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Monday, 22 November 2010 23:43

On the Right Track

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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Last year, when the folks at NASCAR wanted to capture the feel of a racing environment for a special commercial, they turned to Fisher Technical Services, Inc. (FTSI) to get the goods at a track just outside of South Boston, Va.

FTSI CEO Scott Fisher reports that NASCAR wanted a shot that went over the audience area and the pit as well as into the infield. His company created a computer-controlled flying-camera rig called the Navigator System. The Navigator is based on technology FTSI has deployed for years in theme parks and for live stage events where the need for people and props to be flown in elaborate patterns can be executed safely and consistently.

The company has since adapted this technology to enable a camera to virtually fly like a bird in a predefined space with the Navigator System, which has successfully been used in a broad mix of features, TV shows and commercials. It begins with a series of towers, each housing computer-controlled dual winches that suspend a camera rig like a Libra or Filmotechnic Flight Head. While the demo I saw used a quartet of roughly 18-foot-tall towers, according to Fisher, the technology will work on just about any scale, even on cranes big enough to tower over the top of a football stadium.


Using a joystick, the operator can program a camera’s flight anywhere through the 360-degree space. Watching a demonstration of the Navigator’s capabilities reminded me of a hang glider’s freedom of movement: The camera moves can be controlled on the fly, with the operator manning a joystick connected to the Navigator control system. The moves are also recorded by Navigator so they can be repeated precisely and as often as desired. You can then provide those camera moves to an FX house so the recorded footage can be easily integrated with any CG footage. If you’re using one of the hot pre-visualization apps that can also simulate camera moves, that data can be fed directly into the Navigator as well, which can save a tremendous amount of time come the day of the shoot.

For the NASCAR commercial, the production did a rig where they had one crane set up in the infield and another in the parking lot, and a 2D Navigator rig was strung up between the two cranes. “We were also able to pivot the cranes so we could get a different sense of geometry on the rig,” Fisher explains. This enabled Fisher and his crew to deliver several different shots, including down the track, across the crowd and directly perpendicular to the track. “We were able to get them their whole shot list with one rig in two tower days for about $30,000,” he reports.

The Navigator System works just as effectively on feature films as on commercial shoots. “The difference between shooting commercials and features is that usually when we’re on a feature, we’re focused on getting one specific shot like a car blowing up or Spider-Man jumping off a building,” says Fisher. “The commercial guys are more interested in knowing how many different shots can they get using the same rig without needing to use a different setup. We can provide them with a lot of different perspectives and ways to do the shot without having to bring in a lot of extra equipment.”

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