Bot & Dolly’s Robotic Cameramen Rewrite the Script in Hollywood

4/1/13Follow @wroush

If we were running our April 11 robotics forum as an Oxford-style debate, the motion would be this: Over the next decade, robots are going to transform our workplaces just as radically as personal computers did in the 1980s and 1990s. And by “workplaces” we don’t just mean assembly-line floors, where robots have been common since the 1970s. We mean offices, hospitals, clinics, farms, energy plants, manufacturing facilities of all stripes, and movie studios.

Wait, movie studios? Yes. It’s already happening. To see how, I recently went to visit San Francisco-based Bot & Dolly.

It wasn’t an arduous journey—the company is right down the street from my office, behind a garage door that bears the admonition “Please Never Ever Ever Ever Never Ever Never Ever Ever Never Park Here. Thank You.” For years, I’d walked past that door, never suspecting that there was a robotics revolution going on behind it; what I had noticed were Bot & Dolly’s two sister businesses, a high-tech cafe called Front and an advertising studio called Autofuss.

But behind the coffee counter, Bot & Dolly is experimenting with ways for filmmakers and other artists to control the big robot arms historically used for manufacturing on assembly lines. Just attach a movie camera to the end of one of Bot & Dolly’s arms, and you can fly it through any path in space, over and over, or reprogram it on the fly. The result: real-world shots that match the complexity of virtual-camera movements in CGI shots from movies like Avatar.

Bot & Dolly doesn’t actually build the robot arms; it refits and reprograms equipment built by manufacturers in Detroit and Germany. And it doesn’t build the underlying animation or 3D modeling software—that comes from companies like Autodesk, the makers of Maya, and Robert McNeel & Associates, the makers of Rhinoceros and Grasshopper. Where it’s innovating is in the creation of a new layer of motion-control software that lets filmmakers plan camera movements in Maya or Grasshopper, then send the instructions straight to the robots.

“It’s all about bridging what is actually a quite mature technology, in the form of industrial robotics hardware, with tools that are not traditionally associated with the control and programming of those robots,” says Ian Sherman, Bot & Dolly’s head of development, who will speak at our event next week as part of a panel on robots in unconventional workplaces. “These are tools from a different world. It’s a way of thinking that we think is overdue in the world of robotics.”

The best way to understand what Bot & Dolly is up to is to watch one of their videos, like this 2012 demo reel:

As you can see, there’s much more at stake here than just moviemaking. Once you give artists an easier way to control robot arms, they’re likely to come up with all sorts of ways to use them, from painting to kinetic art to architecture.

“We really believe in the power of the artist to tell a story, and we are interested in augmenting their ability to do that—in lowering the barrier to entry to the technology, which is an incredible new tool,” Sherman says.

Bot & Dolly emerged from a project at Autofuss, an advertising studio led by creative directors Jeff Linnell and Randy Stowell. Some three years ago, according to Sherman, Linnell began repurposing some old numerically controlled machine tools so that they could handle motion control for a complicated tabletop video shoot. Autofuss “quickly outgrew” that system and turned to the idea of adapting more versatile robot arms from Michigan-based FANUC Robotics and other manufacturers, Sherman says.

Soon word of Linnell’s project spread to Hollywood, where a big studio was looking for help filming movie scenes set in a zero-gravity environment. “This film was going to require a new level of technical filmmaking,” says Sherman. “We pitched the idea of using four industrial robots for props, actors, lights, and cameras to create the effect of zero gravity by not only moving the actors around the set, but by moving the environment around the actors.” (Sherman wouldn’t discuss the name of the film or other details, but it’s been disclosed elsewhere that it’s a Warner Brothers film called Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and directed by Alfonso Cuarón; the movie is due in theaters this fall.)

Sherman says Bot & Dolly put a year of R&D into the project, which finished four months of shooting last October. “We came out the other side with a very powerful platform for motion control and cinematic automation more generally, and one with applications to a lot of other areas beside cinematography,” he says. One designer, for example, programmed a Bot & Dolly robot to assemble a sinuous, curvilinear room divider from thousands of wooden slats.

Anything you can visualize in a 3D modeling program can, in essence, be turned into instructions to run one of Bot & Dolly’s robots, which come in large and small sizes (they’re called Iris and Scout, respectively). It’s not that the robots couldn’t have been programmed this way before—it just would have taken a lot longer. “The difference is about the flexibility that we bring to the equation,” Sherman says. “Assembly lines are set up to be programmed once and then do the same thing for 10 years. We are interested in giving people tools to design a shot on the spot and then make on-the-fly adjustments or even radically rethink it over the course of a day.”

Could Bot & Dolly’s robots put a few human camera operators out of work? Possibly—but they could create just as many new jobs by giving more people access to advanced cinematographic tools.

Below are some more Bot & Dolly videos for your amazement. Get your tickets to “Robots Remake the Workplace” now, and you’ll be able to meet Sherman and a gaggle of other top roboticists in person next week.

 

 

 

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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