“The Holy Grail”

“The Holy Grail” is a term often used among time lapse photographers when referring to complete day to night transitions.  These are notoriously difficult and time consuming to pull off. When I first started this weird hobby of filming time, there were very few of these done. Now-a-days with the introduction of many new intervalometers and software programs aimed at de-flickering, you can find quite an abundance of very well done day to night transitions.  I admit, I have never successfully done one. But my interests lie elsewhere. More on this subject later.

There is a certain amount of technical difficulties I expect when working with these sorts of systems. Especially since most equipment was not meant to be run days/weeks at a time without a break. Most of the issues I have worked through, but two of them had been plaguing me off and on ever since I built Otto and started using Dragonframe. The first issue is when the camera shuts off for no reason, and the second is when it fails to capture an image.

Both of these finally appear to be resolved, if you want more on this check my Dragonframe Troubleshooting page. Top menu, Robots > Dragonframe >  Dragonframe Troubleshooting


Those last two issues were holding me up. I was hesitant to start longer term work until I had everything worked out.  (this is the reason for all the flower timelapse I had been doing, short shoots, low commitment) Now I have a high level of confidence that the system is working properly, I am able to start doing the things I always wanted to try.

There is not a lot of botanical timelapse work out there. Generally all you find are flowers blooming, or grass growing. You find other plants, but it is often really shitty work with lots of flicker and jumps and such done by a webcam as a novelty and thrown up on Youtube low res.  You do find some folks doing stuff similar to what I am doing, and some of it is quite impressive for sure! I have seen some excellent set building and some amazing results. But the motion is still normally very limited to basic moves, a turntable, a slide, not much else. The duration of the filming is often measured in hours with quick growing plants, spanning a few days, seldom breaking a week.

Botanical Timelapse is pretty difficult.  First you have to be able to predict the plants, which seldom behave. Filming a flower blooming over the course of 8-9 hours is chalk full of challenges, but filming a flower for a slower 2-3 day bloom has a much higher chance of failure.  If you go more than a few days, depending on the plant you may have to introduce day/night sequences which makes it even more difficult. You might film for 4 days and screw it up by watering the plant incorrectly which may cause an unwanted jump in growth.  Adding Motion Control increases the complexity and increases the potential failure points. Not only does your lighting have to work, and camera has to work, but even if those work perfectly if your MoCo fails the whole shoot is ruined and days of effort are down the drain.  I think this is why most motion control you find with this work is limited to a turntable. If the subject is in the middle and growing straight up, it will probably stay in focus.

What about plants that grow differently though? If the plants growth takes it out of the area in focus, you have to be able to predict it and work with it, which requires a more advanced Motion Control system that can handle focus control as well as Keyframing. Then you are playing the game of “I hope the plant grows as I predict”, and you pre-program the camera motion and start it up and hope that the plant behaves as expected. If the plant overshoots/undershoots, then you just wasted days or weeks of shooting.

Correcting Bad Behavior

This is where Dragonframe brings something amazing to the table. This is the only system I am aware of that gives you the ability to observe/react/respond real time to changes in the plants. And that is exactly what I am doing right now with my current shoot, and to say I was excited about this is an understatement.

In my current scenario. I started out by moving the camera to its starting point, and logged its current position which created its first keyframe. I then moved the camera to the next position and logged that, then the next, and the next and so on until the entire move was mapped out. I then moved it back to the first position and checked the focus, and moved it forward along the path on each keyframe, and between the keyframes checking the focus, and anytime it drifted I would make an adjustment and add a new keyframe for just the focus.

I am shooting a leaf on a Nepenthes(Pitcher plant). This leave shoots way out, and the tip starts to grow and reach to the ground, where it will land and the tip forms a pitcher. I don’t know exactly where it will be so I am doing a rough guess with the motion sequence.  I have been filming the past 7 days, and periodically check the progress. Last night I noticed that the pitcher was moving further out than I expected, and the angle of the leaf is starting to pull the pitcher bud out of focus. If I let it continue, the shoot will be ruined, and I would have lost a week of filming.

On the left of the screen is the X-sheet where I can add notes and stuff about any corrections I make so I know where to look afterwards.

At the moment, I was at frame 210. The last image had been taken 5 minutes ago with 40 min left until the next image is taken. I stop the routine and apply a new keyframe on the focus where it is currently at to lock that position down, then move the camera to frame 230, which is the position it will be after 20 more frames. I then adjust the focus, and them move up another 60 frames to frame 290, and do the same. Once I feel I have corrected the course for the focus, I return the camera back to the position for frame 210 and verify everything lines up correct on the live view vs the last image taken at frame 219 and re-start the system at frame 219.

I can correct for the plant, in the past, I was stuck making the decision of hoping things correct themselves, risking losing another 5-6 days of shooting, or scrapping the whole shoot and lose the last 7 days of filming.

Recovering disaster

This morning I checked again and the pitcher had started its downward drop to the ground. It was placing it in a spot where it would land slightly out of frame. The current path was going to continue a slight tilt drop, But I was worried it would not be enough. I stopped the system, locked in a new keyframe at its current spot. Then moved about 60 frames in the future and sure enough the tilt was not enough, so I deepened the tilt until the area the pitcher would land was in frame, saved the adjustment, then moved back to the current spot. And that is when things went to hell.

The Z axis started dropping, and the Y axis started pulling in. Both were moving very slow but they WERE moving and I never told it to. I immediately disabled the stepper drivers to stop the motion, and in the ARC motion page I managed to get the motion to stop. I knew all the other motors had returned to the correct spot, it was only the Z and Y that had moved. I hit the button to return the motors to the current position and re-enabled the stepper drivers.  I manually moved Z and Y until they were lined back up at what looked like the correct spot. This took a little bit of back and forth looking at the current position and prior until I had everything in place. Then I disabled the drivers again, told it to return to the shooting position, and re-enabled the drivers. Now everything was back where it was supposed to be, the shoot had not failed.

I don’t know why Z and Y did what they did. But it only took about 5 minutes to correct the mistake, and I re-started the program. I ran a test shot and verified that everything was lined up fairly well. There is a tiny slight bump, but it is difficult to notice and can easily be corrected using the warp stabilizer in Adobe After Affects.

The shoot is saved, and currently things are moving along smoothly. Making these adjustments is always risky, and should never be done arbitrarily, but only when absolutely required. But even when the Z and Y axis started running free I was still able to recover the shoot.

I hate the term “game changer” because that is used so often. Oh this camera has a slightly higher FPS than the old version, what a freaking game changer. In this case though, it is not hyperbole, because this level of botanical timelapse would be impossible without the flexibility of Dragonframe.

This shoot has 2 weeks left before it ends. If the pitcher develops quicker or slower than expected I can adjust for that. When it gets towards the end, I may even pull the camera back a bit and shift over to one of the two smaller pitcher plants on the set and see if one of them has a new pitcher forming that I can film and maybe even the other small one as well, all in the same clip! The point is I now have the ability to film things as they happen, rather than pre-programming a move and hoping it all works out. As far as I know, nobody has ever done this before.

So what does this have to do with the “The Holy Grail”? ‘

I remember when I first started getting serious about photography 8 years ago I heard a quote. I don’t know who first said it, I believe it came to me as a re-quote, but one of the best bits of advice in life is “If you ever find yourself surrounded by other photographers, you are in the wrong spot” I have found that quote to be absolutely correct in so many ways, in so many times, and so many subjects, and well beyond photography. Find your own path, find your own vision, find your own self. This is my personal holy grail. This is the capability I have spent the last year trying to achieve, and It means I will be able to produce botanical time lapse unlike anything that has ever been done before, and show people something they have never seen.   I am so close!!!!!

Stay tuned!


Project3 Part 2

This is turning out to be a super fun little project!

Made some good progress. A lot of the parts are in, still waiting on the motors from OMC, and I just ordered the gearing (yikes those are expensive) from SDP-SI.com

The Aluminum extrusion is simple 1 inch x 2 inch stock.  It will make a nice lightweight frame for little cost. All I did was cut a couple pieces off, I sort of just guessed the length. About 6 inches on the vertical, 5 on the horizontal.

Cut it with a standard miter saw using a blade intended to cut metals. I wrecked one of these blades once when handholding a 2 inch thick piece of aluminum stock while cutting through it. Damn near gave me a heart attack, it sounded like a gunshot.

Anyway, the point is, use a good aluminum cutting blade and you might want to spray some wd 40 on it to lubricate it and help cool the blade.

Using a diablo blade on a delta saw. The blade runs about 60 bucks if you dont have one. Do NOT try this with a wood saw.

Next up, I had to make holes for the bearings. I used a Dewalt 1-1/8th bit hole saw from amazon.

This was simple enough, marked the spot I wanted the holes, then using a small bit (smaller than the pilot hole portion of the dewalt bit) I used my drill press and put it all the way through the stock to create some guide holes. I then drilled out the larger hole with the dewalt, flipped it over and hit the other side. You REALLY need to do this with a drill press. Hand holding it will not work. Also be use to use some WD40 to lubricate the stock as the hole saw cuts, and be sure to clean the shavings several times while cutting through.

Gotta use a drill press for this part. No pilot hole in this pic, but I forgot to take pics while I did it. 🙂

So now i have the holes!

Next was to test the fitment of the bearings, and sure enough they fit pretty well. it is not a snug fit, but there is very little room for them to move. I might put a small ring of tape around them just to help make them nice and snug. Maybe.

At this point I was fairly excited about how everything was going, but did not realize that shit was about to get soooo much cooler. I was trying to find out the best way to join the parts. I was suspecting I would have to get an aluminum block and drill and tap some holes to get them joined up. Then I found an awesome video on youtube that shows how to weld aluminum with a blow torch. Dont worry, the torch can be had for about 25 bucks. And you will need some aluminum brazing rods. Go hit youtube and look for welding aluminum with torch and you will find various videos of this technique. 

First step is to bevel the edges a bit to create a channel for the aluminum. it aals roughs it up a bit for a more secure grip.

Next you need to clamp the parts together the way you want them. I did not have a clamp with large enough jaws, luckily there is a Harbor Freight a few miles for my house for super cheap throw away tools. This clamp only cost 3 bucks.

Next I secured it in a vice clamp to hold it while I heated the stock.

This part took a while. The videos all say it takes about 5 min.  the idea is to get the stock so how that when you touch the brazing rod to it that it instantly melts and runs down the channels. I did test this out on a couple pieces of aluminum to have at least one test run under my belt before the real deal. It took about 3 min to get it hot enough

Once the metal is hot enough, just touch the brazing rod it it and it melts and fills in the channels.

its not super pretty but far nicer than I had expected for my 2nd time trying this sort of thing.

Then back to the grinder to remove the excess welding. Be sure you give it a good 10 to 15 minutes to cool before you try touching it.

Using a file for a little extra cleanup.

And here it is!  Bearings and posts back in place, it looks fantastic 🙂

Playing around with it a bit. The gears and belts are en route, as well as a few part modifications I had to make. Once I have those parts in i can make the final fitment and weld on the motor mounts and work out the base. Then I will take everything apart and get to paint. I had originally wanted to go with Fire Engine Red , but after some consideration I have another idea.  I’ll have to take the CNC Slider apart as well, might as well try to make everything match and look nice.

I can’t express how excited I am about this project. I never knew you could weld aluminum this way. I suppose a tig welder would probably give a better bond, but this is more than solid enough for my uses. This newfound ability is really going to be beneficial for me moving forward. I am already thinking about the next robot I am going to build. I am considering some sort of a crane or something next.



Project3 Part 1

I really like building robots.

So I’m going to built another one.  I am going to call this Project3.

While Otto was very expensive to build, and Lil’ Wayne used parts I had laying around, I want to take the challenge to build a super low cost budget system.

Project3  is an exercise in demonstrating that motion control does not have to break the bank, and DIY Prototyping does not have to involve machining expensive custom parts and 3D printing.  You just have to learn where to source the parts you need. When I look at the list of Dragonframe compatible systems, it seems that getting a 4 axis setup going sits you in the $2,500+ ballpark.

Lets say you are an aspiring animator. You have been doing everything on a shoe string budget. You finally get a solid camera, finally get a copy of Dragonframe, and have spent lots of money on materials for building the puppets and sets. You really want to get into the motion control side of things, but just don’t have the money for a system from Ditogear or eMotimo.  You don’t need a weather sealed system, you don’t need something that can handle the abuse of travel and field work, all you need is a system to sit in a studio to move your camera around.

My goal is to show that you don’t HAVE to spend thousands of dollars to have a studio system that can perform exceptionally well. I would hesitate to make any comparisons against systems like Kessler or Ditogear, those are different animals altogether and made to withstand the abuse of travel and field work. But as far as working in a controlled studio enviornment, there is no reason this system could not perform equally as well.

Goals with Project3

  1. Under $500 budget
  2. Must include Pan/Tilt/Slide/Focus control
  3. Dragonframe compatible.
  4. Must not require any expensive machining equipment. (basic hand tools, a miter saw, drill press, tap and die kit)
  5. Must perform its task as well as a multi thousand dollar system.

When I first set out to start the design process, I ran into a robotics system called Actobotics, and initially I was very excited. It looks like a very well laid out system. I downloaded all the parts into google sketchup and quickly put together a pan/tilt system and felt pretty good about it. The only problem I some of the parts cost more than I was willing to spend. I believe I can do it for cheaper. So I am moving away from using Actobotics as the core of the system, but will still use some of their parts.

Things are now back at the drawing board with a new design coming along. I will be sure to blog about the process of this and keep plenty of BTS material with my progress.

Part 1) FOCUS

One of the big challenges I ran into in the past was with “Lens Tug”

Lens tug happens when you shift directions on an automated focus pull. It applies torque against the lens, causing it to move ever so slightly.  It is much less of an issue one wide angle than telephoto, and more prone when using non-native lenses. It is very obvious when using Macro.  If you mount the lens motor to the lens, you remove the lens tug. Simple enough right?


Here is an older video where I was using a lens apparatus to shift a zoom lens. If you skip to the 45 second mark to the 1 min 21 second mark, I address this and demonstrate what I mean by lens tug.

The best way to eliminate this? Attach the damn focus directly to the lens. Then the linkage between the camera and lens no longer matters.  Seen below, this 15mm rod mount connects direct to the lens.

So, here is my universal lens mounted focus motor.

TA DAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OK, Ok, I know. It is kind of ugly.  But guess what? It mounts to any lens, and it works extremely well! I have already tested it on half a dozen lenses and so far it works with all of them.

How about a parts list?

Stepper Motor  $44.05
3 inch Hose Clamp  $3.99
22mm Swivel Clamp $5.99
B Style Motor Mount  $4.99
Motor Mount Swivel Mount $3.99
6mm Bore, 32 Pitch Pinion Gear  $13.90 (You might need to shop around a bit. SDP-SI is great unless you order under $30 of stuff in which they charge you an extra $10 and shipping is ususally stupid expensive, $18 or so minimum. )

Total cost will be in the ballpark of $80 bucks. (+shipping)

You will also need

Four  6-32 x 1/2 inch Button head screws.  (approx $1 at your local hardware store)
and a Tap, because the holes on the 3.99 mount are not the right size. I used a 6-32 tap.
You will also need a Tap handle.

Assembly is easy. the Swivel clamp wraps around the motor, then attaches to the swivel mount via the supplied screws. The swivel mount attaches to the motor bracket on the flat side where the holes line up. Run the tap through the feet of the motor mount then into the swivel mount. Tapping it this way will keep the threads lined up. Then once the swivel mount is tapped, run the 6-32 screws up into it to secure it, and the other screws in the other feet. You can adjust these in and out to make it fit on various contours of the lenses. Wrap the hose clamp around it, put the stepper in the Swivel Clamp and the gear on the shaft of the stepper.
Presto. Focus motor.

being a stepper, it can be controlled via Dragonframe, eMotimo, NMX, and quite a few other systems.

I have a page build for Project3 under Robots on the upper menu.  I will start updating it as things move along as well as blogging about it.

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.




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.


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.

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