Rob Drewett, CEO, and Andy Nancollis, CDO, are the co-founders of Motion Impossible and creators of the AGITO modular remote dolly system. Pete Abel is CEO of AbelCine, with locations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Jeff Lee is Director of Education at AbelCine. We talked by Zoom.
Jon Fauer: I think Pete Abel gets an award for best lighting and cinematography on this Zoom meeting.
Jon (cont’d): I’d like to learn more about this Motion Impossible adventure of yours. Rob, how did you get started in this business?
Rob Drewett: How did I start off dreaming up this crazy idea of how we move cameras?
I was one of those kids that left school not really knowing what I wanted to do. All I knew was I wanted to work outdoors. I became a green keeper, and a few years later moved from the grass to the canopy and trained up as a tree surgeon. After a few life changing events, I decided to go traveling, found scuba diving, and trained to become a dive master. Not wanting to be an instructor, I mixed my passion for photography and scuba diving and became an underwater cameraman.
After many years of traveling the globe working on countless boats and watching many David Attenborough programs, I wanted to move from underwater to topside, so I sought a career as a BBC wildlife cameraman. Failing to break into the wildlife filmmaking scene, I shot a documentary as part of a four-man crew setting the world record for going around the world in a power boat called “Earthrace” in 60 days, 23 hours and 49 minutes. On the back of that success, I moved to Bristol where the BBC Natural History Unit is located. I worked for a couple of independents and then managed to get a cameraman bursary (scholarship) with the BBC NHU (Natural History Unit). That was the golden ticket to the industry for me. I learned a lot, but what I wanted to do was take that feeling of filming underwater and bring it topside to have movement free from gravity.
I trained on Steadicam, played with Easyrigs—any way I could to get the camera filming as fluidly as I did underwater. Then gimbals came along, which set the camera free again for me. I used them extensively on Planet Earth 2. But I wanted to push the envelope and had an idea of putting the camera on a remote control car to film animals. There were some other RC things for cameras, but they were mainly designed for the tarmac as two-wheel drive vehicles. They were great for speed, but not for nice, slow dynamic shots in the woods or in the jungle. So, I left a message for the chairman of a local RC car club. Andy Nancollis phoned me back and said, “Who’s putting you up to this? It sounds like my perfect job! I’ve been a product design engineer for 20 years. If you put your money in, I’ll put my time in, and we can make the first system.”
Within four weeks, we had a prototype. It got a bit of attention at the Wildscreen Film Festival, and we made some promo videos. Many people came back to us seeking a way to use this new technology. Some called it Shin-cam because it filmed at the level of people’s shins. We wanted to move the camera up higher, so we put a post in the middle.
Andy Nancollis: At this point, Rob was in the treetops somewhere in South America when we got a call to put a 360º camera at eye level on the rover. The fixed post made the footage really wobbly, so we did a lot of testing with traditional gimbals, but they obscured the footage. So, instead, we came up with a new concept for stabilizing a VR camera. Then we got a job for Universal Music, designed the rig, got the prototype made, put it in a suitcase, flew to LA, took it out of the suitcase, and hired a gyro from a local high company.
Rob: That company was AbelCine.
Andy: We knew what this gyro did, but we’d never used one. We stuck it on the rig in front of Megadeth and the whole entourage at Universal Music. Our video was part of their album launch that year. Having something that worked, we went back and productionized this prototype.
Rob: We moved into our first-ever location because we had been working in a barn outside my house.
Andy: We got the production design of it done in 2017 / 2018. It was called Mantis 360. We were probably the only people in the world doing this, so it quickly became popular in VR shooting whenever a virtual reality camera had to be moved.
Rob: Andy and I have always tried to work out the best ways of moving the camera and stabilizing it. Traditionally we used gimbals, and then we went to the gyro. But we’ve now gone back to gyro stabilized heads with the new AGITO.
We had been talking to people in traditional film production to find out what they would do with a remote dolly system. Initially, we put the prototype in a case and realized that it weighed 32 kilograms and at this point it was just an empty shell without any motors. Now, for me, everything that I want to do is about getting on an airplane. When you arrive at the destination airport, you’ve got your equipment, and you’re off to go filming. So everything had to go on an airplane. 32 kilograms, or 70 pounds, was the limit.
We sort of had a Eureka moment where we removed one end and chopped the center out and used different drive-ends. We developed the whole concept of a modular dolly system, which has really helped to distinguish us from everything else that’s out there. It’s now a modular system. People could start to see a really good return on investment because suddenly it’s not just a system they can put on rails, but a system they can freely move about. More people started to see how it can create different ways of filmmaking within all walks of the industry—on features, TV, commercials, concerts or live entertainment. They started to see a really a good channel for the AGITO.
Jon: What year did the AGITO take the form it is in now?
Rob: It was released in January 2019.
Jon: Are you agnostic as to what remote head you’re using on it?
Rob: Absolutely agnostic. Yes.
Jon: Who packages the remote head?
Rob: We sell a lot of AGITO systems with ARRI SRH-360 remote stabilized heads. We’ve sold a G1 combination and DJI Ronin 2 gimbal stabilizers as well. The idea was not to make our own head because so many people are doing it. Our idea was actually to market something that people didn’t have, which was a way of moving those remote heads.
Pete Abel: As you know, we are also equipment agnostic. Whatever the creative people need and want, that’s the system they should use. That’s been our philosophy from the beginning. With the AGITO being camera and head agnostic, we’re always going to recommend what’s going to best serve the creative purpose. The second thing to consider is the pragmatic side: logistics and portability through airports, especially now, or a return on investment and being able to use the tool in a wide variety of applications. That’s what I really like about the design approach of this team. There is creative intent first, but the design has got to make logistical and practical sense as well.
Rob: The whole design concept evolved. We learned a lot since the Mantis days where the RF was embedded into the system, and we could only use one bandwidth. Now we have modular RF to the point where you can put your own RF in if you need to.
Andy: When you’re on set, the one constant and forever grief is RF. If you make it modular and optional, you shed the pain a little bit.
Jon: So essentially there are four wireless systems? There’s the AGITO itself, the remote head, wireless lens control, and video.
Rob: Those are the main ones.
Jon: Andy, how did you get started in this business?
Andy: I had no knowledge whatsoever of this business prior to meeting Rob, but my background is product development and consultancy. Consultancy means I’ve had exposure to all sorts of industries: aerospace, automotive, toys, industrial machines. Working in TV and film is the longest I’ve ever done one project.
Rob: I think that’s what’s helped us. Andy, you’ve had so many different jobs and different projects that you’ve taken a bit from everyone. The way you make products is like a genius at his computer. You don’t just know how to design something, you know how it’s going to be manufactured as well.
Andy: The trick about being a consultant is that you become a specialist in an industry really fast. You have to be a sponge to take on everything your customer is saying to you really quickly. The bits of information that stick are the ones that are common, and what is common to everybody’s problem is how do I make that? So, the “how do I make that” stuff is what you carry in every project. Every time you do a project it just expands your “how do I make this,” and the toolbox just grows bigger and bigger.
Jon: Your market, I understand, has mostly been broadcast, sports, and events. Do you see AGITO getting onto film sets?
Pete: Yes, you’re right – the initial interest in AGITO was in sports and live production. The big surge in AGITO interest now, however, is based on the current production demands and the distancing requirements related to the pandemic, and much of this is coming from commercial and film production.
Our industry tends to put production tools into certain buckets. If it looks like a dolly, it’s a dolly, right? Sure, AGITO functions very much like a dolly today, but what really struck me is that the design principle is not tied to the way we’ve worked in the past, but rather what could be, in terms of how we move the camera. The cinema side of the industry is traditional in its approach to how sets work, how pieces of gear work, and whose job is what. What I really like about this collaboration and the Motion Impossible team is how they break these paradigms with AGITO. The goal is to create the best creative pathway, period. I think that’s what opens it up in the cinema production world in terms of its ability to be on a set, in the hands of a DP, as comfortably as it is currently in the broadcast and live market.
Andy: If you want an example, consider how you control a robotic dolly. Our first generation product had an RC handgun controller, which is OK, but also is not fine at all, because how you drive an RC race car hides inside a world of deep, complex menus that you spend all of your hobby life trying to figure out how the hell do you get to that setting again, but you’ve got an hour between now and the next race, so it’s normal to spend a lot of time tinkering. When we came to deciding how you control the AGITO, we wanted something where everything you need is at your fingertips for instant access. Time on set is far more valuable and pressured.
Rob: It was about who is actually going to use this equipment, because we appreciate how hard it can be for people to break away from pushing a dolly, which they trust, to putting something new in their hands. The easiest, earliest adopters of this are probably going to be the younger generation. Why? Well, they’ve had PlayStation controllers in their hands from an early age. We took that sort of ergonomics, of what you’re used to, and put that concept into the controller. The whole point was that it had all the functionality at your fingertips, and no touchscreen. We didn’t want a touch screen; we wanted to have knobs and buttons and the ability to change things without having to move your hands away from the controller.
Pete: Rob, could speak to the other ways of controlling the system that are cinema-centric or cinema-friendly?
Rob: We have two-wheel, four-wheel, and crab steering all in one system. That is done with a switch of a button on the top of the controller. You have the ability to change your deceleration or acceleration—how it starts, how it finishes. We have encoded motors, both front and back, and it actually moves very similarly to how a dolly does. All of this is repeatable. The chassis, if it’s not on tracks, is free moving. And if you’re moving a free system, to be repeatable, you need to have spatial awareness with sensor feedback, and this is the future vision for the AGITO.
Jon: What heights can you achieve?
Rob: We can go up to two meters (6.5 ft) in height, over people’s heads, with the tower. We have risers as well.
Jon: Can you do an up and down move?
Rob: Yes, the carbon fiber tower moves up and down remotely. The stroke is 700 millimeters (2 ft), and you start off from about chest height all the way to above eye level.
Jeff Lee: It might be worth noting that the way to control the tower height right now is via the master controller. But a future development might be a knob, which is something that dolly grips will be comfortable or familiar with.
Rob: There are a few things that we’re doing to enable the replication of the work that dolly grips do now within the system.
Jon: That’s a good point. If we consider the ARRI SRH-360 remote head, in the beginning it was controlled with a joystick control. But most high-end operators preferred traditional wheels, and they were added.
Andy: The beauty of it is that because it’s modular, we designed a control that we think is appropriate. But we can build the controller in any shape that anybody wants. If there’s a commercial case for building something that people are more familiar with, absolutely. The point for us is not about shutting things off, it’s about providing more options.
Rob: Offering a new way might still be quite nice for people to use as well. And that’s about education.
Pete: That’s specifically where Jeff Lee and the AbelCine team come in—education. We are assisting Motion Impossible in whatever capacity they need us in terms of the design and delivery of AGITO operator training programs.
Rob: Every time we make a sale, we train the operators. We are soon to announce AGITO Academy. The more people know about the system and how to operate it, the more we’ll see them adopting the technology and productions calling for it.
Pete: There are many similarities to other new technologies we’ve helped bring to market, in terms of first creating industry awareness and then market adoption. Remember the early days of Phantom high-speed cameras in the US? We realized early on that we needed to train operators on the proper use of this new tool. Similarly with AGITO, in order to use this tool, to really maximize its creative capabilities, you need to understand its technical underpinnings and become an expert in its operation.
This goes back to Rob’s earlier point about the return on investment. In the US, we usually achieve greater adoption when we’re creating more opportunities for the workforce. When gimbals came out, the MōVI classes that we worked on with Freefly were extremely popular. Yet they didn’t take away from the appeal of the Steadicam at all. In fact, our Steadicam classes are always full, because it’s a different tool. We feel the AGITO will follow a similar trajectory. Taking Motion Impossible’s lead, we will help create the education through Jeff Lee and our training team.
Jeff Lee: Other than the fact that it’s a sophisticated tool, we want to make sure all the productions are successfully serviced and there are no equipment issues where people might say, well, the reason the shoot didn’t go well was because of the gear. We want to make sure that folks are empowered and can put this on their resume, put this on their reel and say, “I am an AGITO Academy graduate. I have the knowledge to be able to get additional work outside the current circle of skill sets.” We see this as a tool that is not replacing anyone’s job. It’s literally adding to your repertoire.
Of course, it’s relevant now with COVID, and it will still be relevant in the future. A director can say, “I want to move the dolly track six inches closer to the actors.” In a traditional environment, the grips have to pull the track over, level it, shim it again. That takes time. Whereas with the AGITO, it’s just simply, “Let’s drive it six inches closer,” and we’re done and the shot’s accomplished. That’s what it’s about: mobility, flexibility, and protecting those jobs as well.
Jon: If you’re on a traditional film set, typically you would use tracks for a dolly move. Is the AGITO as steady on its wheels with a stabilizer as it would be on tracks?
Rob: Sometimes it’s more stable because it has a stabilized head. It depends on the terrain.
Rob: We shot an ARRI promo a couple of weeks ago where we had the ALEXA Mini LF on the AGITO with the ARRI SRH-360 remote head. We were using ARRI Signature Prime lenses.
Jon: Are there safety devices to stop the AGITO if you are getting too close to an actor?
Rob: Yes, that’s all coming soon with our new AGITO brain. It basically adopts the technology of a mini Tesla.
Andy: At the moment we’re relying on operator skill. But the plan is for semi-autonomous intelligence to start to make much better safety decisions for you. We’ve got safeguards in there. With the AGITO, you’ve got a driver, the dolly grip, watching where the chassis is going. The camera operator is focused on the camera. And of course, the focus puller is, well, focused on the focus.
Jon: Are you working with dolly grips to get this accepted in the feature and motion picture production world?
Rob: That’s what we want to accomplish with the AGITO Academy. We’re a hundred percent behind getting grips involved. We are also talking to directors and producers so they can see what a cool tool it is.
Pete: Creativity and economics – you’ve got to marry both. I think getting folks jobs, getting them behind the effort, and saving production time, will help to save money. And that gets everyone behind the effort. We love the idea that as the AGITO brain gets smarter and more functional, the whole system improves. That’s exciting for everyone.
Andy: My wider perspective is to look at other industries. Robotics is here one way or another, and all industries are struggling with ethics of the human being replaced by the robot and that whole argument. But what’s really true is it just changes what the human is doing. In these cases, it’s not about putting someone out of work, it’s about giving them a cool new tool to use. It gives them something different to do, a new improved way to work. You know, robotics is coming, there’s no stopping that. These tools are here now, and they’re only going to get bigger and better.
Rob: Or smaller and better.
Jon: Congratulations on a really super product.