Why I Made Friends with Robots

Why I made friends with robots.

by Alex Fernbach

We know that Motion Control can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! Today’s MoCo technology is easier than ever to master. Let me show you how MoCo makes precision moves manageable, so getting the shot can be fast, cost-effective and maybe even ‘good times’.

MoCo is about the mindset.

As a Cinematographer, DP, and Effects Supervisor, I’ve come to rely on non-linear problem solving to arrive at the simplest and most cost-effective solutions. Start with the shot you want to create, then ‘zoom out,’ breaking it down into smaller, more manageable components. Next, envision how they all fit together. When you ‘zoom out’ this way, it’s easier to see all the facets of a single shot, and you open the door to ‘eureka moments’. For example, what looks like a complex camera-moving problem can often be reimagined, and you’ll discover that it’s simpler to move the object, instead.

Get the story behind the shot.

Getting the backstory helps you process the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind great Motion Control executions. That’s always more valuable than just knowing ‘what’ was done. One side-by-side, time-lapse product shot demanded a novel solution… It started with two hand models smearing deodorant sticks on a sheet of sandpaper. Then came the 2-3 hours of time-lapse to show off the product’s performance. Because of the time-lapse, we wouldn’t know if we had a good take for hours. We also had to repeat this demo with several competitors’ products. We were severely crunched for time, but MoCo came to the rescue! We build 3 sandpaper cubes, then wrote a simple Motion Control move to turn the cubes from facet to facet. This way, we were able to shoot 12 takes at a time instead of one. In record time, our delighted client got about 50 takes to choose from! Now, any time you run into a similar problem, you’ll have a sense of how MoCo can help solve it.

Find a right-sized solution.

When you ‘zoom out’ and see the big picture, a shot that looks complex on the surface might be achievable with an absurdly simple solution. One commercial product job required oversized pills to roll out of a shot, revealing the ‘hero product’ in the background. The producer first came to us with an elements list a mile long. He envisioned the pills being actuated by arms from above, but given the production time it would have taken to shoot all the picture and matte passes, this would have been a herculean task. (Not to mention all the rig removal and reflection restoration)… The right-sized Motion Control solution was inexpensive and far from complicated. We put the pills on tiny sleds with a magnet, then ran a magnetic rig under the table to move them. Our magnetic rigging was invisible, the effect was in-camera, and the solution created ZERO post-production ramifications. Again, great success!

Don’t be afraid to ‘retro-tech.’

So, as you can see, being clever and inventive is infinitely more important than just having the latest gadget! I’ll tell you one more story about seeing things differently. On another shoot, we had a challenging water shot to pull off. We needed a high-speed macro shot of a pebble falling into the water, making a crown-shaped splash, but without seeing the stone. In linear thinking, one might say we have to hide the pebble somehow. By breaking it down and seeing all the angles, I was able to devise a simple solution. We cut a hole in the bottom of a shallow tank, stretched some latex across the gap, and connected a motion-controlled motor to push and pull the center of the latex creating a beautiful ‘crown effect’ without the pebble.

Lastly, get good advice.

I can’t imagine any aspect of cinema requiring a more ‘consultative’ approach than Motion Control. When you hire a motion control company, you should be getting some solid advice as to how best to achieve the desired shot. Work with a supplier who spends some quality time with you discussing the nuances of the shoot, planning out the schedule, resource allocation, and system redundancies. This sort of service and support helps your production to contain costs and deliver uncompromised creative work.

The takeaway.

Motion Control is a unique blend of analytical problem-solving and out-of-the-box creativity. Get your mind around big shots by breaking them down into smaller components; tailor the solution to the problem; and seek out the best advice you can get. You’ll be amazed at how this ‘Big Picture’ approach can help make your MoCo projects manageable, and even fun!


About Alex Fernbach.

Alex Fernbach is a Director and Cinematographer who’s worked on TV commercials for some of the world’s most iconic brands, as well as feature films, television documentaries, short films and trailers. He is an industry-renowned thought leader, having appeared as a featured speaker at major universities, film festivals and industry events.

Alex is an innovator at the forefront of Motion Control Technology and in-camera Visual Effects. The pursuit of this passion led him to design and invent the 1st Array Camera in the US, which he sold to ‘The Matrix’, producing the legendary ‘bullet time’ effect and revolutionizing cinema.

Alex is also the co-owner of Cobalt Stages, by-producers, for-producers turnkey soundstage in Hoboken, N.J. offering state-of-the-art production solutions, onsite and on location.

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Variety Magazine, Take 2 🎬

Variety, take 2 🎬

The ‘Congrats’ and ‘Likes’ keep pouring in concerning our headlining moment in Variety Magazine. The article is about the Jersey film experience and how the state has shifted to accommodate for the creation of state-of-the-art sound stages. As early NJ pioneers, Cobalt was the first true Turnkey Soundstage and the first to offer Virtual Production to the East Coast film community. Thank you Variety for this beautiful recognition 🙂

VR stages vs location shooting.

The article also highlights the move away from location shooting to VR stages and platforms across the entire Industry. Of course, location shooting has been a staple in the business for decades, but more agreeable and cost effective solutions are now at hand. Even landmark location shoots now have an easy alternative.

Sure, you could shoot in Central Park, apply for and then pay for the permits, deal with potential scheduling issues (weather, anyone?). Or you could shoot Central Park in idealized comfort at a VR stage, and no one’s the wiser. Plug in some quick post on the fly, and you’ll find Cobalt makes for an ideal turnkey operation.

Simplicity + adaptability = virtual production anywhere!

Clearly, we’re changing how we do what we do. From commercials to episodics to features, the ease and adaptability of these fast forward applications is causing a pivot in our direction. More and more, producers are realizing just how budget and schedule friendly it can all be.

So, it seems what was once Plan B, now is a firm Plan A. With everything shifting the way it is, we find ourselves standing nicely on both familiar and evolving ground. Team Cobalt is now more mobile, more able, and more reachable than ever before.

Our exciting new news is that we can now set up our Virtual Backlot in YOUR backlot 🙂 Just tell us when and where to drop the appropriate-sized green screen and we are virtual on the spot. You want an LED wall? We can handle that too. Want a set extension? No problem.

And, of course, we check all the boxes: it’s quick to set up; hosts Unreal assets; has rock solid camera tracking; you can beam in or zoom. Yes, and speaking of checking all the boxes… Virtual Production is even Green, and Cobalt is a Woman Owned Business. You can even choose to go ‘final pixel’, or noodle with the elements in post. Virtual Production has NEVER been so simple, so flexible and accessible. It’s cost conscious VR technology at your doorstep, when and where you need it.

Stay tuned to this space! More exciting news to come!
And don’t be shy!! Call us, so we can tell you about it!

Learn about Virtual Production
and how to use it?

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Netflix Camera Tests

Netflix camera tests put our turnkey studio to the test.

The challenge.

Repeat client, Netflix, came back to Cobalt to test camera, lens, lighting, and filter combinations to create the mood the director had in mind before the new season began… Camera test days are different situations from production where prep decisions and artistic choices are mostly decided in advance. For this kind of project, the Director of Photography experiments to push the limit of what their camera and lens packages can do. You might need a slider, some atmosphere in the air, or a powerful light—all of which Cobalt can provide on the spot.

The solution.

Our Turnkey Soundstage was built to support the flexible needs of productions on every kind of assignment, including this one. The DP conducted open-ended experiments to learn the equipment and design the film’s look and feel. To use the space and time even more efficiently, the production used our wardrobe and talent holding areas to select and try on costumes and test and see how they moved so that animators could sketch the wardrobe in motion. Then, combining these elements, the lighting and the color palettes of fabrics got to merge and play together, too. Lastly, they used garment steamers, rolling racks, and more, putting everything we had to productive use!

The impact.

This kind of behind-the-scenes learning could never happen in an empty warehouse without sacrificing efficiency and cost savings. Cobalt’s versatile space and comprehensive equipment and amenities made the day run smoothly, and this Netflix production wrapped a successful day on a high note. We’re a grab bag of opportunity when it comes to testing!! Plus, we have killer AC 😉

Learn about Virtual Production
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Our Field Trip to Mo-Sys!

Our field trip to Mo-Sys.

After our production job in Los Angeles.

In case you aren’t familiar… Mo-Sys is an award-winning, world-renowned manufacturer of virtual production solutions. We’ve been watching them VERY closely, and have been headed down the virtual path with them for a while now (wink wink). We met with the Mo-Sys guys at NAB and Cinegear; but then, we really decided to take the bull by the horns, and meet with them at their own laboratory after producing our verite commercial spots in Los Angeles.

Our visit to the Mo-Sys facilities did not disappoint. We were greeted with an impressive assortment of high-end gear. The future of filmmaking was paraded right out in front of us. The Mo-Sys demonstrations were eye opening, and while we’ve known that tech like this has been around for a while now, to see ONE state of the art system work for both a green-screen AND an LED application was pretty darn cool…

The hardware.

The Mo-Sys virtual production system was exactly what we’d hoped it would be. The design and form factor was tidy and impressive; the operating system was extremely well designed; and in most cases, it obviated the need for the sometimes problematic ‘Brain Bar’.

Their VSet solution enables a wide range of implementation options, from simple camera tracking metadata to be used in post, to full up ‘final pixel’ 4K composites, and everything else in between. You really can’t ask for more than that. It was impressive to see, to feel, to know that this technology not only exists but is, in fact, now the Industry standard. The world of filmmaking is exploding into the virtual realm, and our one-on-one with Mo-Sys seriously confirmed it. Thank you, Andrew, Vanesa, and Allen!!

The future of film is virtual.

Clearly, Mo-Sys is riding our kind of wave! Their vision is bold and exciting, and their VSet solution would easily complement our full suite of services at Cobalt. Hmmmm….. Imagine being able to composite your high res 4K Live Action into dynamic, photorealistic Unreal environments with precision camera tracking, while shooting. It’s an end-to-end virtual production solution that can combine pre-viz, production, and post. Now clients can choose the workflow that’s perfect for their virtual project. Yes, color correction and compositing can be done onset while shooting. If this is the future, then sign us up.

Keep a firm eye on this space. The sky is virtually the limit. I think we will have more to say very soon.

Mo-Sys has our undivided attention.

Learn about Virtual Production
and how to use it?

Cobalt’s got you covered. As the first company to offer Virtual Sets on the East Coast, we have the experience to guide you. Let’s have some fun 😉

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Cobalt + Khaite = 2022 Fashion Show

It's kind of a big deal.

Science in the Service of Art.

And when we bring our laboratory to you…this is what it looks like. Our digital, mechanical, hydraulic and robotic production capabilities extend far beyond any we’ve encountered before. With our decades of experience to guide you and our comprehensive inventory of tools and technology, we can help produce for practically any purpose. From a simple product display to programmable robotics, we’re here to help you, quite simply, elevate your image 😉

On Location with Khaite.

Big challenges are usually pretty obvious—but small challenges tend to emerge at the last moment. Cobalt layers in safety nets to ensure that doesn’t happen to you. When you work with us, we ask lots of follow up questions about your production needs because we have the experience to anticipate some of the problems before they happen. Then, when you’re on set, we have a wealth of rigging tools, so if a problem emerges, there’s often a solution, just waiting to be assembled. For example, just 2 weeks ago… The Khaite runway project asked us to program the articulation of a 120LB light, in sync with music cues and other lighting effects. For the 14 minute long move, along a 60 foot track, our Gazelle did a little diddy while the infamous Khaite and 50 of her top-model peers purposed around it.

On Location with Khaite.

Whether it’s getting the camera precisely perpendicular to a product, or keeping an outdoor motion control rig from sinking into the sod, working with us enables your one-of-a-kind production problems to be solved faster, cheaper, easier and better. We’ve invested heavily in versatile, professional rigging gear. For instance, the Berkey system… an erector set for rig building… With our extensive Berkey inventory at Cobalt, you can custom-configure rigs on the fly to create your ideal solution quickly. But that’s not all. In addition to having great rigging gear to support your production needs, we also stock generous quantities of expendables—the tape, the plexiglass and all the odds and ends that, with some ingenuity, can get your production back on track without wasting time.

Speaking of time...

When we talk about motion control and rigging, you might picture a robotic camera crane. Well, that’s part of it… but, in precision camera work, your frame-accurate timing is just as essential as your camera movement. One shoot’s concept: a model walking onstage with the camera following her, and while she walks, her wardrobe changes—feels conceptually simple, right? Tape marked the floor so she knew where to step, but that only solved for space, not time. So how do you ensure that your talent is in the right place at the right time?? In this scenario, we offered a solution through our motion control operating system. It was a bell, rigged to a digital/ analog converter, programmed to ring at ½ second intervals that enabled the model to replicate the identical cadence. The effect was a success. We have a number of interfaces that enable synchronicity. So, go ahead and choreograph a chorus line of runway models! We’re well-equipped to help you work your magic.

Learn about Virtual Production
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Cobalt at Cinegear 2022

CINEGEAR: Robots, Good Friends and Virtual Production.

The Cinegear Expo stepped out from NAB’s shadow this year with an amazing display of developing and evolving production tech. Again, Team Cobalt was close by and thought to drop in, and again, we were just blown away by it all! So much is happening and all at once. Where to start?

Robots! Robots! Robots!

There seemed to be as many robots at the expo as there were people. All of the robo-tech companies had amazing new interfaces to the point where the overarching design concept seemed to be the ability to put the controls into the hands of the completely uninitiated AND to have it work fluidly. Yes, there are always trade-offs, but motion control has been hamstrung with the complexity of the interfaces and a multitude of complex function for some time now… The best operating systems were always about increasing functionality and adding advanced features. Today, the calling card is SIMPLICITY – using AR and AI to aid in writing the moves.

All of the interfaces were new custom apps. Some featured a ‘mimic’ mode where the camera op could use their iPhone, or articulate a pendant to create the move gesture, and the robot would glide over to the start position, figure out where the robot base would need to be, and run the move.

Friends: Joe Lewis, Mo-sys, and Rocket Lab

We also stopped by to visit our friend Joe Lewis at General Lift who showed us some of his latest motion control developments, including an articulating chair to critically (and quickly) position subjects for scanning. Joe also showed us his personally-designed, beautiful sub-miniature 3 axis head which he wryly calls the ‘Knucklehead’. Quintessential Joe…! 💕Alex says, “Think DykstraFlex addressing the modern camera ‘form factor’ of this digital century.”

Then, we were off to see our friends at Mo-Sys to get a deep dive hands-on experience of their fully integrated Virtual Production solution. It’s arguably the best tracker around that’s integrated to be a complete production solution suitable for shooting either on traditional green screen or in an LED volume.

Also, our friends at Rocket Lab not only had an amazing Staubli based robot, but also breakthrough software AND a cable cam system that can span up to 3 football fields.

For Team Cobalt, it’s been an eye-opening year. Our Airstream tour has taken us from Coast to Coast, from Expo to Expo, and we couldn’t be more thrilled by it all. We love what we have been doing for almost 30 years, what we are doing now, and what we will achieve for our clients in the years ahead. It’s such a remarkable time to be riding the wave.

Stay tuned. More waves to ride! (cue the Beach Boys) 🤙

Learn about Virtual Production
and how to use it?

Cobalt’s got you covered. As the first company to offer Virtual Sets on the East Coast, we have the experience to guide you. Let’s have some fun 😉

ASK US ABOUT VIRTUAL

Need Basic Production
solutions and support?

THAT'S EASY - CALL US

Cobalt’s Production solutions: From verite to virtual.

iPhone = Collapsing the barrier between cast and crew.

Following our weekend at NAB in Vegas, we put our focus on the task at hand: location shooting on the West Coast, and can you believe it, on four iPhone 13 Pros. Our clients wanted authentic, veritas-style spots capturing the essence of a Carne Asada celebration, and we were dealing with a very non-traditional cast… To the point, the content featured actual families of untrained actors.

From verite to virtual.

Serious challenges were anticipated because of what we believed to be very real limitations. However, those supposed limitations were not limiting at all. In fact, we were more than a bit wowed at how easily and comfortably our talent opened up before the iPhone screen.

As it turns out, the iPhone is truly a magical portal, one that quickly lends itself to organic storytelling. With the removal of heavy, professional camera gear and huge crews, the set felt less like a production, more personal, more intimate. In other words, our cast came to life before the iPhone in ways that just could not have been anticipated.

Barriers collapsed. Real life emerged. Suddenly, it wasn’t a director yelling action, but crazy Aunt Kara and Uncle Alex in the park with family and friends… The results were immediate and remarkable. Our martini shot came and went with the blink of an eye.

Cobalt Productions emerges.

While Team Cobalt and Variety Magazine together celebrate our state-of-the-art Virtual Backlot, with a long list of satisfied clients, we were thrilled to discover that we are more than the sum of our parts. Yes, our stage will be back online shortly. And yet, we could not be more pleased for the chance to adapt and move forward into a bold new space, a simple degree away from our agnostic approach to always find the best way to service our clients.

The recent success of our LA shoots have assured us that now is the time for Cobalt Productions to emerge and compliment our family of professional services to our good friends and clients in the filmmaking community.

Keep a sharp eye on this space. So many exciting details to come!

Learn about Virtual Production
and how to use it?

Cobalt’s got you covered. As the first company to offer Virtual Sets on the East Coast, we have the experience to guide you. Let’s have some fun 😉

ASK US ABOUT VIRTUAL

Need Basic Production
solutions and support?

THAT'S EASY - CALL US

Cobalt embraces the curve.

For years now, Team Cobalt has stayed well ahead of the curve with Virtual Production techniques and capabilities. Our recent spotlight in Variety Magazine is a testament to our growth. No matter the many hurdles and challenges come our way, we have adapted. Remember the Darwin quote about “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change?”

And who knew that the curve would become so cool!?!

 

Virtual set technology is hot.

When Industry bigs like Kathleen Kennedy and John Favreau talk, the Industry lends a pretty big ear! And the two had quite a lot to say about their production of ‘The Mandalorian’… In fact, this acclaimed series was the first to ever use Volume technology. Though green and blue screen tech serve as more cost-effective alternatives, LED volumes are impressive and appropriate in certain applications.

The merging of rock-solid camera tracking and final pixel real-time compositing has created new ways of image crafting. These ‘new ways’ are clearly past their birthing stages and are now one of the fastest growing and easily adaptable technologies. Period. We’re proud to say that Cobalt, along with our fast-forward peers, has absolutely disrupted filmmaking and production, along with the entertainment Industry as a whole.

Advancements in film production, postproduction, gaming and even VR (remote) viewership are breaking almost monthly. Filmmakers and audiences alike are adapting on the fly. It’s a remarkable time to be in the biz, to grab the reins and bring storytelling to such new and daring levels.

On that note, we’re sharing the full post here for your enjoyment!

VIEW FULL POST

Ready to learn more about Virtual Sets and how to use them?

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TALK ABOUT VIRTUAL PRODUCTION

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Variety Sends a Wink and a Nod to Cobalt’s ‘Hollywood on the Hudson’

Cobalt has proudly served the a Northeast film community since 1995. In the past 27 years, we have set high standards and created new opportunities for filmmakers and storytellers by way of our innovative turnkey production facility and virtual set campus. We are Hollywood on the Hudson.

And now, after decades of success, we have been blessed with a quick nod from the crown of all things precious in our beloved industry, Variety. Yep, there we are, headlining their article with an in-studio shot of our very own VR stage. Our baby is all grown up and we could not be more proud.

“A turnkey production facility and virtual set campus, Cobalt Stages brings Hollywood to the Hudson.”

What’s next for Cobalt? Well, we are not one for sitting on our literal laurels. Cobalt is breaking new ground, taking on new challenges with our Mobile Virtual Production experience which can, literally, happen any place, anytime, and anywhere. It’s a mobile plug & play solution that we can’t wait to tell you more about 🙂

With our bread-and-butter VFX & motion control experience, coupled with Virtual Production prowess, we are now fully invested in expanding our ability to provide for client needs across the board, across the borders and across the country. As Garrison Wynn once said, “Action and adaptability create opportunity”. And believe me when I say, opportunity is knocking like never before! So, watch this Cobalt space. State of the art is no longer defined by the span of so many years. It’s happening today. And then it’s happening again next week. We’ll see you then!

READ THE VARIETY ARTICLE

Ready to learn more about Virtual Sets and how to use them?

Cobalt’s got you covered. As the first studio to offer Virtual Sets publicly on the East Coast, we have the experience to guide you. Let’s have some fun 😉

TALK ABOUT VIRTUAL PRODUCTION

Shoot with Cobalt and take advantage of the New Jersey Tax Credit

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NAB 2022 - What happens in Vegas, isn't staying in Vegas...

We're bringing home all sorts of Virtual Production goodness!

Cobalt Stages has reached a milestone in our road trip. Our beloved Airstream has arrived at the desert of deserts to attend the premier event for media, technology, and entertainment. Of course, we’re talking about the 2022 National Association of Broadcaster’s big showdown in Vegas! And this time, what happens in Vegas most certainly is NOT staying in Vegas ;)

We are here to embrace and explore the future… VSET is where its at baby..! Did I say, “Virtual Production, here we come???” If not, let me say it again! From advancements in AI to mixed realities… and from VSets to new postproduction techniques… The Industry is clearly on the verge of unprecedented change. So, stay tuned for our report and Insights! Viva Las Vegas and the NAB! Boooyyahhhhh