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Still Life: Motion Control Puts Action into Photograph

By Barbara Rick

Berle Cherney with his motion control equipment.

For some documentary filmmakers, the words “motion control” conjure up vague images. A more sophisticated way of shooting stills, perhaps; something more polished and precise than having a camera person tack a few up on a wall to haphazardly zoom and pan away. But what exactly is it? There seem to be as many definitions for motion control as there are practitioners—“Doing moves on still pictures”…“Using a computer to define camera motion in a repeatable fashion”…“A visual dance”…

My latest documentary film project, Women in News, is going to need an artful way of dealing with a lot of archival stills, and I wanted to learn the best ways to handle them. So I went to the pros for answers.

“It’s hardware, not art,” say the guys from Frame Shop outside Boston, whose clients include Ken and Ric Burns, NOVA, Frontline and American Experience. “The art comes in from how you choose to use it.”

Owner Ed Joyce has been working with stills for more than 30 years. He and colleague Ed Searles describe motion control as “an absolutely precise tool for building camera moves, previewing them and locking them in.”

Frame Shop, described as a “premiere animation photography studio” on the company’s website (, handles a wide span of filmmaker clients from ad agencies to students. Motion control is just one of the services they offer.

Among the advantages of the process is that it allows one to accomplish moves artistically and adjust and repeat those moves with precision, rather than just leaving it up to chance. At Frame Shop, motors drive the camera and the surface on which the flat photograph rests, moving it north/south, east/west or on a rotation axis. “Because the photograph can move under the camera, it gives it a dimension that you would never get from just shooting it off the wall,” Joyce says.

Berle Cherney of Visual Productions, Inc., based just outside Washington, DC, is another well-known name in the motion control business. He’s been working with stills since the early ‘70s. Perhaps the most enterprising entrepreneur in the field, his ads have been seen in this magazine and others. Cherney takes an aggressive approach with filmmakers with the pitch line, “Do your still pictures simply fill space or help tell your story?”

“Stills are potentially the weakest stuff in the film,” Cherney says. His message to filmmakers is to give stills the respect he believes they deserve. “A lot of people consider them a last-minute pain in the butt. I’m trying to teach a little more priority. Work on it earlier, shoot it earlier, treat it like live action.”

Cherney considers himself a DP of motion control, and he coined the phrase ‘animotion’ for his customized system. His clients include Charles Guggenheim, National Geographic Society, Discovery Communications and the Smithsonian. Like Frame Shop, Cherney’s company can shoot in pretty much any format, from Beta SP to 35mm.

Cherney crafted his machine to run like a car—complete with steering wheel, accelerator and brake—which he says gives his material a less mechanical look. “The steering wheel lets me operate this easel like I’m driving a curved road in a car. My brain and sensitivities help me keep the move and the composition going, I kind of ride the thing, rather than program it.”

One disadvantage of the process is the cost to filmmakers. Most motion control experts run upwards of $250 an hour, a considerable investment, but one probably worth making if your stills-to-video ratio is on the high side and you don’t want them to weigh the action down.

“Filmmakers are still going to a lot of effort for dramatic live action for maximum effect,” Cherney points out. “But when it comes to stills -- potentially the weakest element in a project—more work and care is needed, rather than less. Motion control keeps the still portion moving, keeping the audience involved.”

If you decide to spend the money, whom you choose is key. Sarah Colt served as series associate producer for David Grubin’s recent Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.

“Almost anyone can operate these cameras, but you need to have someone who has a talent on an eye for it; someone who can bring the pictures to life,” she says. For video projects, Colt praised the work of Frank Ferrigno at National Video and Ralph Petrie of The Camera Stand in partnership with The Creative Group in New York. “The advantage is that there is so much more they can do than just a zoom or a pull out,” she continues. “You can really make a photograph feel like there’s action in it, like it’s three-dimensional.”

Editor Duncan Cameron brought his stills for a CNN project on the Dalai Lama to Petrie. “Ralph has a certain touch that looks simple but isn’t,” Cameron says. “Motion control has a subtle finesse when done by a real craftsman.” Like Cherney, Petrie created his own customized machine with rotating knobs. To Petrie, motion control is “literally operating a robot: moving a flat photograph up, down, panning, tilting, zooming and rotating via robot so my moves are smoother and more accurate and can be recaptured and repeated.”

Frame Shop names its video and film motion control rigs after the Three Stooges. You may have seen “Larry’s” work on the recent Houdini film on PBS’ American Experience. “Moe” is the 2-D film motion control Oxberry stand currently working on Ken Burns’ new production on Mark Twain. ‘Moe’ was also used for Jazz. “Curly,” a 3-D motion control rig, can shoot upside down and sideways and surround an object.

“I think the sensibility we bring to motion control is the sensibility of the client and what they’re looking for,” says Joyce. “The easiest people to work for are perfectionists because they’re the ones who know what they want. Then it’s just a question of delivering.”

No matter how you describe motion control, it all comes down to how you use it.

“You wouldn’t call the paintbrush art. It’s just a tool for making the art. That’s what motion control is, just a tool,” according to Joyce.


Barbara Rick is a Peabody and Emmy-winning filmmaker/journalist based in New York City. Her company, Out of the Blue Films, Inc., specializes in films that explore, articulate, and celebrate humanity.