Hi Folks. So i have a couple current problems that seem to stem from this Dragonframe DMC-16
SEE UPDATE 12/5/2016 at the end
I figured i would spend some time going over it, what it can do, what it is having problems with, and what I am HOPING to get resolved via Dragonframes support department.
That is the DMC-16.
It provides several critical functions
- The moves are all scripted out in the Dragonframe software on the PC(or mac), but the computer needs a way to tell the stepper motors how to move. The DMC provides the required connections to provide Step and Direction commands to the motors. Stepper motors dont just spin like DC motors when current is applied. Instead, you tell it what position you want the shaft to be in. There are a normally a total of 200 positions for a stepper motor shaft. That means it can move 1.8 degrees with each step. For these motions to work, there is something called a Stepper Driver which provides power to the motor and gets it to those positions, but something has to tell the Driver what to do. This is where the DMC-16 comes into play. Tell it to move the PAN motor 100 steps clockwise, and the motor will rotate the shaft 180 degrees. Tell it to move the same distance counterclockwise, and it will return the shaft of the motor to the position it started. This sort of logic allows these stepper motors to conduct highly coordinated and very precise moves. In essence this portion of Dragonframe is just a fancy CNC machine. Not much different from the lathes, routers, plasma cutters, used by machinists to cut out very precise shapes.
With Dragonframe you create Keyframes. You can think of these as targets for the system to move the camera. For Keyframe A you want the camera pointed at the stem. Keyframe B you program to be one of the leaves, Keyframe C you set to be the flower.
Dragonframe software then figures out the best way to move the camera from A to B to C, and will smooth out the motion to give everything a nice smooth look.
One of the special things about dragonframe, is once you have that A to B to C figured out, you can have it break that movement down into thousands of individual discreet movemensts. So you dont have to tell the camera where to aim on every single image it takes, rather give it the general directions of what you want and DF will figure out all the stuff in between.
You can also run test runs and snap screenshots from the live view to assemble test videos to show the motion and make sure it is what you are looking for.
- Well of course you need to control the camera too. Dragonframe is not a CNC machine for cutting out parts, it is a CNC machine for making movies! It has the ability to integrate with various DSLR’s to provide camera controls from the computer via tethering, it also provides a live view of the set to help you compose your scenes andand takes. When running the routine it will even take the images straight off the camera and store on the PC rather than the internal memory card. So no worries of moving the camera on accident when retrieving the mem card.
DMX Lighting controls
- This is something that I am super excited about. Many people in film, music, or other entertainment fields know all about DMX. This is basically aa lighting program. Think of your favorite concerts, all the lighting that happens, or the lights at a club when the DJ is spinning. These are all likely to be DMX lights. You have the ability to turn lights on or off on a pre-recorded program. Some are on off, some can be dimmed to varuious levels, and some of them (like the ones I use) are RGB LED lights where you can shift to any color, red to blue, green to yellow, day to night, suimulate sunrise and sunset. I have not had much time to play with these yet, however I have recently moved all my lights to DMX control and away from the Biolapse Control Module(more on that later)
Integration with other equipment.
- The DMC 16 also has a whole host of connections that provide inputs, outputs, triggers. Everything you need to get the hardware to all integrate together.
- Laptop to DMC-16 connects via USB
DMC sends the step/direction signals to the stepper Drivers via RJ-11 interfaces.
- Input trigger from external source that can be prorgammed to trigger a camera or other various things.
- External trigger that can connect to an external system for motion control or trigger work lights, or whatever
- Camera trigger to control the focus and shutter of a camera
- Limit switches which prevent the hardware you spend all this time working on from accidentally moving too far or wigging out and damaging itself or you.
- Emergency Stop connection to shut the motion hardware down in case shit hits the fan.
IT AINT CHEAP
It has a huge amount of capability, but it is also very expensive. about $1800 with shipping. Add in the $300 software and you have a sizeable investment on this system. That does NOT get you any of the hardware, motors, drivers, gears, cameras, cables, laptop, lights, dimmer packs, or anything else that goes along with it.
ITS WORTH IT
However when you look at the amount of capability, nothing even comes close. This software and the DMC-16 have been used on some very impressive stop-motion animations that killed it in the Box Office including Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, Shaun of the Sheep…. When considering how much you CAN do with it, and the huge amount of incredibly well though out features, even $2100 for this control system is an absolute bargain. This is the standard in Hollywood for stop motion animation.
It Aint Perfect.
Now this is where I stop boasting about it and throw it right the hell under a bus for a minute.
I like this system, I like Dragonframe, but i have been running into some issues. I have some messages in with the company, I am hoping they can help me out.
1) External Trigger.
Mine stopped working. There is a 3 prong DMX output used to trigger the camera. Why they used this I have NO idea. There are NO camera cables I have ever found that terminate to this connection, so I had to make my own. Luckily I have built hundreds of camera trigger cables in the past 5 years. It is not terribly difficult, but a 2.5 or 3.5 TRS connector would make more sense to me.
Biolapse is a time consuming process. Some shoots will take days, some will take weeks, even a month. It is important that I am able to maximise my results by constantly shooting multiple cameras. I have the 6D on the main rig, two Sony A7’s, a Fuji XE-1, Fuji XT-1, and a Panasonic GH4. I like to have 4-5 cameras shooting at a time. Otto is my main rig with 8 degrees of movement on the main stage. another 5 Axis rig that gives linear, focus, pan and tilt and rotary for the 2nd stage. And then there will be a third stage behind the Main with a turntable and a static camera. That is 3 cameras right there. Then I have the option of setting up a couple static cameras for additional footage, or for some BTS work. All of these cameras have to shoot at the same damn time. They need to be triggered by the SAME source. To pull this off, i built a 10 channel splitter, each channel is discrete using optocouplers which is sort of like a relay, but has no moving parts to wear out. This keeps the circuitry from all the cameras separated. I have used this Splitter for years now and it has never failed me. It is a smart splitter using an Arduino for the brains. This means I can program each channel to behave however I want. If i want it to shoot, wait, then shoot a 2nd time, or hold a longer signal, or skip every other shot, or use a delay I have plenty of flexibility.
Until Thanksgiving, the splitter was triggered by the shutter control from the DMC-16. Then, on thanksgiving it stopped triggering the cameras. The USB connection still caused the Canon 6D on Otto to trigger, but all the other cameras stopped.
I have been fairly exhaustive in looking through the manual for anything I can find that would cause it not to work. I followed the instructions for making sure it was enabled, yet nothing I do can get it to work. I would suspect it has a faulty optoisolator on it, but if I reset the DMC-16 it causes all the cameras to trigger. Also, I had tried reloading the firmware and that caused it to trigger all the cameras quite a few times. This tells me hardware = ok. Something in the software is preventing it from working. I have spent quite a bit of time designing/building camera control systems, building camera cables, building smart splitters. I know exactly how these systems work, but i cant for the life of me get the DMC-16 to trigger.
I ended up rigging up an alternate fix. I have some Yongnuo wireless flash triggers. I put the trigger on the Canon, and the receiver plugged into the splitter. Now when the Canon opens its shutter the Trigger signals the reciever and that signals the splitter, which gets all the cameras working.
This is fine for a workaround, but I want to know why it is behaving the way it is. Luckily Dragonframe has a pretty slick trouble reporting system built in, and it grabs all the data from your shoot, screenshots of your setup, all the XML information and puts it in a package. So if I have messed up somehow they should be able to identify where/how. TO be honest I dont think it was something I had managed to cause. We will see, they have been good about responding.
2) Internal trigger.
Ok, some more bullshit to deal with. The DMC sometimes does not see the trigger from the BCM. The BCM (biolapse control module) is the timing system I have been using the last few years. It controls the temp, humidity, watering cycles, day/night cyclesfor the grow lights, and will even turn off the grow lights off and the fill lights on when it is ready to take an image, and trigger the cameras. It has been running for years flawlessly.
I had decided to keep using it as it will make sure the humidifier is disabled 3 minutes before it shoots. This prevents any fog from the humidifier from being present when it shoots. It also has dual power inputs, one for the logic and the fill lights which would be plugged into an UPS in event of power outage the fill lights would STILL work. The Grow lights and humidifier are on another power rail which would NOT be plugged into the UPS, so if a power outage happens the grow lights and humidifier just shut off rather than sucking power out of the battery backup.
The DMC seems to have issues of reliability with an external trigger. It works great for the most part but i keep having situations where it no longer sees the trigger from the BCM. I dont think it is the BCM that is the problem, because when it happens I dont reset the BCM, i reset the DMC-16 and it starts working again.
I tried running the BCM at a 5 minute interval yesterday, and put Dragonframe into a 5 minute timelapse interval and let them run free. However something happened and they drifted, and after about 50 frames Otto started snapping shots while the grow lights were still on.
Today I pulled the BCM out, and tied the growlights in as a BASH light using a DMX dimmer pack i purchased.
The Bash light is a work light that would normally come on between images so the artists could move the puppets between frames and have good lighting. Then it shuts the BASH light off before it takes an image, and turns it back on afterward. By setting a day/night timer between the dimmer pack and the grow lights, i can still maintain Day/Night sequences and have the grow lights shut off when it takes the images.
This is not ideal. The BCM kept the power rails separate. Now if a power outage hits, the 30min of battery life I maintain during that power outage is going to be reduced to about 25 minutes. I would rather have the full thirty.
This may just be what I have to live with though, not a HUGE deal, but I would much prefer controlling the lighting sequences through the BCM as i can program in the Pre-shot delay on disabling the lights and the Post shot delay on turning them back on. Plus i have to be more mindful of the humidifier
3) Limit Switches
They dont work for shit to be honest. The system has i think 8 sets of limit switches. You dont need them for the most part, but I had planned on limit switches on the X Y and Z axis. Here is what I am running into
Y axis, one the far end when the limit switch is triggered (just a whisker switch at the end, when the gantry gets too close to the back it tuns into the whisker and triggers the switch) it stops the rig as expect, albeit not fast enough, it just slows to a stop. In my view it should just stop immediately like my chronos rails would. So this means you have to have extra long switch and make sure it will still stop before reaching the end. this is a design flaw in my view.
Once that switch is hit, it slows to a stop and will not move in that direction anymore. However, I CAN back it out the opposite direction. Makes sense right? That is how it SHOULD work.
When the Y axis nears the closer end, it hits the switch and slows to a stop. I can no longer move it in that direction. Makes sense. However I cant move it in the other direction either! So i have to shut off the goddamn motor (thank god I had the brains to add disable switches on the power box) and twist the ball screw by hand to back it out enough in order to disengage that limit switch. WTF?
I had wired in a single limit switch for the Z axis to prevent the system from raising too high, there is a serious possibility of something being damaged if it starts elevating the Z axis and does not stop. After all it uses a 425oz in stepper with a 30:1 gear ratio. I cant get that limit switch to work at all.
I spent so much time working on the Y switch that i never got around to wiring the X switches. And the Z does not work period. And yes, I did read the instructions, all non used switches are pinned into the common for each set. All switches are NC. This is not rocket science.
The DMC-16 is a powerful piece of hardware that comes at an expensive tag. So far I have been able to work around most of the issues I have run into, but I would rather NOT spend time troubleshooting and creating workarounds for some of its failures. I want to be FILMING.
Am I glad I got it? Hell yes. Even though I spent some time harping on it, those are sort of nit-picks. Even with these minor issues I have run into it has giving me some remarkable capability for botanical timelapse. I really hope the dragonframe support team can help me work through the bugs. The Input trigger, shutter trigger, and limit switch issues are the only thing tarnishing what is otherwise one bad ass piece of hardware.
If anybody else has used the DMC-16, I would LOVE to hear your experiences and if you have run into any of these troubles. I do recognize the problems may be that I am just doing things wrong, or messed something up, but I have a pretty good understanding of how input/output triggers work.
If the issues I have run into are user error, I will be sure to provide an update advising I am just an idiot. If Dragonframe comes through and gets this stuff working, I will also let you all know as well. I may seem like I am being hard on this, mainly because these minor issues irritate the shit out of me. I have failed shoot after failed shoot on these stupid lillies, and spent a lot of time trying to debug the issues and creating workarounds rather than shooting footage. But in the end this really is one badass piece of gear, combined with the excellent dragonframe software, this is going to let me do some incredible stuff.
I have only talked to one other person who has used the DMC, and he also had a hard time with the limit switches, I think in the end he abandoned them as he did not see them as overly important.
So as of today, with much time spend with Dragonframe support team the external shutter still does not work. Thier recommendation is to use the Relay output to trigger the splitter instead of the shutter. I got it wired up, and it works like a champ. I would like to have the shutter output working properly, but not at the expense of shipping the unit back to dragonframe, waiting on repair and shipping, delaying my shooting. Right now it does everything I need so i consider that matter resolved.
The limit switches are buggered up, but they seem to know about this now and said they have a firmware update they are working on. I am looking forward to getting that resolved.
The issue where things would lock up and become unresponsive is directly tied into the shutter issue. It was a bit tricky to pinpoint the events needed to cause it. If DF is set to use an external shutter trigger (which mine is), the USB connection still preps the camera for the shutter but does not trigger it. If the external trigger does not trigger the camera, it goes into a limbo state, and if you start monkeying around while it is in that state you can totally fubar it up. So if the external trigger works as expected, there are no issues. Otherwise you can refresh the camera connection which also restores everything. Something that was tripping me up, is TEST SHOT always uses the internal shutter via USB. Add that in the mix and things get a little bit strange, you really have to start paying attention and making notes to bring these issues to light.
So right now, everything is running just fine.
I have Otto the 8 DOF rig running one scene, and a 5 DOF rig running on the 2nd stage with Pan/Tilt/Focus/Linear/Turntable.