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How robots filmed Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, ‘Gravity’

Image Credit: Image from Warner Brothers

Editor’s note: When we first published this story in December, 2012, we weren’t allowed to mention the name of the movie. Now that Gravity is out, the truth can be told.

Hollywood’s latest blockbuster Gravity was filmed by robots. Four giant industrial robots whisked props, lights and even actors around the set in a ballet of split-second precision, as well as doing the camerawork. They call it cinematic automation.

“We are taking a movie set and thinking about it like a manufacturing facility,” says Jeff Linnell, co-founder of Bot&Dolly.

Bot&Dolly bought three second-hand industrial robots back in 2008. “I had been wondering for years why people weren’t using them to move cameras around,” says Linnell. He ran a small advertising and video production company in San Francisco and had spent his career doing motion graphics and animation. “The first robot found its way into a Louis Vuitton TV commercial a week later.”

Some time later, Linnell got a call from a Warner Brothers executive who said the studio was shooting a new movie called Gravity.

“It has a lot of impossible shots which you would not be able to do with traditional wire work and is massively ambitious technically,” explains Linnell. It took a year and a half to write a new control system for the robots that could be used on the set.

Robots were used in film-making as far back as Star Wars, but they were always custom-built and required proprietary software and a highly-specialized human operator. In the 1980s the computer conquered Hollywood, movies went digital, and robots faded into the background.

Bot&Dolly’s founders felt that everything that could be done on a computer had already been done and that it was time to get film-makers back into the real world. So they took Autodesk’s Maya animation software (the industry standard) and wrote tools to allow non-robotics exeprts — like animators — to run robots using the software they were already familiar with.

“Animators were flying cameras around in the virtual world doing Avatar or whatever but they never had the power to be film-makers,” says Linnell. “Now the same animators can move a camera around, or an actor or a prop. Anyone from Pixar can pick up the tool that they use every day, hit an export button and animate a robot.”

Bot&Dolly’s software system controls some standard robots like Scout and Iris, which weigh from 6 up to 500 kilograms, but users can also control their own robots by adding a new model to the software.

Robots can achieve a level of precision, speed and coordination of movement which cannot be matched by humans. “If you want to move a coffee cup six inches across a table at two meters per second and have it stop on a dime, we want to give you a tool to do that without hiring a developer.” Lights, props, explosions, special effects, and even the positions of the actors — all can be synchronized to the millisecond and coordinated with sound and playback.

Industrial robots don’t usually work in such close proximity with people, so safety was a critical issue, especially when those people are expensive movie stars like George Clooney. The system contains checks and safeguards to ensure the robots are on the programmed flight path and uses laser tripwires, pressure mats and other technology to keep track of the humans. High-risk shots are rehearsed at various speeds, building up to real-time.

Bot&Dolly’s robots have also developed showbiz careers of their own. They have appeared in advertisments for Google and star in a Las Vegas show where they act and play music with the Blue Man group.

“People are pretty fascinated by large robots,” says Linnell. “When they move in a highly coordinated way where all the axes are moving at the same time, the movement is incredibly organic and snake-like. It’s a bit disconcerting and amazing even to myself having watched these things for years now. In a theatrical production, we are trying to give them a sense of character, purposely making them sad or proud or scared. You can convey emotion quite easily.”

The next generation of stars may be built, not born.

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