On February 11, at the 84th Annual Academy Awards
® for Technical Achievements, Michael Lewis, Greg Marsden, Raigo Alas and Michael Vellekoop will receive a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for the concept, design and implementation of the Pictorvision
Eclipse, an electronically stabilized aerial camera platform.
"Pictorvision is a leader in the aerial cinematography equipment industry," says Pictorvision President Tom Hallman. "Recent films that have used the Eclipse for their aerial cinematography include Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I, Fast Five, The Hangover Part II, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Thor, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
and the upcoming Man on a Ledge
Capturing footage from on high is fraught with difficulties, and the Pictorvision team that designed the Eclipse has been involved in aerial stabilization for cameras for 28 years. The Eclipse has been recognized by the Academy for its advanced steering, stability and pointing capabilities.
Pictorvision Long Line. Click on image to zoom.
Principal Engineer Mike Lewis expands on the ways that the Eclipse excels. "We adapted it to the air and put a fair bit of work into making it as user friendly as possible and as close as possible to the interfaces of past technologies," he says. "Now, with the Eclipse, the user community is getting used to the ability to move the aircraft aggressively and roll the camera. The Eclipse has all three axes of steering all the time."
Michael Lewis and Michael Vellekoop of Pictorvision with the Eclipse system
"The key point is how quickly the Eclipse has grown to be used in a majority of feature film aerial work," adds Hallman. "The Eclipse is not just an upgrade of older technology but a brand new system based on a lot of military grade technology. We went through a list of suggestions that operators had and addressed each one. It's the whole system that makes it whiz bang."
The Eclipse is a fourth generation of development in aerial camera stabilization platforms, says Lewis, who briefly describes the history of the technology and the technology team involved. "Westinghouse Canada developed the technology in the 1960s," he says. "Patents were sold to the chief engineer (Knox Leavitt) who started the company Istec Ltd. and produced the "Wescam" system. This company underwent a management buy-out with Mark Chamberlain as the president and was renamed Wescam Inc. (Pictorvision spun off from Wescam in 2004.) While Raigo was involved in the original technology development at Westinghouse, Mike Vellekoop and I came along during the Istec days in the mid 1980s. Greg arrived in the mid 1990s for the start of the Gen-IV technology development."
He describes how the original stabilized camera platforms were based on mass-type gyros. "Mass gyros are based on the principle that the spin axis of a spinning mass will remain in a fixed direction in space unless acted upon by an external influence," he explains. "In those first generation stabilized camera platforms, it was a large spinning brass wheels to make the payload appear more massive than it is, which stabilized it. In those first generation systems, it's primarily the passive inertia of the system that tries to keep it still, with a control system built around that."
Pictorvision Eclipse 3D rig. Click on image to zoom.
Through the 1980s, this first-generation platform was fine-tuned, getting better and better. By the end of the 1980s, second and then third generation systems began making their way into the market. "In the second generation, there are no massive spinning wheels," says Lewis. "Mechanical gyros sense the movements of the camera and applies torque to cancel out those unwanted motions." What Lewis calls the third generation was a tweak on the second "We discovered we could get higher performance if we used a different sort of motor," he says. "We were able to get very good control of the forces we applied on the payload."
The Eclipse. Taken November 5th, 2008 using a Nikon D40
The third generation of camera stabilization platforms was more complicated in that they stacked a limited travel, high performance inner gimbal on top of a lower performance, large travel outer gimbal with passive isolation in-between. The result had no steering limitations. In 1995, Wescam started developing a fourth generation system. "It was very similar to the third generation," says Lewis. "But instead of torquing each actuator through a set of bearing constraints, it torqued across the bearings constraints. This bypassed the constraint structure, the stiffness of which limited the performance."
Along the way, the system evolved from mechanical to fiber optic gyros, which made a big difference in performance. "Some mechanical systems have troubles," says Lewis. "If you disturb the platform -- say, by an aggressive move -- it becomes unstable. Then you have to wait five minutes until it leveled out in order to resume steering. With fiber optics gyros, the stability of the platform is tracked in software, so you can't lose track of it."
This has freed pilots to accomplish much more. "You could topple the passive gyros if you turned too quickly, but light doesn't tip over," says Hallman. "The pilots love it because they don't have to baby the helicopter. It frees them up to fly how they choose to."
Eclipse was released in the market in 2008, based on a system that had been developed for the ground-based stable head market in the entertainment industry in 2000. "The technology itself has been around for awhile," says Lewis. The Pictorvision Eclipse also incorporates the company's proprietary patented XR Motion Management technology that enables the most advanced steering, stability and pointing/tracking capabilities.
Pictorvision President Tom Hallman
"The newness in the Eclipse is taking that generation of stability and adapting it to an airborne system very similar in look and feel to former systems." Lewis explains that aerial cinematographers were accustomed to a configuration in which the right side of the system is the stabilization, with a tilt platform on the left where the camera is mounted. "This technology doesn't want to be configured that way," he says. "But we did a lot of work so it could be configured the way they were used to. The difficulty was in trying to come up with a configuration that the community could easily adapt to."
The fact that Pictorvision succeeded in doing so is proven by the long list of films the system is used on, and validated by the Academy's bestowal of a SciTech Award.
"We continue to work closely with top directors, DPs and leaders in the VFX community to make performance improvements and add features and capabilities to our five existing Eclipse systems," says Hallman. "It's the constant improvements we make -- such as adding new cameras and lenses and new accessories such as the rain spinner -- that keeps customers calling us first. And, of course, we're always looking at ways to apply the core XR Motion Management to other systems and to other industries beyond filmmaking."
Just as digital has forever changed camera technology, its impact is being felt in many different ways in Hollywood. The Pictorvision Eclipse is a great example of how -- by continuing to evolve with technology and customer input -- a platform can not only retain relevance but become an industry standard.
ACADEMY AWARDS® is the registered trademark and service mark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.
This story on Pictorvision is one of a series on the winners of the Scientific and Engineering Awards.
The Scientific and Engineering Award® (Academy Plaque) goes to Michael Lewis, Greg Marsden, Raigo Alas and Michael Vellekoop for the concept, design and implementation of the Pictorvision Eclipse, an electronically stabilized aerial camera platform.