Timelapse. It’s a popular subject right now. Within the timelapse community, one of the hottest topics floating about is motion control. There are an increasing number of options for getting your camera to move slowly through space. I hear about something new all the time. With so many choices, what is one to choose? I have not personally experienced every motion control system on the market, but I have had the opportunity to evaluate several. Most of them are great at what they do, but every system has it’s pro’s and con’s. In this post I’ll to tell you what I’m using, and why it works for me.
What I’m using is a system that goes by the name Project Chronos. It is an open source linear motion control system that has most of, if not all or more features than many systems costing much, much more. Not only is it rich in the normal features found in timelapse systems, but it even does some things better than any other system, and some things that no other system has even attempted that I can tell. Chronos is an ambitious project with the brains and driving force to back it up. One of the many very cool things about Chronos is that not only can you order a complete turn-key product that’s ready to go when you are, but if you are more technically inclined, or just adventurous, you’re more than welcome to build your own! The parts list, schematics, plans, and code can all be found at:
So let’s start off with the basics. The basic idea of a linear motion control device is that your camera starts off on one end of a rail or track, and in the case of timelapse photography, said camera gradually makes its way across this linear guide over a set period of time, taking pictures along the way. These pictures are later compiled into video form and thus a timelapse video is born.
– About the design of Chronos –
At the heart of the Chronos system is a linear guide rail made by a company called Igus. These rails are designed mainly for industrial use, and as such are tough as nails and solid as a rock. The rail is made of solid anodized aluminum for long life and corrosion resistance. The carriage slides along the rail on a bed of low friction teflon bearings. The advantage of these bearings over ball bearings is that they are less susceptible to complications from dust and water and require less maintenance. To drive the system along the rail is a combination of a stepper motor and a lead screw. The way this works mechanically, is the motor is connected via coupler to the leadscrew, and the lead screw is connected via anti-backlash nut to the carriage slider. When the motor spins, it turns the lead screw and the anti-backlash nut converts the motion of the lead-screw into the linear motion that drives the carriage. The direction that the carriage travels on the rail is controlled by the direction the motor and lead screw are spinning.
The standard (original) Chronos system that can be ordered up fully built comes with a 1000mm (39 inch) rail. This allows for an unmatched level of portability in a time lapse motion control system. When I was building my Chronos system, I decided that I really loved everything that Chronos had to offer, but I felt strongly that there would be instances that my timelapses could benefit from longer movements. I ended up putting my system together around a 1600mm (62 inch) rail, and I’ve been very happy with this length. For me it offers the best combination of functionality and portability.
The thing about using motion control in a timelapse shot is this — The length of the movement needed for a particular shot is completely dependant on the relationship between the camera and foreground elements. The distance between the camera and foreground elements has a huge impact on how much the parallax effect is emphasized. For example, if you’re shooting a scene with a tree only 3 feet in front of the lens and a vast landscape as the background, it would take very little horizontal movement of the camera to “feel” the change in relationship between the foreground and the background. However, if you’re shooting the same scene but with the nearest tree 100 feet in front of the lens, it’s going to take MUCH more of that same horizontal movement to be able to perceive this effect between the tree and the background. For the scene of the tree only 3 feet in front of the lens, a 39 inch rail would be more than sufficient to gain the benefits of linear motion control. But let’s take a step back in our minds. What if we wanted to pull the camera back and zoom in a little bit on this tree for a different perspective? Let’s say that now instead of being 3 feet from the subject and shooting at a 14mm focal length, we’ve moved the camera back 15 or 20 feet and zoomed in to 24mm. In this case, whatever amount of linear movement we used on the “3 foot” shot is going to have a much less dramatic effect at 15 foot from the subject. Of course, you may not always want an uber dramatic effect. Subtlety may be the approach for the shot, but if you do need a dramatic shot, as I often do in this scenario, you’re going to need a little more rail length. Do you see where I’m going with this? And honestly, I feel that the more length you have, the more flexibility you have. But also the more length you have, the more you have a lug around. Enter Chronos: Portable, Flexible, Reliable, and Easy to use.
The brains of the whole system are what’s called the ChronoController.
The ChronoController is designed and built from the ground up to be exactly what the doctor ordered. It was designed to not only be fully featured, but to be incredibly easy to use. As someone who has a lot of experience with this controller, let me just say that it is the easiest of anything I’ve seen on the market by far. More on features below.
I had the opportunity to pick at the brain of one of the guys responsible for bringing us Project Chronos, a man named Chris Field.
Chris is an innovator who knows what he wants, and makes it happen. I was interested in gaining some insight about Chronos as he sees it. Below are answers to the question I posed.
Q: What led you to develop your own motion control system and how did you come up with the design for Chronos?
A: I had looked at the offerings a few years ago at the various systems on the market, and I was not really excited about what I saw. I felt a lot of the designs were compromised by the attempt to incorporate video speeds, or far too expensive, or far too simple. When I decided to build my own system I intentionally steered towards building what would be the best time lapse rail on the market and ignoring video demands entirely. The use of the lead-screw system eliminated backlash and have it an extreme level of accuracy that no other system can match. With such a strong design it is also able to lift 30 lbs vertically, and it will do it the same speed horizontally which most dc/belt systems cannot do without various calibrations because it slows down when moving vertically. While its top speed is very slow, it is extremely efficient, the motor can power off between moves when shooting vertically. About the maximum length you can go with a Chronos 2.0 system is around 5 feet. My own rail only moves 3 feet. I was worried that might feel limiting but honestly it just breaks down to composition. You really just need enough movement to pull a parallax effect which enhances the depth and 3 dimensional feel of the resulting video. After all, it is not like the camera is ever really going anywhere.
Q: What were the most important features to you to incorporate into the design of Chronos?
A: The control interface. My own personal opinion is most of the other menu driven systems are somewhat clumsy and less than intuitive. My top priority was to design an interface that allowed the entire system to “get out of your way” so you can get out there and shoot. The one thing I did not like about other systems is having to figure out “I am moving 7 inches per minute, and I am taking a shot every 6 seconds, will I have enough shots if I move 4 feet for a 12 second clip? With the Chronos 2.0 system you just tell it how many shots you want, how far to move, and any ramping considerations, as well as any other features like lead-ins, HDR shooting, nudge, etc. I also don’t want to hit a button 34 times. The end result is an interface with 2 dials and 4 buttons that enables you to program even the most complex programs within 10-12 seconds. And as an added bonus, the LED will not freeze in subzero temperatures like LCD will.
It also needs to play well with others. At first I had wanted to setup a basic I2C bus to use with a central controller in order to get it to sync with multiple axis. Then one day I tried setting it up to sync to a shutter signal and the entire I2C bus went right out the window. It was such a simple method to get it to work with any other system/ramper/intervalometer, etc, just by having it monitor a shutter signal and wait for the shutter to close, delay .25 seconds, then move. I have never looked back, it just works so well.
Movement. I did not want to just say “Ok folks it moves to the left! and now it moves to the right!” and I was not going to settle for basic velocity ramping either. So I spent quite a bit of time working out how to do the mathematics so it does not always do the same basic symmetrical ramp. With Chronos you can have it speed up 95% of the way through the routine then screech to a halt at the last 5%. Or ramp up 10%, remain steady 80%, then drop 10%, or however else you want to do it. I also wanted to incorporate repeatability so it can re-run the same routine from the exact same starting point, or get to the end and run in reverse, so I built out a fairly robust method of running repeats and reversals to give as much flexibility as possible. As time went on I added in the new drift modes which sort of simulate the movement as if the camera was gently swaying in the breeze. With the new Live Ramping mode you control it on the fly with a dampened direction control which opens up an unprecedented level of motion control so you can make it up as you go along.
It was very important to me not to simply make another dolly. Not another re-iteration. Not another Dynamic Perception clone. I wanted to build something new, unique, with an unprecedented level of control for a small controller based system.
Q: What features do you currently see being incorporated into future generations of Chronos?
A: The great thing about Chronos is it is a constantly developing system. As I manage to figure out new ways of doing things I post the code online and you can update the code on your rail to get new features. If you can upload to an MP3 player, you can upload to Chronos. Right now I am finishing the debugging of the recent additions of Drift and LiveRamp. The next project I plan to tackle is to eliminate the need of a computer to calibrate the system, so you can customize it to work with whatever system you want to use/build/etc without having to alter the code on the PC (which is very very very simple and requires zero code knowledge). I am also thinking of letting it toggle between Distance and Degrees.
Just a reminder, Chronos 2.0 is open source. Anybody is welcome to take the code and use/change it as they see fit. I encourage this behavior and will be happy to add anybody else’s custom code to the file list. I think I am finally getting to be about done with the 2.0 code. The main reason is I am running into the limitations of the microcontroller. Chronos 3.0 will likely use a Raspberry Pi as the brain, which will not be nearly as confining, and would be like stuffing a top of the line early 2000’s PC into Chronos. If an Arduino microcontroller in Chronos is Pint of beer, the Raspberry Pi is a Keg.
Q: Can you describe any other motion control related projects we might see from you in the future?
A: Project Clover, That is something we have been working on for the better part of a year, we have been taking our time to do it right. Unfortunately that will not be an open source system like Chronos, we are using a lot of specialized parts that cannot be purchased off the shelf, but it will be a low cost multi axis solution that will give you the same level of control of systems that cost thousands of dollars without the need of lugging around a laptop, monitors, heavy power supplies etc.
We are also working on Chronos Lite. It has all the wonderful flavor of a full Chronos system, but half the calories. Right now the prototype is 1000mm in length and with a controller it weighs 4.3lbs (1.95 kilos). I expect the final weight when everything is figured out to remain under 4.5lbs. We are not building these yet, and still working on the prototype with a really cool new way of doing the limit switches. I hope to be able to start building these late January 2013
-So there it is, a unique look into Chronos straight from the source!-
Next let’s talk about the cool stuff. Here’s a list of some really cool things about Project Chronos that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
– There’s actually been a version of this system developed specifically for use in the sub zero temperatures of Antarctica. It goes by the name “Sub-0” and has indeed been tested to work in temperatures well below 0°F.
– Chronos is the most accurate system available. This is due to it’s lead screw design in combination with the use of the stepper motor. The resolution that Chronos is capable of is astounding. It can break each step down to 1/125th the width of a human hair. That’s a pretty precise movement! This may seem irrelevant but what this means is that you can do VERY smooth and VERY macro timelapses. You could tell chronos to take 1000 shots over the course of 1 inch of movement in a 1 week time-span, and it wouldn’t even break a sweat. And it would only take a few seconds to tell the controller what you want to do! I’ve experimented with this a little bit and haven’t nailed down my side of the technique yet, but I can say that Chronos performed amazingly.
– There’s a new version of Chronos also in development that is designed to be less expensive and will feature a 6 foot rail and use a belt drive design. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the least expensive 6 footer on the market, while still incorporating the ingenuity and user friendliness that chronos does so well. The one thing it won’t be able to do as well is the lead-screw design of the original chronos system is high resolution macro movements. If you’re not worried about this feature, keep your eyes peeled. They’re doing cool stuff at Project Chronos.
That’s just a couple of points that I really dig about the system, but there are SO many more features that it’d take me weeks to break them all down and it would take you hours to read it, so I’ll save you the trouble and quickly lay out the official list of current features for Chronos 2.0
Here’s the way I have my system setup.
You’re going to need to power your chronos. If you’re going to be out in the field, you’ll need a battery of some sort. There are about a million options. What I’m using is from a company called Bescor. They make portable video lighting solutions, and part of the kits they sell are these (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=bescor+battery&N=0&InitialSearch=yes&sts=ma&Top+Nav-Search=) batteries. The model I use is the Bescor MM-9NC (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/208015-REG/Bescor_MM9NC_MM_9NC_Starved_Electrolyte_Battery.html). It is definitely on the heavy side, at 5.8 pounds, but it does have its good points. With 9 Amp Hours of capacity, it has loads of juice by Chronos’ standards. I’ve been able to take Chronos out into the sticks and shoot all night every night for several days in a row without running out of juice. I don’t know how much juice was left after that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it still had a good amount left. Another great feature of this battery is that it uses a standard 12v cigarette lighter adapter. What this means is that it’s flexible in it’s use. I can use it to charge my phone or just about any other small electronics that can be charged through the cigarette lighter in your car. This feature also means that I can use my Battery Tender to keep the battery charged, ready to go, and in tip-top condition when not being used.
If you buy a turn-key finished system from Chris, it will come with some nice feet that serve as a foundation for your system. If you do your own build, or even in your buy a complete system, you might want to invest in some good tripods. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I know a lot of people that are really happy with Manfrotto’s lineup of tripods and heads. I personally really, really, really like Induro tripods. They cost more than Manfotto’s struff, but still quite a bit less than Gitzo and Really Right Stuff, so they’re kind of right there in the middle. But having owned Manfrotto, Gitzo, and Induro tripods, I honestly like Induro’s design and build quality the best. There’s a lot to be said about the build quality of Gitzo tripods, but I personally feel that Induro is more up with the times in the design department, and they cost less. If it’s the BEST of the best you’re looking for, take a look at Really Right Stuff. Really Right Stuff’s gear is second to none. If you want something a little more affordable but still very high quality, look into Induro. I recommend a pair of CT214’s as legs with a pair of BHD2 Ballhead’s to match. And if you’re in need of a good ballhead for the carriage of Chronos, I’d recommend a BHD2 for that as well. These things are great for use with DSLRs.
Three great things about Induro tripods:
-Excellent build quality
-Arca Swiss tripod plates
The plates is a big one for me. One of the things that drives me CRAZY about Manfrotto and Gitzo is their sole use of proprietary quick-release plates. Having to switch plates everytime I pull my camera out of the bag is a huge hassle to me if I’m losing light quickly or just don’t have the time to fiddle with silly things like that. Not only do both of those brands use proprietary plates, but they even have multiple plate types for their different ranges of heads. It’s just too much to deal with. The arca-swiss system is the easiest to use, most versatile, and most widely used quick-release system out there. Induro, Really Right Stuff, Arca-Swiss, Wimberly, Gimbal, Kirk, Giottos, Acratech…just to name a few that utilize this style of QR plate. Why any manufacturer uses anything else is beyond me. But that’s just my point of view!
In short, I love my Chronos setup. If I had unlimited funds and a production crew traveling with me everywhere I went, I’d probably ALSO own some ridiculous monstrosity of a motion control system as well. For it’s intended use, though, I really believe that the ever developing Chronos brand is the best I could ask for. For someone that’s carrying their gear around themselves most of the time, the balance of portability and functionality this system offers is worth it’s weight in gold. Cheers to Chris Field at Project Chronos for making the time lapse world an even cooler place!
To learn more about The Chronos Project, see demo videos, or participate in the forum discussions Head on over to their website:
To stay up to date with what’s going at Project Chronos, visit and like their facebook page:
To speak directly with the team behind Project Chronos, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading and happy trails!
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