The answer finally came from Doug Urquhart  who had these same issues and was kind enough to forward a copy of the code where the pins were correct.  Once that was uploaded, the dropping issue disappeared, and it remained rock solid.

 

Just as a fun project I had designed a custom PCB that would replace the one within the eMotimo TB3, expanding its ability from driving 3 motors to driving 6. The prototype boards finally arrived and worked flawlessly! This also means the system is 100% dependent on Dragonframe, as the stock eMotimo firmware is no longer present. A part of me is a bit sad about that, as the eMotimo firmware has worked so well in the past as long as it was not required to be tethered to Dragonframe for more than a day at a time. But, on the other hand, now that new PCB controls the pan, tilt, linear, and focus without requiring a spare channel off the MPS which is the stepper driver box for Otto. It even provides 2 spare channels in case I want to run a rotary table or use another motor for effect like moving a light to get shadow tracking on my timelapse.

 

TL:DR = Lil’ Wayne was dropping connection to Dragonframe, in the end I gutted the electronics and replaced it with stuff of my own design, and it works flawlessly and now controls 6 motors instead of 3. My middle toe is longer than my big toe.

 

So now I have 2 fairly reliable motion control systems to film plants. But is that ever enough?

 

Project 3 (Mild Techie)

 

I have to constantly be building and engineering things. I just enjoy it too much. So I decided to take the challenge on designing and building a very tight budget 4 axis system to interface with Dragonframe. This would have all the same functionality as Lil’ Wayne, and the goal is to see how cheap it can be done. Otto ran me north of 18k to build. But that is a full out robot with pan, tilt, roll, x, y, x, focus, and 3d stereoscopic capabilities.  Pricing out Lil’ Wayne, the eMotimo, Chronos Micro rail, and Lens apparatus that would run about 2-3 grand to put together. I wanted to see if I could construct a system that offers the same ability for far less.

 

Enter Project 3.  I already had designed and tested the 6 axis PCB that interfaces with Dragonframe. That was designed to fit inside an eMotimo, but there is no reason it cannot work on another robot. So that part is covered, all I needed was the hardware to build a Pan/Tilt/Linear/Focus rig. My target budget for the whole Moco system is $500 or less, and I think I have it worked out, and will come in well under that budget. This is a flyweight system, meaning no heavy DSLR but I prefer to use smaller mirrorless cameras.  My goal is about 15 inches of linear motion (longer slide rails just get in the way for this work, and generally a distance of 15 inches is more than enough), accurate pan / tilt, and something that has never been done before, a universal lens mounted focus puller.  You probably see I talk about focus a lot, and that is because it is the most critical function for the type of work I do. There are other lens motors out there, but they all attach by those stupid 15mm rod systems. The problem with is normally the fact the lens motor connects to the rod, which connects to a platform that holds the rods. The camera attaches to the platform, and the lens attaches to the camera. Every time I have dealt with this setup, if you shift directions on the focus the lens tugs and moves. Kyle and I made hundreds of Lens Apparatus’s and we never see them used, and I believe it is because of the lens tug. There are some ways around this issue, but to me the best way to tackle this is to attach the lens motor direct to the lens, eliminating any and all potential lens tug. This is how I achieve so many focus pulls that are as buttery smooth. Many of my videos might have 8-12 keyframes on the focus, but when you watch the resulting footage, the lens work is virtually non-existent, rather, the subject stays in perfect focus the entire time.  Right now I have a pair of Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 Macro lenses, and custom designed focus control mounts on each one (The orange thing you see on the lenses on my motion control systems).  The problem is these mounts ONLY fit those lenses. For the last year I have kept trying to come up with designs for a focus puller that is super lightweight, accurate, and that can mount to any lens directly. My latest design turns out to be incredibly simple with just 4 inexpensive off-the-shelf parts, and I am very optimistic.
If Project 3 pans out, I might be willing to build them for someone using Dragonframe that would be interested in a 4 axis rig. All you would need to do is attach it to a tripod, add the camera, run USB from the on-board controller to a Laptop running Dragonframe and voila, instant motion control for animation or timelapse photography with 2 extra channels that could be used for various effects, and they would be very inexpensive. That is of course, if it works. They would probably not be a good fit for field work as they would be powered off AC and require a computer to control.

 

TL:DR = I am designing a new very low cost robot with Pan/Tilt/Linear/Focus control that can be controlled via computer running Dragonframe software. Dang yer lazy. 

 

A new Robot to play with? (Non Techie)

 

Another exciting bit of news! I might be adding yet another new robot to my arsenal. I was approached by a brand (not telling who just yet, but they have a very solid name) who was wondering if I would be interested in testing out a loaner system for my next project. It’s not 100% yet, but I think there Is a decent chance I will get to showcase their gear 😊 I would be very excited to try this out as it is a complete enclosed ecosystem, hardware software, everything, not a piecemeal setup as I am used to working with.

 

Flowers 4K

Be sure to use full screen mode, this should be available to view in 4k.

If you are a Vimeo hater, i have you covered on Youtube as well. Same Video.

This is sort of a rag-tag collection of footage I racked over the past 6 months. I have been shooting plants for years now, and this last year I had the opportunity to build a pretty awesome motion control system powered by Dragonframe. I call it Otto. Of course there was a bit of a learning curve, and also quite a bit of effort debugging and re-working it to get the output that I wanted. During this time I have been focusing on filming flowers as they generally flower in 1-3 days so If something went wrong its not a huge deal and I don’t lose weeks of footage. I am finally ready to start another project that will require much longer filming durations, and I figured it would be worthwhile putting together a short showcase film of the flowers I had filmed. I also threw a little “Behind the scenes” in there too.
I normally try to keep 5 cameras shooting. 2 on motion control rigs and 3 static cameras. This introduce a heck of a lot of challenges but I really enjoy doing this work.
The video is probably a bit raw. Video editing is not my strong suit for sure.

Artist or Engineer?

I love the challenges of shooting time lapse photography. I love building motion control rigs, building sets, working with all the equipment, and I love getting and reviewing the footage, but to be honest, I really do not enjoy editing together showcases or reels.  I am sitting on top of a bunch of footage of flowers, and I have put together a short 2 minute film, but it feels awfully generic to me.  I have learned enough about Adobe to cut together videos, add sound effects, transitions, smooth footage, etc, but I am only scratching the surface of what it is capable of doing. I find myself getting frustrated because I just don’t have the know-how when it comes to editing to get the “look” that I am going after, and to be honest most of the time I do not even know what that “Look” is.

Ever since I was a kid I was always drawing stuff. All through my schooling years and beyond.  I always focused on details, trying to make things look real. I was never good enough to create those photo-real pictures, but good enough to get a reputation as an artist while in school. Over the years I have sketched, painted, airbrushed, carved, and sculpted.  There is something about the action of doing these things that always drew me.  For me, the act of creation is more important than the creation itself.  I remember looking at the work from other kids in art class, while mine looked more accurate, I always felt theirs was far more artistic. There was something about my final output that I always felt was lacking, even if from a technical standpoint it might have been considered better.

The fact is I am more of an Engineer than an Artist. There can certainly be an artistic nature about engineering. Building Otto was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done.  I have hundreds of hours into the design and creation of it. I took several weeks off of work and would spend 10-14 hours a day cutting, building, tapping, routing, re-working, etc. I find it very easy to lose myself in that sort of work, my mind just drifts and wanders and I sort of hit a zone. It feels a lot like coding to me.

I enjoy every last bit of the timelapse process, until I start working to put together a short film. I find this entire part to be frustrating and time consuming.  I am not exactly sure how I want it to look, or how to get it there. I am terrible at presentation. I would like to learn more about Adobe, but there is the issue of finding time to learn how to use it properly. I admit, there is a bit of a lack of desire as well.  So now I have to figure out what to do with this footage.  I never had any vision with any of this footage. Most of it was experimental. Trying different ways of creating sets, making notes, seeing what works and what does not. I spend some time working through some Otto/Dragonframe issues while gathering this footage. Flowers are great for shooting while debugging and experimenting because they are minimal on the time commitments. Most flowers bloom within a few days. But with a lack of actual vision in the beginning, what I find is that my footage is a bit of a mess. There is nothing cohesive about it, which makes cutting together a final short film even more difficult. But some of it is pretty good and I would like for it to be seen. I suppose I will just release it and put it out there. Not sure what else to do with it, but I am not excited about it.

I have quite a few strengths when it comes to this sort of work. I’m good at overcoming technical challenges. I’m able to design and create my own tools and systems.  I can follow my vision when it comes to creating the systems, but I find it very difficult to follow my vision when it comes to content. Maybe I need to team up with an artist who sees merit in the Biolapse project and can help with the direction.

I am currently filming some new plants,. Gone are the set pieces, no more mix of live and fake plants for the background. No more flowers. This project is going to focus more on growth and motion. 10-14 days per clip will be about the average capture rather than 3-5.   I still find myself struggling with the idea of storyboards and such. We will see how it goes. Looking at what I have already captured in the last 5 days, I am pretty excited about what I am filming.

On a side note. Big Pacific Episode 3 airs July 5th. I spent nearly a year filming carnivorous plants for this episode. Some of the most difficult carnivorous plants to find, and cultivate.  I have seen several previews of this episode, and it looks almost like it is all under water. Maybe my footage got tossed on the editing room floor. There were some reference shots they were supposed to provide when they were on-location, however My understanding is they never found what they were looking for.  I had reached out to them multiple times after I submitted the footage asking if they had a chance to review it and wanted me to shoot any additional footage but they never replied.  I hope it made it on the documentary.  Either way, it paid very well and that is what funded my build of Otto.

Progress, Frustrations, DF4, eMotimo, stuff.

I am getting bored by flowers.

And I am feeling pretty uninspired at the moment. I have been shooting flowers exclusively for months, and I have some pretty good footage racked up but nothing to do with it. I need to get myself more focused on specific projects. I had been running into issues with Dragonframe and Otto a while back and started filming flowers because they are pretty easy to do. Flowers generally can be shot from bud to full bloom in under a week, and even if it does not go buttery smooth I usually get fairly good footage. I did have an issue with Dragonframe freezing a little while ago. To compound the problem I had the BCM trigger Dragonframe, which triggered the rest of the cameras via splitter.  So when Dragonframe ran into an issue, all the cameras stopped, even the static cameras.

I had rewired the system so the BCM connected to the splitter, and then to Dragonframe (DF4). That way if DF4 froze the other cameras would continue to shoot. After spending some time troubleshooting and working with the guys at Dragonframe, I just removed/re-installed the software completely and the issue cleared up.

Once that was fixed I started running into problems with the eMotimo.

If everything was setup and nothing was shooting the connection would be nice and solid. Once I started shooting, about a day into the shoot I would lose connection between the eMotimo and DF.  Then things started to get a little bit weird. I found I would have to reset the eMotimo, then reconnect to it. Then the next time DF tried to shoot it would announce the motors are not at the starting point. I am not sure why this happens. I suspect when the eMotimo reboots it establishes the current position as the zero mark, so DF assumes it is out of position. If you allow it to reposition it ends up in the wrong spot and you have to reprogram the move.  I found the best practice is to pull the 12v power from the eMotimo, the system is still powered over USB, but at least the motors don’t move as it tries to reposition itself, then you can plug the 12v and resume. Until it loses connection in a day.

I replaced the USB connection between the TB3 and DF4 with an active usb extension, and a day later it lost connection again. I checked all the USB ports on the PC and found the power management was set to off, which I read can cause issues. However, a day later it lost connection again.

Luckily this time the only footage that was wrecked was the stuff being captured by the emotimo. Otto and the 3 static cams continued to capture. I finally powered off the eMotimo rendering it as another static cam until I was done shooting.

I get frustrated with using the eMotimo TB3. Not that the eMotimo is doing anything wrong, it is a very well made device with an excellent software package. I think my expectations are the problem.  I can’t use the eMotimo to be the brain for the motion. It has very limited keyframe engine with only 3 on pan, 3 on tilt, and 2 max on the Aux. That is fine for many purposes, but when doing macro work that DOF (Depth of Field, area that is in focus) is so small that even if I only use 2-3 keyframes on the pan, tilt, or linear movement I still end up with 8-10 keyframes on the focus just to make sure it does not drift between other keyframes.  2 keyframes does not cut it, therefore I have to integrate it with the Dragonframe software on the PC to be able to setup a routine.  Pan, Tilt, and Linear are all run off the drivers in the TB3, while the focus is controlled by a spare driver on the MPS that houses the drivers which Otto runs off of.

The end result works fantastic, if I can keep that damn connection up.

I had started to design a new PCB to replace the one within the eMotimo. This would give me 6 more motor drivers to play with, and it would remove the eMotimo’s software and just interface directly with the Dragonframe Arduino script.

Doug Urquhart ended up being a huge help, he had run into a similar issue in the past. Brian from eMotimo had sent him a modified version of the DFmoco sketch which worked with the pinouts in the eMotimo and could be loaded on, this basically bypassed all the eMotimo software and turned it into a dedicated Dragonframe controller Doug had pretty good results and he was kind enough to send that to me.  I plan to test it this week.

Just a disclaimer, I really do like the eMotimo, and I would recommend it without hesitation for anything other than what I happen to be doing with it. 😉

So enough of the techie geeky stuff, back to the filming.

I am bored of shooting flowers. I did not design Otto to get basic flower shots, I wanted to get some very unique motion captures. I have most of the issues pretty much worked through and I think I am ready to start some more advanced things. Flowers make excellent test subjects because if something goes wrong it is not a huge deal. Ruining a 3 day timelapse on a flower is one thing, ruining 4 weeks on nepenthes sprouting pitchers and having something fail 3 weeks in and missing the end is something else entirely.

I have decided I am ready to start moving back to carnivorous plants. Hopefully the issues with the eMotimo are resolved, I feel pretty good about DF4 and Otto at this point. I need a project other than flowers, and I have something in mind and hope to start shooting this weekend.

Other stuff.

I got some Black 2.0

It is the flattest blackest mattest paint that can be bought. I got some here.

https://culturehustle.com/products/black-v1-0-beta-the-world-s-mattest-flattest-blackest-art-material

 

 

 

 

BOTANICAL TIME LAPSE TIPS. Part 2. Shooting Concerns.

 

Hey Everybody!

So in the last article I went over how to achieve good flicker free footage. But what of the studio?  How should things be setup? What sort of environment is best for the plants?  This can be a bit tricky to go over, so I will break this out into several classifications.

My first recommendation is to get to know a florist. They see flowers 24/7 and can usually give solid recommendations on flowers based on how long it takes from the flower to bloom. They also may have ideas for flowers you might not normally know about, and usually can assist sourcing them.

Ultra Short Term (Less than one day)

This is the easiest way to start into botanical time lapse, and you can get some awesome results with minimal equipment.  Some plants such as Daffodils and many types of Daisies will go from full bud to full bloom in a matter of hours.

Studio Requirements:
Literally anywhere at home or at the studio. If it is a nice sunny day with no clouds you can even use natural lighting near a window.  Cloudy days are a bit more risky if there is a window, I would recommend using a well lit windowless room.

Equipment Requirements.  

  • First you need a camera. In order to prevent flicker, I recommend any DSLR or Mirrorless with a non-native lens, or a Canon DSLR with the twist lock trick for the aperture.
  • You will need an intervalometer if the camera does not have one built in.
  • You will need a plant. I recommend talking to a florist to find something that is expected to bloom within a few hours. Daffodils, Daisies and Lillies are good bets. You can almost watch a daffodil bloom before your very eyes.
  • You will need a fresh and full battery for the camera. Despite the poor CIPA ratings for mirrorless cameras, generally a single battery is still enough as you are not using focus, flash, or any of that other nonsense.
  • You need a decent tripod.

I recommend with ultra fast blooming flowers that you get setup first, THEN go source the flowers. (especially if shooting daffodils they REALLY go fast) That way you can get home and just prop them in front of the camera and let it run. I would recommend intervals of about 2 to 3 minutes on the long end.  Flowers in vases run fairly well for this type of work as many of them when cut will flower pretty quickly.  When you are preparing for this, it may even be worthwhile to pick up the flower in question and take pictures of it with notes throughout the afternoon so you can better predict when it will bloom.

Short Term (1 – 5 days)

You may find yourself getting bored with the Ultra Short and decide to try something a bit longer. Now things will start getting a bit more complicated, and there are more things to concern yourself with.  This will cover a vast majority of flowers, and you may be able to get multiple blooms.

New concerns from Ultra-Short

  1. Power.
    You no longer have the luxury of popping in a battery and letting it run. You will now need to get some long term power setup. This is actually not too difficult, and can be cheap, or expensive depending on the camera.  Some cameras are super easy to power, such as Fuji.  I have a page -HERE- that details how I successfully gutted a cheap aftermarket Fuji battery and inserted a DC/DC power regulator.  This worked like a charm, and I just plugged a 12vdc power supply to the battery and I can keep my Fuji’s running indefinitely, Months at a time have been no concern.  Other cameras may work with this technique as well, others may not.  This should ONLY be performed by somebody that is experience with electronics, and should only be done AT YOUR OWN RISK.
    I have found that Sony and Panasonic have chips in the batteries and do not work very reliably with this method.
    You can buy aftermarket AC Power adapters as well. The cheap Chinese versions are usually about 20% the cost of the name brand versions, and SOMETIMES work just as well. I have used these with Olympus and Nikon and there was never an issue. However the Sony A7 series cameras would only power for a day or so then the camera would assume the battery was low and shut it off. I tried the cheap knockoffs from 2 brands and got the same result. I took the plunge for the $130 ac adapter and it worked like a charm, the A7 cameras can now stay on months without issue.  I ran into a similar issue with the Canon 6D. The good thing about the Sony and Canon brands are that you wont void any warranties. So once again, use the cheap shit at your own risk. I still use my self made Fuji Adapters, but I use OEM units for my Sony and Canon.
  2. Keeping the plant alive.  
    First off, now you need to water the plant. I will use a chemical sprayer and fill it with distilled water, which allows me to squirt water into the pot of the plant without accidentally bumping anything.  Other times i would use a setup where for one reason or another that would not work, so I would run a small tube to the top side of the pot and glue it in place with a funnel at the other end of the tube, and deliver the water in that method.  If the plant is good with wet feet, you can also just sit the pot in a tray of water. However some plants will not react well to this, so always do your research.
    Lighting the plant. If you are only shooting for a week, you can get away with some pretty easy lighting techniques without the need for day/night cycles. I would just use a 75w bulb and keep it on the entire time, or grab some T5 florescent lights. As you get later in the week the plant might start to stress from constant light, but if planned out correctly you should be able to get the footage before it causes any problems.
  3. Light Control.
    Now that your are spanning several days, you need to get an firm grip on any and all light in the studio. No longer can you simply stick it by the window. There are several ways to handle this.
    1) Room with no windows, or Blacked out windows. This is the best way to do it, but not everyone has access to this.
    2) Shoot in a closet or a grow tent.  With the legalization of certain plants throughout the US there has been a boom in grow tents, they are fairly inexpensive, usually well built, they have easy access to run in cables and wires, and have virtually 100% light control. Also a closet would probably work equally as well if you have the room. If using a tent or a closet, you should look into a LED light instead of a bulb or florescent due to the heat those fixtures put off. Not a “grow light” just a regular fill light. Grow lights often use a spectrum ideal to plant growth and terrible for photography.

This will get you most of the flower shots you want.  I will generally run intervals between 6 minutes and 12 minutes for these shoots depending on how many days I plan to capture. Make sure your memory cards are large enough. Check, doublecheck, triplecheck your focus.  If possible, use an HDMI output to a small monitor so you can keep an eye on the results. But do NOT touch the camera. best bet is once it is running, leave it the heck alone. Shoot tethered, use a monitor, or just be careful in setup, but dont touch the damn camera once it starts. Be very careful with watering as well. I recommend an external intervalometer so you can easily see when the next image is taken so you don’t try to water 10 seconds before it shoots.  If you DO bump the camera, dont freak out and shut it all down. Often this can be corrected in post if required.

Intermediate Term (5 Days – 2 weeks)

This is where shit starts to get real. With the carnivorous plants I generally shoot between 10 to  20 days . This is where you start needing to pay a lot of attention to the plants environment, lighting, and the rest. Unfortunately there are no good turn-key solutions to coordinating the lighting, so some effort into devising some relays may be needed if you want to get involved in this. Intermediate Term gives you a lot more flexibility as to what you plan to shoot. Flowers normally bloom fast enough that this sort of thing is not needed, but if you are filming actual plant growth Short Term is often not going to cut it.

Intermediate Requirements

  1. Grow Lights
    First off, you now need grow lights. Using the single incandescent Bulb just wont cut it anymore, it will not generate enough light for the plant, and for this type of work you need a very good environment for the plant to grow. You want LED. Period. Don’t waste any time and money on ML, or HPS, or Florescent. They are useless for this.  I made this bad decision and wasted some good money. None of those lights are made to be turned on/off throughout the day. Within a few days you will kill the ballasts on the ML and HPS, and drastically shorten the life of the Florescent lights. Go for LED grow lights period. They work awesome, can be turned on and off thousands of times a day without issue, don’t need to warm up, output very consistent light, they are inexpensive, efficient, and dont generate much heat. They are perfect for this type of work.
  2. Fill Lights.
    Whats that? Fill lights?…. yep. grow lights put out all the wrong color for photography. You also need Fill lights. As i had gone over in the last blog post all you need are some inexpensive LED panels normally used for video work. Make sure they can be dimmed, and there is no reason to pay over $100 per light. I use a total of 3. One for the foreground, one for the background, and one for the backdrop if needed.
  3. Light Coordination
    Now you are moving into specialized equipment. You have to be able to time 2 lighting routines at the same time. First off, you have to shut off the grow lights and turn on the fill lights before the camera takes an image.  How you accomplish this is up to you. I am unaware of any turn-key system that allows for this, save for one which I will discuss in a moment.  My solution was to build my BCM (Biolapse Control Module) you can read the blog post about it HERE , but in a nutshell this is my lighting and environmental coordinator. The BCM has 4 relay controlled outlets and it controls all the timing in my system. about 10 seconds before it takes an image it turns on the fill lights. 5 seconds before it triggers the camera it shuts off the grow lights.  It then takes an image, waits 5 seconds and turns the grow lights back on and the fill lights off. All of these timers are configurable in the BCM, but those are the settings I use.
    NEXT, you have to have day/night cycles for the plants. You cant just keep the light on them for 10 days an expect them to be ok with it. Generally much longer than 5 days and most plants will start getting stressed and either stop blooming, stop growing, or start to die. The need their beauty sleep.  My BCM controls this as well, of course this is no use to anyone else as they dont have a BCM.  I am thinking of building a new version of the BCM and may produce a small run if anyone is interested. They will NOT be cheap though, as this sort of thing takes a lot of time and energy to develop and build.
    DRAGONFRAME SOLUTION
    There MIGHT be another option though. Dragonframe has something called the DDMX-512. If you are unaware of Dragonframe, it is program used for stop motion films. I use this myself and recommend it to anyone who wants to do this sort of work.  Dragonframe has the ability to integrate with DMX lighting systems. This is the same system that DJ’s use for lighting effects, concerts, all that sort of stuff. This box will connect to the computer running Dragonframe and enable you to have brilliant full lighting control over your scene, including a “Bash light” which is a work light used while you manipulate the puppets between the images(it IS stop-motion afterall) You would need to get a DMX dimmer pack, which sets you back another 100 bucks or so. You plug the grow light in the dimmer pack, assign that channel as a Bash light. Then plug in the Fill lights to the other channels in the Dimmer pack and assign those as the fill lights. Dragonframe has an extremely well done intervalometer built in, when it gets ready to take the picture it will shut off the Bash light and turn on the fill lights, take the image, then revserse them and shut off the fill lights and turn the Bash light back on.
    Now this gets you most of the way there. You still need day/night cycles which can easily be accomplished with a simple lighting timer plugged between the Grow light and the DMX dimmer pack.
    This is not exactly a cheap setup. Dragonframe is about $300, the DDMX-512 is another $250, and the DMX dimmer pack is another $100 or so. So figure $650 – 700 not including the grow lights and fill lights (typically about $100 each for either).
    So ballpark a budget about $1000 to get the lighting coordination needed for this work.
    Arduino Solution
    Another much cheaper option is using micro controllers. These things are a blast and had been the brains for Dynamic Perception, eMotimo, The Chronos Project, and many other motion control systems. If you are already familiar with Arduino you may well already have it pretty much figured out, if not, this is an awesome thing to learn and its a great way to learn about robotics, automation, sensors, and such. Anybody who commits the time can learn this stuff, its amazing how big of an impact learning this can actually have on your life, and it is a LOT of fun.
  4. Environment.
    I live in Colorado. it is a desert at nearly 6,000ft elevation. Very low levels of humidity, this is NOT a place conducive for many plants. The longer you are shooting a plant, the more this can be a problem. My BCM also has temp/humidity controls. I have a fogging system which is essentially a large plastic storage tub with a pond FOGGER and a PC fan which will blow fog into the room. I can hit a humidity range of approx 20% to 90% in my studio. The BCM also disables the fogger several minutes before the shoot to ensure all the vapor has dissipated before it takes an image. I also have a space heater I can turn on to ratchet up the temp, being in my basement it normally sits around 69 degrees Fahrenheit year round. with all the grow lights on and Otto’s motors hot that room will get around 85 degrees without any ventilation.  I also had to run some ducting and fans for a fresh-air exchange system, if needed I can suck the heated air out of the room in order to cool it. Also having the FAI means that between shoots I can pull fresh air direct from outdoors into the studio to freshen things up a bit. These are all considerations you should keep in mind when doing longer term timelapse. If the plant is not in an ideal environment, it will not grow/flower properly.

Long Term (2 weeks +)

Long Term botanical time lapse is really not much different than Intermediate, however the stakes get much higher. If you ruin a shoot, you lose weeks and months of time. So you really need to make sure you have everything setup correctly. I have some recommendations to help with the success.

  1. Watering.
    Automated Watering Systems are super handy. Nothing is worse than shooting for 2 weeks, finally getting the development you were looking for in a plant, and end up kicking the set or camera stand when watering the plants. I have experimented with many types of watering systems and they all have different times when they would be best employed. The main thing is to give yourself a way to water the plants without touching them. Whether it is a pump in a bucket with some drop lines, or a large tray underneath for bottom watering, or using a chemical sprayer and squirting water to the plant, explore your options to to see what works best with the plants.
    Fouling Water can be a real problem. This most often occurs when a plant is sitting in a tub with any amount of standing water. Doing water changes might not be possible without disrupting the set. I have tried with filtration systems but in general they are just expensive and problematic. If you want to water from the bottom using a large tray and dont want the water to foul an easy way to resolve this issue is to use Sphagnum Moss in the watering tray.  It has natural antibacterial properties that keep the water fresh. It is cheap to buy live, it handles the mail very well, and grows very fast. There are plenty of youtube tutorials on how to cultivate sphagnum moss, and it is very easy to keep alive.  My live sets live in large tupperware containers with hundreds of holes drilled in for drainage, those sit in larger trays that have distilled water with clumps of sphagnum moss for months on end and the water never fouls, Just top it off from time to time.
  2. Dealing with bugs
    You would be amazed what shows up in soil. Beetles. Worms. Bugs. you name it. But how to get rid of them? Well, not all plants work well with pesticides. Most carnivorous plants will die when exposed to that stuff. You can usually use something like Neem oil as a safe alternative but it might not be enough.  So here are a few trade secrets.

    1. Pressure cook your soil.
      Just seriously pressure cook the shit out of it. That should kill pretty much ANYTHING inside.
    2. CO2 baths.
      If you have a living set and an aphid infestation or something along those lines happens, drown the buggers in CO2. Take the plants/set and put them in a large bin. Add a couple large cans of water and dump in dry ice. The dry ice will generate massive amounts of CO2 which weighs more than oxygen.  Light a match, if you lower it past the top of the container and it goes out, then the container is full of CO2. Then put a lid on the container and leave it somewhere for a couple days. The plants will be fine, but all those little critters will drown from a lack of oxygen.  I highly recommend this before doing a long term shoot where they might be disruptive.
    3. Biological Warfare.
      I have quite a few carnivorous plants, when it comes to efficiency on getting all the little tiny bugs the most effective are the Drosera, also known as Sundews.  Drosera Capensis are relatively hardy.  Mine are grown in 3-4 inch pots with a mix of Sphagnum Pete, silica, and chopped up New Zealand sphagnum moss. They sit in about an inch of water with plenty of light and they produce tons of narrow leaves with little sticky fingers that are excellent at catching prey.  My largest Drosera Capensis are about the size of softballs. They can take down almost any sized prey, from flies to tiny tiny aphids that Venus fly traps are unable to capture.  Normally when shooting a live set i will have 3-4 of these surrounding the set and they do a great job of keeping the pest population down.  Just be sure to read up on how to care for them, they require distilled water, no tap water ever. Drosera Capensis can usually be purchased live for about 7-8 bucks per plant, they reproduce and over the course of time you might find the 3 you started out with have spawned another half dozen smaller ones which can quickly grow to mature size. Carniverous plants require a bit of knowledge, but a few youtube tutorials should be plenty. Stick with the Drosera Capensis. If you spend $70 on some other fancy Drosera you may find the one you purchased for $30 never gets bigger than a dime.
  3. Power disruptions.
    Buy a UPS power backup, plug the Fill lights, camera, and any controllers into this. if using a computer to run dragonframe use a laptop as it has a built in batter backup. If using any moco, make sure they are plugged in.  Do NOT plug the grow lights into the UPS, the plants will be fine with a short outage of grow lights and you dont want them draining the battery backup.  My battery backup is enough to power all 5 cameras, otto, and the fill lights for about 30 minutes. I have pretty stable power, but already that has saved my butt 2-3 times.

I hope these tips are useful.

Generally anything a week and under is very simple and requires very little specialized equipment and you can get excellent results. That’s about all I have for now.  Next time around I might go with control systems and motion control.  Please leave a note in the comments if there are things you would like me to cover