It took a year to develop the latest camera dolly. A year of making mistakes, having ideas, building stuff and moving on.
I don’t mind this process – I spent 7 years doing scientific research and the only way to progress is to be wrong. But you have to be wrong in the right way – you have to understand why you’re wrong and what you need to do next time. If you don’t understand that, then you’re doing things more or less at random. So everything I did wrong, I made sure I understood why before designing something else. The internet helped a lot – there you can look at other peoples ideas, and, most valuably, look at what they did that failed so you don’t have to do it. Saves heaps of time.
The way to be more successful is to make more mistakes.
Here’s some ideas that were simply daft in the first place, or failed for some other unforseen reason.
GRANDMA’S ELECTRIC CART
Grandma’s electric cart worked surprisingly well – but was far too fast for the dolly shots. Nevertheless, for straight movies it looks like a good one. However you do need a granny who is helpful, plus cart – I realise that all 3 are not necessarily available to everyone.
GOLF BUGGY REMODELLED
The golf cart not only looks silly, it doesn’t work either – too fast and too bumpy. I then geared it down by 1/5 and put another motor on it, but it was still bumpy. However worth bearing in mind that these golf carts have huge pulling power – they will take a pretty weighty load of golf clubs up hill, and are very well engineered. Lots of them around – these were scrap for $5 each.
This one worked pretty well, and was robust, if a little big, but was too fast. It’s made from a garage door opener motor and gearbox, printer paper roller, and the ubiquitous skateboard wheels (which have several grades, depending on the number of bearings in them: betcha didn’t know that). It gave a really stable image, and I might revisit it one day. Incidentally the idea of having lots of wheels on castors is to avoid jerks in the camera if there is any bump in the track. It pretty well removes the effect of little ones (ie 1mm or so).
STEPPER MOTOR DRIVE
This was a clever one, pity it didn’t work, but the idea is right. It’s a stepper motor and driver with a belt drive to 16 wheels on the tracks. Worked well, was robust if a bit heavy, and was adaptable to any size of track (very important for what we’re doing – we want to be able to use anything that comes along if need be).
There were two problems – it wouldn’t go uphill, only on the level – the wheels slipped on the tracks. And the belt, which was a rubber ‘O’ ring, stretched and slipped. I could have got a better drive belt, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to work anyway so I scrapped it. Lot of work though.
I also experimented with long track. Ordinary black poly pipe just doesn’t work – too soft, too bendy and too hard to control.
Then I tried this green stuff. What I found out was you need support all the way, which means it has to go on the ground, or be made of something solid (like the steel section we used in Antarctica). This is thick walled high pressure water pipe, pretty stiff but it still sagged between the sleepers. It would work, but at the cost of a lot of infrastructure. The ladder and beam arrangement of the West Coast trip illustrates this – we needed a 4WD to cart it around.
So what we’re going to end up with in the track department is probably a ultra-lightweight custom-made foldable track. Either from thin steel and electrical conduit, or from a cheap light ladder. The advantage of this is it will fold up and go on the back of a pack. In theory.
The other advantage is that if for some reason we can’t take it with us (on a plane for instance) we can use a ladder from the location, or corrugated iron, pine studs etc.