Establishing a new camera technology business is often about spotting opportunities and being prepared to seize those chances when they come along. Stephen Scammell, CEO of KFX Technology, explains how a series of spotted opportunities has enabled him to develop his expanding range of Aurora remote control heads.
Back in the Spring 2011 edition of Zerb my work was featured in an article ‘Frozen Moments – filming lapsed time in the Arctic’. In the years prior to that I’d started on the traditional camera department route by becoming a camera trainee. It is a familiar story: I was asked to help out for a week on a Ruth Rendell murder mystery, that week turned into two… and that rolled into 15. This was all back in the days of good old film. Not long after starting as a focus puller, I worked on a shoot on which they were using a small, portable motion control rig. I was impressed with this and learnt how to operate it, which then led to my buying one. One turned into two, then three, then four. And that’s how I got into motion control. I called my company Kontrol Freax Ltd.
Motion control and remote heads
Motion control in its simplest form is a bit like using layers in Photoshop, except that from a film or video camera there are multiple frames involved with each layer identical. To achieve this the camera move is computer-controlled so that it is at the same position and velocity on exactly the same frame for each move or layer. This enables editing different aspects of each layer and, when composited on top of each other, allows for various visual effects to be created. The simplest of these (although not easy to get right) is one actor playing twins in the same shot. The camera does two identical moves with the actor in different positions and costumes. Once these are layered together they produce a scene in which both actors can be interacting with each other. Motion control is also used extensively in time-lapse shots.
A remote head is a motorised pan-and-tilt camera platform, controlled remotely via a wired or wireless control console. It enables cameras to be placed in areas where it is difficult or unsafe to have a camera operator by the camera. It can also be used on crane shots, where the light weight and small size enable camera positions much higher than the older ride-on cranes could safely achieve.
Planet Earth to Frozen Earth
Back in the early ‘noughties’ the team at BBC Planet Earth in Bristol (the series transmitted in 2006) had been using the same gear I had invested in and wanted someone to work with them to help push the limits of what it could do. This led to my working with them throughout the series, which gave me a great insight into what the equipment was required to do and how it actually performed, which would prove invaluable once I started to design my own system. Some time after that, I went to the International Wildlife Film Festival in Montana on my way to CineGear in LA. I’d been invited by one of the producers of Planet Earth, Vanessa Berlowitz, to show my time-lapse gear that had been used on the series. I ended up having breakfast in a diner one morning with Vanessa and Mark Linfield and talking about my plans to build my own equipment, not just concentrating on motion control any more. By now they were planning a new series, Frozen Planet, and explained that they would like to use a time-lapse technique as a cornerstone effect in the series. That’s how it started. It was a very opportune meeting. There were several more meetings after that and, as described in the last article, my new motion control timelapse gear was used extensively in the making of the series.
Time-lapse in extreme conditions
The producers’ aim was to use time-lapse studies to achieve unique and compelling images of climate change and polar wildlife. To do this would require a motion control system capable of working simply and reliably in very extreme and remote polar conditions. I knew that equipment like this didn’t exist at the time and was intrigued by the challenge.
Discussions began that were to culminate in my company, Kontrol Freax, being commissioned to design and develop the KFX Aurora Extreme remote head. In retrospect, neither party fully recognised the magnitude of what we were undertaking at the outset, but the project was to result in the development of motion control equipment attaining new levels of simplicity and reliability. I travelled to one of the locations, Svalbard in Norway,
an archipelago above the mainland and one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, close to the Arctic, where the production was to film the Aurora Borealis (hence the name of my subsequent products). I trained the director and DoP in how to set up and use the head. This was its first outing and it performed well – but sadly the Aurora Borealis didn’t; well, not while I was there
anyway. It was dark all day and night with just a slightly lightened gloom at midday and it was very, very cold. When you’re sitting comfortably at home watching programmes like this, it’s easy to forget the extreme conditions these camera teams have toendure time and time again to capture the incredible shots they eventually manage.
The shoots were often situated in remote locations hundreds of miles from civilisation, so reliability was absolutely key, as was transportability, speed of setup and simplicity of operation. In winter, if you had to remove a glove to set up anything the maximum your hands could be out was just 15 seconds and then back into the gloves for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up, so the whole setup and operation had to be able to be performed wearing heavy gloves. The touch screen designed for the control was revolutionary at the time (even predating by a short while the release of Apple touch-screen technology).
From Acton to Brooklyn, NY
By the end of the Frozen Planet project, around 2010, apart from all the valuable design experience I had gained, I now had my own product, proven under extreme conditions. I also had an office in the building of Take 2 Films in Acton, which was convenient to where I was living. I was in contact with a lot of grips and camera crew as they passed through for testing, or just dropped in for coffee and chat. People started to approach me about making a smaller, lower cost, easy-to-use remote head – an everyday on-set piece of equipment – and by now I had the experience to put something like this together. I sat down with Alex Dyne, the project engineer from the final development stage of the BBC project and together we figured out the first iteration of the Aurora Remote Head design.
For a number of years I had some of my gear with Monster Remotes, a rental company in New Jersey, USA. In September 2011, I went over there to service it. The intended two weeks turned into five, as I started to go out on set with the gear. My father had moved to America as a university lecturer and lived there for many years; through visiting him, I already had a Green Card. With the market for the small motion control rigs quite flat, I decided on a change of scenery, as well as a chance to fulfil a long-held ambition to live in New York. The rental company was very helpful and gave me space to start work on my new remote head but in time they needed the space back so eventually I found a place to live in Brooklyn, New York, which is where I still live today.
For my office/workshop, I took a space in Industry City, a redeveloped area of old warehouses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which is being taken up by artisans, cr ftsmen and small businesses. It’s a great place to work with a good feel to it. I walk to work and back, around 20 minutes each way, with a good view of the Statue of Liberty every day, which I enjoy. I actually feel safer here in New York than I did in London. The main danger is all the fast food, full of way too much sugar and salt – but I cook for myself to avoid that.
KFX Aurora Head
So, I set up KFX Technology Inc and, over a period of time, designed and put together my new head, the KFX Aurora, taking its name from the previous Aurora Extreme. The biggest differences I found in setting up a business in the US was that in the UK I already had a lot of contacts in the broadcast, film and production worlds, whereas over here initially I had virtually none. Also, in the UK, there was a whole host of small engineering and other machine workshops where you could get small runs of components made, which wasn’t the case in the US. There seemed to be very few small outfits, mainly larger ones only interested in big numbers. I actually put all the engineering plans together in London and built the first three heads there.
Two of my first customers who had expressed interest in the Aurora Head were Take 2 Films and ARRI Media in London, and the third was in Los Angeles, rising DoP Andrew Rowlands, who wanted to own a head like this. So, at least I was in the good position of having three customers before I started putting it all together.
We delivered all three in August and September of 2012. The ARRI Media one went straight out on Game of Thrones. Andrew Rowlands’ head went onto a movie, Grudge Match, with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, and the third went to Take 2 Films’ rental division, where it quickly started to pay for itself. These were delivered as prototypes on the basis that we would make any necessary changes resulting from user feedback.
Moving forward to now, we have around 20 Aurora heads delivered, mostly in the US and UK. There are six in London rental companies, two in South Africa and two in New York. In LA, there is one with a rental company, three or four with camera operators/DOPs, two in Austin, Texas, two in Atlanta and the rest dotted here and there with owner/operators. I admit to some pride that my Aurora remote heads have been used in the making of Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Game of Thrones, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Paddington, Atlantis, Downton Abbey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, NCIS New Orleans, Insurgent and Allegiant, Daddy’s Home and Victor Frankenstein.
Now I’d like to get more equipment out in Europe. The KFX Aurora remote head is aimed at high-end broadcast and movies. It has a high-end feel at a mid-end price and, from a rental point of view, it goes out on long jobs so clients see a quick return on the investment. There is also a trend now for DoPs, camera operators and grips to own their own heads – and the Aurora is perfect for that.
Recently, I’ve done a couple of equipment collaborations. The first came through GTC sponsors ARRI Media in London. Once they had received their Aurora head, they asked me to have a look at motorising one of their Ronford Baker camera sliders. This was launched at the last BSC Expo and seven or eight have been sold already. Now, some of the slider customers are asking us about the ability to do repeat moves, so we are updating our motion control software to work with the slider and head, which will lead to a further exciting bunch of new products and developments.
The other collaboration was launched at this year’s NAB. The year before at NAB, a product had caught my eye and I had noticed that the company was also New York based. I introduced myself and after the show we met up. As a result I now have collaborative products with MYT Works: the Velvet remote head, the Motorized Glideline camera slider and the Motorized Constellation camera skater dolly. All the new KFX/MYT products come with the KFX plugand-play controls, which are recognised within the film industry for their simplicity and robustness.
You can see more about these new products here: http://nofilmschool.com/2016/04/myt-works-unveils-camera-supportsystems-compact-skater-dolly