Spot on Tatooine and other Robots in Cinema

Camera Robots

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When I asked the question “Where Will Boston Dynamics Robots be in the Future?” in Boston Dynamics and Biomimicry, I really didn’t have Tatooine in mind. And yet, as I watched the first episode of The Book of Boba Fett this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to see a droid that was new to the Star Wars universe, but all too familiar to many of its viewers. As Boba Fett and Fennec Shand walked down the streets of Mos Espa, three of Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots were being shepherded along by a young Tatooine girl. Despite the minimal costuming, they were very clearly Spot, but in case you had any doubts, Boston Dynamics confirmed as much in a tweet on The Book of Boba Fett’s debut:

A lot of Star Wars fans took issue with Spot’s presence in the new TV show, criticizing its presence as breaking immersion at best and shameless product placement at worst. Maybe this is just me crushing over Boston Dynamics again, but I loved to see them there. I will admit when I saw the group of Spots, I was taken out of the show briefly, but the same thing happens to me when I see a filming technique I’m familiar with. The more you know about the real world and behind the scenes, the harder it can be to stay immersed. That doesn’t mean we should stop using cutting-edge technology in film just because the audience can recognize it. And as far as product placement goes, it’d be one thing if Fennec had cracked open a Coke as they strolled down the dusty streets on Tatooine, but if there was ever a product that actually belonged in the star wars universe, real life robots are it!

Of course, Spot is hardly the first robot to be used in cinema, especially if you count animatronics. In fact, some of the most useful robots in film are never seen in the final production. That’s because they’re holding the camera! The use of camera robots has become more and more popular in movies, TV, and other visual media like commercials and music videos.

Camera Robots in Cinema

In the recently released Wheel of Time series on Amazon, episode 7 opens with a fight scene that is choreographed wonderfully and skillfully executed by Czech stuntwoman Magdalena Šittová. Much of the sequence was filmed using a Phantom camera on a Bolt Cinema Robot arm. This allowed for high speed, precise camera movements and high frame rate footage that could be slowed down for gorgeous slow-motion shots. For added range of motion, they put the Bolt on a track, a common practice with these types of robots. Of course, with a robot this size moving at speeds of up to 2m/s, any stunt woman or man who finds themselves in that path would be in serious trouble. In manufacturing environments, similar robots would be kept behind guarding to protect operators, but that wouldn’t fly here. Kudos to Jan Petrina, Marek Svitek, and the rest of the stunt coordinator team for safely putting together this great sequence, and of course, hats off to Majda for her amazing performance. For more behind the scenes on shooting this sequence, check out Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time – A Look Inside Episode 7.

Camera robots aren’t just for TV and movies. They’re used in commercials all the time, and recently, I’m seeing them more in music videos too. The first time I recognized a camera robot shot was in Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. music video (content warning).

From 1:57 to 2:07, Kendrick maintains eye contact with a camera robot as it sweeps to different pre-programmed positions, timed perfectly to the beats of the song. A few months back, Sisu Cinema Robotics shared a behind the scenes video from Tech N9ne’s recent music video for Face Off (content warning), where they used a C20 to capture a couple of motion-controlled shots of Tech N9ne (0:52-1:04) and Joey Cool (1:39-1:45) in the music video. The precise repeatability of cinema robots really comes in handy when shooting something like Tech N9ne’s sequence, where it looks like a continuous shot, but his face is becoming more and more painted. These are, in reality, separate shots with cuts hidden by motion, but it appears seamless due to the matched motion of the C20.

When it comes to camera robots, more important than the hardware is the software, the brains behind the movements. There are several motion control softwares out there designed specifically to work with camera robots, including Lensmaster by Camerabotics, MP Studio by Motorized Precision, and Sisu Lab by Sisu Cinema Robotics. Key features of these programs are the ability to set keyframes to control vertical and horizontal position, tilt, roll, pan, and FIZ (focus, iris, and zoom). Users can use anything from proprietary controllers to Xbox controllers to slowly jog to the camera position and FIZ they want and set a keyframe, then work in a timeline editor to map everything out and make any further adjustments to timing or setpoints. Some motion control software offers previsualization capabilities so the whole sequence can be mapped out before ever moving a thing. For more on camera robots, check out MKBHD‘s video, Dope Tech: Camera Robots!

Robots in cinema are here to stay, both in front of and behind the cameras, so I hope you can learn to love them like I do!