Arduino powered time-lapse dolly.

One of the great and often daunting aspects of the Arduino platform is it’s potential. The possibilities are limited only by imagination. And this is something that can often be paralysing – with so many opportunities, where do you start?

Soon after I got my Arduino Uno, I began to develop an idea based on something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. I have always been fascinated by time-lapse video, and in particular, the sequences in which motorised dollies are used to move the camera in a tracking motion within the sequence. This camera movement amongst the motion of everything else occurring in the scene can used to creative effect, for example, by tracking objects within the scene, or panning or tilting with the subject matter.

Among some of my favourite recent examples of time-lapse work are Michael König’s edit of photography of Earth taken onboard the ISS, Patryk Kizny’s (@PatrykKizny) ‘The Chapel’ and Sean Stiegemeier’s (@sstieg) time-lapse video of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupting in May 2010. Each of these sequences have amazing production values thanks to their really great use of advanced photography techniques and the high level of attention to detail afforded in the setup, post production and editing of sequences.

Another time-lapse sequence  that I’ve never forgotten is the one featured in Series 2, Episode 5, of the TV programme ‘Spaced’ (Spaced – ‘Gone’ – about 4:55 into this episode). And if I’m honest, despite all of the other beautifully and artistically shot sequences that I have referred to, I think this one was so brilliantly executed as a narrative device and serves as a massive inspiration for this project. ‘Spaced’ director, Edgar Wright, is also a bit of a personal hero as far as awesomely creative production skills go.

So, my aim with this project, and it’ll be a bit of a long term one, is to build a time-lapse dolly which will allow a camera to be transported around on a motorised, wheeled base on top of which it can be panned, tilted, and the camera shutter be triggered. For convenience, I’m using an iPhone 4s as the camera as the camera on the dolly, which will also allow me to make use of it’s existing functionality, including an 8MP camera with the potential to shoot using HDR, and a great range of photography and post production apps that it has to offer. This will also give me more time to concentrate on the automation of the dolly itself and hopefully get some decent sequences recorded.

There have already been a fair few arduino based time-lapse systems proving it to be a popular project for those working with the arduino platform. And although I am sure there must be some already out there, I am yet to see a project which deviates far from the traditional form factor that professionally built dolly’s take – that of a rolling platform on rails which can be mounted on tripods (see DitoGear’s Omnislider for example). With this in mind, I wanted to see if I could create a dolly that can be used on any flat surface and could be driven along a path, allowing it to turn in different directions, as well as driving backwards or forwards, in addition to making use of panning on the camera itself.

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In the first iteration, my goal was to create a motorised dolly which can move forwards, backwards and trigger the shutter on the iPhone camera. This will allow me to record time-lapse sequences with linear motion and fixed tilt and pan angles. Whilst it would be much more tidy to operate the shutter via the headphone remote (as this guy has done) I just can’t figure out how to do it at this stage. In the meant time though, I’m making use of a mechanical shutter release by way of a servo which rotates a cam on to the volume ‘+’ switch of the iPhone. I’ve also made the dolly operable via the serial connection so that I can easily control the setup and movement.

I’ve made a few demo sequences to test the rig so far:

So, a bit shaky in places, and I’ve still got a fair bit of experimenting to do with the lighting, stability and electronics of the dolly, but not bad, so far. In terms of future development, I’ve built the dolly using Technic so it’ll be easy to modify to implement new functionality. And I’ve already built in a few features that I’m yet to wire up like rack and pinion steering and a turntable base for the camera mount – I’ll be looking to work on these bits, as well as others over the next few months to see what I can come up with, and hopefully produce some really nice time-lapse sequences.

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