Tracking the impossible: Motion Impossible’s VR and 360° film technology
From an award-winning wildlife and nature cameraman to pioneering technology entrepreneur, Rob Drewett has scored a number of firsts. Back in his BBC filming days – he worked on programmes including the BAFTA-award winning Planet Earth II, Life Story and Hidden Kingdoms – he was the first person in the UK to use Gimbal’s camera-stabilisation technology for his wildlife shoots. Now he’s working on the first remote filming systems devised for VR, alongside product design engineer Andy Nancollis.
The pair set up Motion Impossible in 2014, with the aim of creating new and innovate ways to move cameras in film, TV, 360° video and VR. The company was founded, largely, to find solutions for Rob’s own film work, solutions that proved so popular in the industry that others wanted them too.
The early seeds were sown when Freefly Systems brought its MoVI camera technology prototypes to the BBC. Rob became one of its key UK users and began looking for a way to expand its functionality into off-road filming and mount the rig on a radio-controlled (RC) car. Meeting Andy, who was the chairman of a local RC club, as well as an engineer, the pair built a prototype and took it to the Wildscreen Film Festival.
Armed with a more advanced model several months later, they gate-crashed the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam to drive their new MANTIS around the show before being kicked out by security. The hook worked though. Enough companies had seen the technology’s potential for filming VR and they were invited back in. “VR people could see what we were doing and how it could benefit them, as they needed a stabilised platform for filming”, explains Rob.
After the Web Summit in Dublin, they got a contract to film the heavy metal outfit Megadeth in the US, using the MANTIS prototype and so, made the band’s first VR music video. And following the official launch of MANTIS at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas in 2016, they got orders for 10 products. Since then, they have been selling in 20 countries around the world, attracting interest from film-makers working in 360° film and VR.
What’s the technology behind it?
The very first MANTIS model was a stripped-down four-wheel drive vehicle from the hobby world, pared right back to the chassis and transmission, with new suspension and parts added to make it more stable and carry more weight. They became the first ever company to move VR cameras, something previously considered almost impossible due to the motion sickness it would cause.
Rob explains how it works. “If you go slowly, straight and it’s stable you won’t get motion sickness. It’s fast acceleration, sudden stopping and turning corners too fast that sends you off-balance and makes you feel sick. Combination syncing your ears to your eyes with good 3D sound makes the whole experience comfortable enough to watch for most viewers.”
To combat low level vibration caused by the fixed position of the early design, the pair designed the V-CON, a low-level vertical axis stabiliser and V-CON XL for high-level stabilisation, both of which fit onto the modular MANTIS system. It has an operating range of up to 300m/1000ft and a quiet electric motor system for use in challenging filming environments, generating on-the-spot shots with no set up times.
New product launch
Unlike the MANTIS, which was based on re-building existing technology, the company’s latest product, a robotic dolly system called the AGITO, is entirely bespoke, built from the ground up. The latest version, which is even quieter than the previous model – “nearly silent” – will launch in April of this year. It’s built to do two things, says Rob, film in standard formats and film in VR.
“We’ve already sold the Mantis to companies like CNN, Facebook, Viacom and GoPro. We have very good industry connections and get their feedback as to what they need – so we know what the requirements are and build products to supply the demand.”
— Rob Drewett
How is the company funded?
The company has been completely commercially funded up until now and the business has grown on the revenue made from selling, and filming with, their products. However, they are now keen to tap into investment opportunities to grow the company to the next level.
Recent projects include filming on the recent BBC Big Cats series, where the team used their state-of-the-art technology to capture astonishing images from alongside a sprinting cheetah – you can see the shoot in action here.
They also worked alongside the England rugby team as part of the Wear The Rose VR campaign launched during last year’s Six Nations tournament in collaboration with O2. Users were invited to come a member of the England team and completed tasks to find out if they were good enough to play for their country.
How has the company grown to meet the demand?
From the early days of just Rob and Andy working in Rob’s garage, Motion Impossible now employs 10 full-time staff and six part-time. The team consists of technology lovers, design engineers and remote vehicle fanatics but, says Rob, it has been a challenge to find the skillsets the company needs and attract the right people.
“We are still quite a small start-up and we need to recruit people at the top of their game, so they need to have confidence in us and trust that we’ll take their career to the next level. Also, we’re in Bristol, which has a good tech hub, but it’s not London. But we seem to be doing well so far and people are genuinely excited about what we’re doing and want to be involved.”
What other challenges have they found?
Rob reveals that the business side of operations has been a completely new area for them, pointing out that he is a cameraman and Andy is an engineer – “we had no business nous whatsoever”. An accelerator group called SETsquared, an enterprise collaboration between the universities of Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, provided valuable business support and advice however.
Preparing for the future is another key challenge, staying ahead of the curve in predicting what is coming next, how augmented reality might develop and what will be the next big technologies. In terms of their own future direction, Rob explains, they have a patent for a product that will stabilise any type of sensor, data capture device or 360° cameras and are currently developing new technology to enable this.
What does that future look like?
In filming, there is a need for high quality data capture in 360° video, volumetric capture, scanning, meshing, and 3D mapping, explains Rob. “We’re coming to the point where we need high quality positional data. Essentially we are making our equipment into robots.” He believes that the film industry will see a big wave of robotics in the next 10 years.
Moving into other sectors is also an option for them, from broadcast media to construction and infrastructure monitoring, basically any sector that requires data capture, which, as Rob explains, is what filming is – the capturing of an image. He says he is excited about where this is going and the potential for it to grow.
“We have already sold to companies like Facebook, CNN, Viacom and Adidas, they have all bought our rigs. These are the type of people we’re in conversation with, we talk to them to see what else they need and what their plans are for the future. In particular, we’re doing a lot of work with Facebook. Their platform is all about VR in the future and we’re working alongside them to support their plans.”
Other potential areas of development for them include capturing film sets before use and creating 3D meshing scan models of sets to make virtual sets. They are also interested in providing repeatability for effects, the ability to be able to repeat a move anywhere – not just in a studio or where there are tracks – but to do it without tracking, without having to devote set-up time to it.
“We have built a disruptive tool for the industry. People are still pushing trolleys around film sets, now we’re given them a controller so they can work with more precision. This hasn’t always been a welcome addition of course. It mainly affects people working as grips and not all of them want to see this change happen, but some are embracing it. We’re also talking to some very big-name directors in the field and they are very enthusiastic about this development. We’re bringing a new level of robotic camera to the industry.”
Words by Bernadette Fallon