- In March 2017, Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” video exploded on YouTube, and film fans flooded the platform with tips on how to achieve his camera-whipping effect on a lower budget.
- Music-video studios began reaching out to Camera Control, the company that licensed and helped program the cinebots for the “Humble” video
- We talked to Camera Control owners Jason Rau and Simon Wakley to see how the cameras rose to popularity in the music video scene and director of photography Tyler Weinberger to understand how the robocam is used on set.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: On March 30, 2017, Kendrick Lamar dropped his video for “Humble.” It was a visual marvel. In a sea of one eye-catching shot after another, it was this 10-second stretch from 1:57 to 2:07 that people couldn’t stop talking about.
♪ Ay, Obama just paged me, ay ♪ ♪ I don’t fabricate it, ay ♪ ♪ Most of y’all be fakin’, ay ♪
Narrator: Today, you can see these seemingly sporadic, but precise movements in a bunch of projects, like Doja Cat’s video for “Boss B—-.” ♪ I wear the hat, and I wear the pants ♪ ♪ I am advanced so I get advance ♪
Narrator: Kygo and Miguel’s “Remind Me to Forget.”
♪ Love, keep reminding me, oh ♪ And Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar’s “Wow Freestyle.” ♪ Lil’ man mad, I don’t wanna go bad on ♪ ♪ Big heat stamp fold out, when you lack on ♪
Narrator: It suddenly seems like hip-hop can’t get enough of this type of shot captured by this robotic camera rig. Sick. [laughs] But there was a time when this technology was mostly used for food commercials. To understand how the cinebot went from food-commercial staple to avant-garde music video tool, we’ve gotta rewind a few decades. Music videos have been around since the 1950s, but at the stroke of midnight on August 1, 1981, a new era in music began. MTV, the first-ever 24-hour music video channel, aired for the first time. It played The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” as its first video.
♪ Now I understand the problems you can see ♪
Narrator: Labels began throwing money into creating visual components to help boost album sales, and the music channel was the perfect vessel for that. And 15 years after MTV’s arrival, there was a new player in the video-making arena capitalising on the music-video boom. This is Jason Rau, the managing director of Camera Control, who’s been there since the company’s very beginning.
Jason Rau: Back in the day, all the big, you know, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, all those big music videos, we worked on.
Narrator: And they used motion-controlled rigs, or cinebots, to make it happen, though not exactly in the same way. One of the earliest video projects to use a motion-controlled camera system on a big scale was a long, long time ago. More specifically, in the original 1977 “Star Wars” movie. [pistol fires] In early sci-fi films, planet and spaceship models would move around the camera. But digital effects pioneer John Dykstra created the Dykstraflex, which allowed for the camera to slowly move around the model. This better simulated movement while still keeping the shot perfectly stable. Compared to more modern motion-controlled rigs, like the Bolt or the Cobra, the Dykstraflex was very large, moved very slowly, and its angle movement were limited. Despite its limits in hindsight, this new rig system completely revolutionised video capture. It was one of the first times camera movements could be programmed into an, albeit, very large computer, so they could be precisely replicated take after take. This allowed editors to add in multiple composites, making arguably the most iconic intergalactic battle scene of its time. From there, this technology entered more parts of the video industry, from commercials to smaller-scale projects, like music videos. Enter Camera Control, which used the technology to create some of the most iconic music videos of the ’90s and early 2000s. For the early projects, Jason says the motion-controlled movements were more static, used mainly for super-precise pans and to create slow-motion effects, like in this Britney Spears video from 2000.
Simon Wackley: So, we used the slower, larger rigs for motion control, but the faster rigs really had their heyday in the last four or five years. They have been used more and more. Well, I think a lot of the previous stuff was heavy post-effects, heavy compositing. And now I think it’s more about that dynamic camera move. You go from ground level to high up in, you know, a second or less.
Narrator: But this advancement in music-video technology didn’t come immediately. At the dawn of Y2K, the music-video industry faced its own mini apocalypse. The whole music industry was pretty much flipped upside down. Physical media sales were slowly becoming nonexistent. Between 2000 and 2010, CD sales dropped $US9.8 billion in revenue. That’s because more consumers started getting music online, oftentimes illegally through sites like LimeWire. A lawsuit brought against LimeWire alleged that LimeWire alone cost record labels about $US500 million a month in sales and that users stole about 3 billion songs per month.
Jason Rau: There were now new digital platforms for music. So the industry as a whole was very confused and just trying to figure itself out and reinvent itself.
Narrator: At the time, Jason says filming music videos back then was a lot more expensive. Cinematographers were shooting on film, and productions needed bigger crews to see projects through. With this loss of income from low record sales, labels just weren’t investing in videos too much.
Jason Rau: The slump in the music-video industry really didn’t affect us because we are involved in many other facets of the industry. We do a lot of feature film work, a lot of commercial work.
Narrator: During the early 2000s, Camera Control shifted its shoots away from music to feature films and commercials using cinebots. And food commercials were, and still are, huge users of cinebot technology.
Jason Rau: We do a lot of what’s called tabletop shooting, and one of the main reasons why this technology is used in that part of the industry is the precise control that you have over the camera, especially when you’re shooting at very high frame rates.
Narrator: High frame rates are used to prevent blur on fast-moving subjects, especially when you want to create slow-motion effects. But you need a lot of stability to do it right.
Jason Rau: Imagine you’re shooting at 1,000 frames a second and you’re trying to track something falling through the air and splashing into a glass of water. Trying to do that by hand would be super, super difficult.
Narrator: Meanwhile, music videos were on the verge of a comeback. Labels finally found ways to comfortably capitalise on streaming in the 2010s with the help of the advertising industry and subscription services. As of 2018, streaming accounted for more than 75% of all music consumption, and ad revenue from streaming sites helped to refill industry pockets. At the same time, though, YouTube, a new platform, was moving past fun cat videos and babies biting their siblings.
Narrator: Record companies were finding new ways to capitalise on the seemingly endless exposure that online video had to offer, and with new video-publishing technology came new video-capturing technology. Camera Control would soon be back in the music-video game.
Jason Rau: Music videos have come back in a big way, for financial reasons and for technical reasons. Now you’ve got digital camera systems that have become super small, less expensive to purchase, less expensive to rent.
Narrator: And with less expensive technology and fewer financial restrictions, video directors like “Humble” director Dave Meyers reached out to Jason to push visual boundaries. That call would revolutionise not only Jason’s business, but the hip-hop music video. Meyers’ crew attached smaller cameras to cinebots, like the Bolt or Cobra, and programmed them to move electronically at super-precise angles around a subject. The cinebot’s fast-moving tracking capability is the core of what makes “Humble” so iconic. After the video was released, the response was huge. Not only to the video and the song, but to the camera work.
Jason Rau: After everyone sort of saw that video, we were getting calls and a lot of people referencing that video for the type of movements that they wanted to do.
Narrator: And since that watershed moment when “Humble” dropped, Camera Control has worked with artists like ASAP Rocky and Post Malone, and even some outside of the hip-hop arena, like K-pop group ONF. When properly executed, filming with cinebots offers surreal, larger-than-life perspectives. Cinematographers can control speeds in the foreground and the background of any given shot. And because the camera’s programmed to make and repeat precise movements, editors have multiple versions to play with after filming ends. It’s this versatility that makes the motion-controlled rigs so desirable and why the technology will be around for the long run.
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