Topshot.Africa 3D flying system brings viewers closer to the action

TopShot.Africa at Loftus.

To get the perfect shot, film directors demand more – and they make it their business to push the cinematic medium beyond what was previously possible. The compulsion to achieve these creative visions has been a driving force behind the rigorous development of new technology, and no one can argue that technology has fundamentally altered how movies are made today.

Filmmaking is not for the shallow of pocket, and movies, particularly those for the big screen, have astronomical budgets. These bigger budgets have a direct correlation on how much tech can be deployed; yet another reason for the explosion of new technology in the world of entertainment.

Recognising this trend and spotting a gap in the South African market, Film Riggers directors Graham Terrell and Alard Hufner developed TopShot.Africa – a 3D flying camera system which provides dynamic, shake-free, premium-quality footage that brings viewers closer to the action.

According to Terrell, although this type of technology has been around and used internationally for roughly 15 years, in South Africa it’s been out of reach till now. “Local production houses would have to buy or hire in global counterparts like Spidercam, but the costs are prohibitive so no one does,” says Terrell. “With TopShot there’s now an opportunity for the local industry to access a more cost effective solution.

“Today’s producers and directors want angles and shots that would otherwise be impossible to achieve, but using TopShot it’s now possible to place cameras in close proximity to people for more intense, intimate close-ups. In such cases the audience tends to feel more present and in the moment because the lens they see through feels authentic. Filmmakers also spend less time re-shooting the same scene to get the right angle.”

From a film or TV set to sport events, conferences, live events, concerts and big church meetings, this tech solution is equally effective in each setting, delivering more dynamic shots. “It has unlimited perspective and possibilities – and you can do so much more with your shots.”

The system, which has no local competitors, enables film and TV cameras to move vertically and horizontally in a co-ordinated and synchronised manner along four motorised winches – typically positioned at the four corners of a venue.

Explaining in more detail how the technology works, Terrell says that an ultra-high-strength artificial fibre rope runs from each winch up to an anchored pulley in the roof structure where it’s deviated downwards to the centre of the venue. “Here all four ropes meet and connect to the camera platform. The winches reel rope on and off the winch drum to achieve movement of the camera platform in three planes; left and right, up and down, forward and backwards.”

The fibre optic strands that are woven into the locally-made rope relay picture, lens, camera and gimbal control data from the camera platform to the control station. A high performance, compact and versatile gyro-stabilised gimbal connects the camera to the camera platform. It’s this combination that provides shake-free, premium-quality footage for highly dynamic broadcast, film and TV production.

“We use high-quality fibre optics from Sweden. This is the only imported component of our locally-manufactured ropes. When it comes to broadcast, WiFi is not reliable in a stadium and fibre optics is the only option.  Data transfer is too high for wireless links, so the best and only viable solution is to weave a fibre optic strand into the rope,” says Terrell.

“The safety of the 3D cable system trumps drones, which cannot be flown above people in a stadium. Our current ropes have a one-ton break strain and can comfortably support a car. Other benefits include that the system is less obtrusive; it’s suspended from the roof and takes up less floor space, and has greater, more dynamic reach. As if that were not enough, there are more capabilities on the horizon, most notably the use of AR with TopShot.”

When weighing up the challenges this new technology is facing, Terrell says that despite the vastly cheaper price point compared to global alternatives, local budgets are still an issue. Adding to this, he says that although we have some of the best cameramen in the world, the technology is complicated to work with, and often used under highly stressful (live) conditions, so the relationship between pilot and cameraman must be tight. Lack of exposure means many directors don’t actually know how to work with this system either.

Mediatech Africa show director Simon Robinson says the addition of this bird’s-eye view technology to the expo is a first for Mediatech and a real coup. “Perhaps one of the brightest stars in the future-tech galaxy, visitors will have the opportunity to operate the state-of-the-art system – guiding it around a fully-rigged ‘stadium’ set-up.  Footage from the pan, tilt and camera zooms will be broadcast onto big screens, simulating an exciting in-field experience with TopShot.”

Robinson says that it’s truly remarkable to see how technology keeps evolving and as film directors continue to push the envelope and raise the bar within their craft, so technology will have to keep step. “It’s intriguing to see what’s next! So be at Mediatech for a fast-forward glimpse into the future of all things media and entertainment – and be inspired by the boundless opportunities made possible with technology.”

According to the show’s organisers, the visitor count achieved two years ago exceeded 7 500 delegates and there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different. The event which began yesterday, is once again taking place at the Ticketpro Dome in Johannesburg and will run until19 July.

Mediatech – the tech trade show shaping the way creativity: Inspires. Innovates. Delivers.


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