Something smelled fishy when Scott Sorensen interviewed for a production assistant gig with Discovery Channel’s popular MythBusters television series. It was him
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The recent UC Santa Cruz graduate was paying bills by gutting fish on a Pacific coast pier when he heard about the job opening on Craigslist. Over 50 episodes and nine years later, Scott worked his way to Director of Photography. Currently, he’s working on a project called MegaBots.
What’s a MegaBot?
You may have heard of BattleBots, the TV series featuring small remote-controlled weaponized robots that duke it out in a small arena. It’s similar to a destruction derby for radio controlled cars. MegaBots is a much bigger idea.
The largest MegaBot fighting machine, called Eagle Prime, stands 16-feet tall and weighs in at 12 tons. These hydraulic-powered machines are not remote controlled. No, they have two human pilots in the cockpit. Eagle Prime gets power from a 430 horsepower V8 engine you might find in a Chevrolet Corvette and cost a whopping $2.5 million to build.
The budding MegaBot sport draws inspiration from BattleBots, mixed martial arts and Transformers — with a little monster truck madness mixed in just for fun. Because of safety concerns for the human pilots, battles must be carefully controlled. The fights move slowly and methodically — the audience typically views a highly edited production. In the current evolution of the sport, live coverage would not be very compelling to watch — the action would simply be too slow.
Founded in 2014, MegaBots was the creation of Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein. The two engineers grew up playing video games, watching movies and reading comic books featuring giant fighting robots. The official vision of MegaBots is to “entertain a growing global audience of science-fiction fans and eSport enthusiasts by turning their dreams about giant robot combat into epic reality.” The company’s headquarters is in Hayward, CA.
Scott’s experience with MythBusters proved invaluable as he approached the task of filming fighting MegaBots in action. In MythBusters, he had filmed hours of explosions and other shots that Scott only had one chance to capture. Scott says that there was usually no chance for a “take two” on the MythBusters set after an explosion destroyed the subject of the shot. The shot must be captured the first time because there just isn’t a second time. Filming MegaBots offers similar challenges.
The Japanese Duel
Recently, the MegaBots team challenged Japan-based Suidobashi Heavy Industry to the world’s first giant robot duel. Team Japan’s fighting machine, called Kuratas, was 13 feet tall and weighed in at 6.5 tons — smaller than Team USA’s mammoth entry. The epic bout took place in September 2017 in the warehouse of an abandoned steel mill in Japan.
The logistical challenges of producing the fight were staggering. MegaBots had to ship their huge robot to Japan in pieces and then reassemble it in preparation for battle. Scott recalls that the fighting machine traveled on a huge truck to the makeshift set at the steel mill. But the truck was so big that the bot had to be offloaded to a smaller truck to maneuver into the warehouse.
During the duel, Scott ran the cockpit cameras while five camera operators filled out the camera duties. In addition, a drone hovered in the warehouse to capture the historic battle from above. Communication flowed through a headset system that connected the entire crew and the pilots.
Once the bots went into action, the crew took refuge a safe distance away. Literally no one knows what will happen once these behemoths start mixing it up. Here’s Scott’s advice, “It’s very valuable to go into a shoot having a plan. Then be ready to throw that plan out as soon as you arrive.”
The biggest challenge he faced was controlling cameras at a significant, and safe, distance. So, Scott rigged up a solution to remotely control the cockpit cameras.
Remote Control to the Rescue
Scott doesn’t have to worry about running out of power with the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Cameras he uses inside the robot’s cockpit — the cameras get power from the robot’s onboard AC inverter. However, running out of record time because of a maxed-out memory card is always a concern.
Fortunately, the Micros — which are also used in drones — have an expansion port that allows for various types of custom remote control. Using this expansion port feature, Scott assembled radio controlled plane parts into a custom system that allowed him to wirelessly control the start/stop functions of up to six cameras.
Before designing the wireless system, he had to climb into the robot, start each camera, climb down the robot, then wait for the robot to boot up before the action could began. He then repeated the steps after the action ended. This procedure proved to be very cumbersome and resulted in many minutes of unneeded recordings. This just made post-production more complicated, especially if we’re talking about six cameras.
Each camera is assigned a different frequency for the RC controller, and the RC receiver is mounted on the robot. Scott chose the Micros because of their small size and impressive video quality in the low light situation inside the robot’s cockpit.
Slowing Down the Action
During his tenure at MythBusters, Scott became an expert at high speed filming. This type of recording results in crystal clear images of fast moving action — like explosions.
He learned from experience that a camera operator should always assume that the explosion will be bigger than expected. His advice is to shoot wide and use as many cameras as feasible.
Let’s say a shoot calls for blowing up a boat in the middle of a lake. Scott would place multiple cameras on shore at various angles. He’d place two GoPros on buoys near the boat and two GoPros with a wireless feed on the soon-to-be doomed boat. For the high-speed shot, he’d employ two Vision Research Phantom cameras on shore. Overhead, there would be at least one drone.
The fastest frame rate that he ever recorded is 100,000 frames per second. At this speed, he could only capture a few seconds of video. Scott learned that he could not rely on the sound of an explosion to prompt him to hit the record button. Through trial and error, he discovered that sound travels too slowly. He discovered that a visual cue is the only way to accurately trigger the recording of an explosion.
In a shoot designed to capture the image of a speeding bullet in slow motion, Scott recorded at 73,000 frames per second. He recalls, “If you wrote something on the side of the bullet, you would have been able to read it.” Scott says that a typical bullet recording would have 1 or 1.5 seconds of total record time.
A Compelling Subject
Scott thinks that MegaBots are exciting to watch. He quips, “If giant robots were recorded with iPhones, they would be popular. I don’t think you need much to make MegaBots appealing to an audience.” But that doesn’t stop him from using the best equipment and techniques he can to produce quality video.
As for the safety concerns inherent to filming MegaBot battles, Scott describes what to avoid, “I’ve heard that having hydraulic fluid sprayed on you is extremely unpleasant.”