SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: Alard Hüfner and Graham Terrell, of Johannesburg-based rigging company Film Riggers, have developed a unique computer-controlled cable-suspended camera system, called TopShot, that allows for the world-class filming of sports events, and is affordable and uses locally developed technology.
Film Riggers invited the Screen Africa team to the first live demonstration of their system at Ellis Park Stadium in April of this year, where we had the opportunity to chat with Hüfner and Terrell about what went into developing this outstanding system.
PLAYING WITH THE POSSIBILITIES
The filming of sports events is notoriously challenging as the action is live, the stakes are high, and options about where to place cameras are often limited. Using a cable-suspended camera system over a sports ground to achieve those first-person action shots that have become so much a part of watching a live game is not a new idea. The first computer-controlled, stabilised cable-suspended camera systems were released in the mid-90s, and the technology has gained enormous popularity with viewers across the world. However, this technology has remained in the hands of a select few in the international market. The enormous cost of importing all of the necessary equipment and flying the international crew to South Africa, in conjunction with unfavourable exchange rates, has hindered the use of these systems for local sports broadcasting, with a few exceptions such as at the Football World Cup in 2010.
Terrell and Hüfner are among the country’s most experienced film rigging specialists, and their company has specialised in the rigging of cameras and live loads for more than ten years. Collectively, they have more than 25 years of experience flying cameras and performers for the local film industry, and have worked on some of the country’s highest-profile productions, including Fear Factor, Survivor and The Amazing Race, as well as on films such as District 9 and The Avengers, among others.
Having both the technical know-how and the experience behind them, it is not surprising that Terrell and Hüfner have been playing with the idea of developing a computer-controlled cable-suspended camera system for the local market since the international company that assisted with the filming of the World Cup left our shores eight years ago. “Graham, in particular, has been conceptualising what would be needed to produce a computer-controlled cable-suspended camera system for many years. The actual design phase of the project started in about March 2017, when we began investing our own money and actively investigating the type of motors, drums and cables that we would need,” Hüfner explains. He goes further to add that some local broadcasters have been interested in their efforts from the onset.
THE GAME PLAN
To turn a great idea into a workable product, the Film Riggers team have employed all of their skill and expertise and have consulted widely with engineers, product designers and software developers to put together a computer-controlled cable-suspended camera system that will rival any in the world but will remain affordable for the local market.
The TopShot.Africa system comprises of four motorised winches, positioned at four points in a venue. A 5mm diameter specialised high strength rope runs from each winch up to a high point in the venue where it is deviated through an anchored pulley and returns downwards to the centre of the venue where all four ropes meet. The four ropes are then connected to a gyro-stabilised camera platform. This camera platform is suspended in the air by the four ropes and the position thereof is controlled by the system of winches. By controlling the synchronised winding and unwinding of the four ropes, the system allows the camera platform to travel both vertically and horizontally in a predetermined space.
According to Terrell, the system is capable of taking a payload of up to 100kg, depending on the geometry of the configuration, and can achieve speeds of up to nine metres per second. The system is designed to withstand the elements – particularly important as TopShot will be used in outdoor settings most of the time.
In designing TopShot, the team started with the motors for their winches and turned to SEW-EURODRIVE, a world-leading manufacturer of electric motors for advice. Following extensive consultation, the appropriate motors were identified. Terrell then worked with a local design and engineering team to custom design and produce the drum and housing required for the four winches. The team then needed to decide on a supplier for the gyro-stabilised camera carrier, the rope and construction thereof and the software needed to operate the system, all of which has been achieved.
Control of the winch system is achieved through a hard link carried on fibre optic cables that run directly from the control desk to the winches. Control of the 3-axis stabilised camera gimbal, as well as the camera control and picture itself, travels inside the ropes by means of fibre optics. A camera operator is then able to send commands directly to the camera and remote head without the need for a wireless link, and bring the camera’s HD signal back up the rope to the control station. According to Hüfner, the a challenging part of the project was designing a rope that would carry the payload, wind up and down on the motorised winches at high speeds, and still safely house the very fragile fibre optic cable so critical to the system. “It has taken many months and countless tests to come up with the design of the fibre optic carrying rope. We are enormously proud to say that, despite the challenges, our highly specialised rope is locally produced and has proven effective – despite a few tears along the way.”
“SuperSport was only interested in our concept because of the hard link between the camera and the control station. While drones provide many of the same advantages for the filming of live sports events, their reliance on frequency technology makes them vulnerable to frequency jamming. This is what sets TopShot apart,” Terrell explains. The vast majority of the work has been carried out in South Africa – with only a portion of the hardware being purchased abroad and some of the software development being carried out by international suppliers.
DELIVERING THE WIN
Film Rigger’s TopShot has the potential to revolutionise the way that South African fans view local games in the very near future. According to Terrell, SuperSport have had the privilege of testing the system on its very first live rugby game played at Loftus between the Bulls and the Brumbies, with the goal of using it for the filming of high-profile sporting events in the latter part of this year.
“The international guys that have been operating computer-controlled cable-suspended camera systems in Europe and America have years of experience, and we have only been playing with the full-scale model of TopShot for a few months now. We have a lot to learn, but we are enormously optimistic about what our system has to offer,” Hüfner points out.
Having used their own funding for the research and development of TopShot, the team will be the sole owners of the system and will be in a position to make the technology available for a wide range of applications, including flying performers, cameras and even marketing material in a wide range of venues in the months ahead.