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Review of the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero Dolly with MX2 Controller

Review by Ron Risman, January, 2012

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I have been actively creating time-lapse sequences using DSLR's ever since getting the Canon 5D Mark II three years ago. Since then I have put a Canon 7D into action for time lapses and more recently a Canon 60D using Magic Lantern Firmware. When the location, subject, and light is just right, time-lapse sequences are nothing short of magical - even when the camera is stationary. But, for anyone who has drooled over time-lapse films produced by Timescapes, you already know that adding camera movement into the mix can increase the production value of your time-lapses ten fold. After all, motion helps to draw the viewer into the scene.

While I originally put in a review request with Dynamic Perception Stage One dolly over six months ago, demand was so great for the product that it wasn't until early October that the company was able to send out a review unit. Since then I have spent the past 6 weeks getting to know the ins and outs of the Stage One dolly and MX2 controller by shooting a variety of day and night time-lapse sequences.

I opted to review the Stage One Dolly for a couple of reasons. First, the Dynamic Perception Dolly uses a standard 80/20 Series 10 1030 track that can be purchased separately and in a wide variety of preset and custom lengths from retailers like Amazon or direct from 80/20. This gives the Stage One Dolly the flexibility of being mobile just by purchasing a shorter track length, while keeping your longer track in the studio for more local destinations, These 80/20 tracks also have the advantage of being very inexpensive, with 48-72" tracks selling for only $30-$50 via Amazon.

The affordable track also makes the entire system with motion controller (MX2) a much more affordable option for hobbyists and filmmakers on a budget, with a complete system selling for around $1000.

Dynamic Perception sent a 6' track along with the MX2 controller. Since I drive a Minicooper I wasn't sure how I felt about a 72" long track, but remarkably I was able to fit into my Mini Cooper without having to stick one end out a window. It was a tight fit, but by sliding it in on its edge I was able to rest the far end under the dashboard, in the empty space below the radio without interfering with the shifter or emergency brake . Ideally I would be better off with a shorter 4' track when traveling in the Mini, but it was great to know that the 6' would work when needed.

I have read that you can also join multiple tracks together. This is ideal, especially if you plan to hike with the track. Get 3 or more 24" tracks and you'll have a convenient track length that can easily be packed into luggage or in a backpack. Here are the items you would likely need for assembling multiple 24" tracks into one long 72" track length.

  • Qty 3: 80/20 10 Series 1030 1" x 3" Tracks - 24"
  • QTY 2: 80/20 10 Series 4165 8-Hole Joining Plate Connect tracks together on underside using these plates
  • QTY 2: 80/20 10 Series 4117 4-Hole Joining Strip
  • Qty 32: 80/20 3321 Bolt Assembly (1/4-20 x 1/2"). Use these to connect plates to track

In the Box

The review unit arrived in two boxes. A long padded box that contained the 72" blue anodized aluminum track and another box that contained the carriage, feet, battery pack, MX2 controller, and all the parts and cables needed for assembly. I immediately slid the track out of its box and placed it on the floor in front of my couch. The contents of the other box were spread out over my Kitchen counter. As somebody who has never assembled a time-lapse dolly I found the included assembly instructions to be a bit confusing - but a link was provided to an instructional video on the Dynamic Perception website helped to make sense of all the individual parts and how to mount the carriage to the rail.

Initial assembly consisted of installing track mounts onto the carriage, mounting the motor to the carriage, connecting a ball head to the carriage, and mounting the dolly carriage onto the rail (dolly track). Once the track and carriage assembly was complete I then slid the two foot assemblies onto the rail as well as connected two quick release plates from my tripods. With assembly complete I was now ready to connect the MX2 controller to the motor and to my Canon 5D Mark II.

The MX2 Motion Controller

The motor that moves the carriage down the track is controlled by Dynamic Perception's MX2 Motion Controller. The MX2 Dolly Engine is based on open-source firmware designed for the MX2 Arduino microcontroller, and provides a simple-to-use interface and control system for a motion control rig using DC motors and up to two axes.

The Dolly Shield controls up to two DC motors - at up to 1A of current each. It also provides dual stereo plug outputs for direct camera control (shutter release, exposure time, exposure delay). The controller features a 2-line 16 character (each) backlit LCD display with 5 buttons for user input. The controller also offers four aux input/outputs through two stereo jacks and a USB interface for updating the firmware with a PC connection.

The controller comes with firmware (software) that Dynamic Perception has altered to their specifications, making this a complete solution. Of course, since the MX2 controller is based on open-source firmware and hardware, you can make your own changes and adapt the system to your needs at any time.

Features include:

  • Continuous movement of motor (pulse mode)
  • Shoot-Move-Shoot motor control (interleave mode)
  • Manual Motor Control
  • Speed Ramping/Feathering
  • Input Speeds in Inches Per Minute or % Camera Integration
  • Control Interval
  • Control Exposure Time
  • Bulb mode or Camera Controlled
  • Control Post-Exposure Delay
  • Focus Line Control
  • Support for most major dSLRs (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc.)
  • Remote electronic cable port required

Learning the MX2 Controller

Since the heart of the Stage Zero Dolly is the MX2 Controller I wanted to give you a brief overview on how to operate the controller. At first glance it may look a bit confusing, but after this brief introduction you'll hopefully see that it's actually rather intuitive to use.

The MX2 Controller features two motor connections on its right side. These ports allow it to power two separate motors (Motor 1, Motor2). You might use the first power port to control the dolly motor, while the second port could be used to power a motorized pan & tilt head.

The left side of the controller provides a 12v power input that connects to an external battery, a 3.5mm camera jack to connect a digital camera trigger cable, two external input connections, and a USB port that allows connection to a computer for updating the controllers firmware.

How to Change Settings on the Controller

Once the connect the MX2 controller to an external battery or power source, to your camera, and to the motor you're all ready to begin programming the MX2 controller to test out your rig.

Let's first get familiar with the LCD display. The LCD contains 2-lines with 16 characters per line and backlighting. The main screen, which first appears when powering on the controller, provides an overview of your current settings. To change these settings we'll use the left/right buttons to navigate over to a particular setting, then we'll use the up/down buttons to change the value of the setting.

1) The first setting labeled "Off" will be the last setting we alter since this activates the motor once we're finished with the other settings.

2) Tap the right arrow key to move the blinking cursor over to the interval time. You'll then press either the up or down arrow keys to increase or decrease the interval time. The longer you hold the button the faster this number will change.

The interval is the amount of time you want the controller to wait before telling the camera to take another picture. In the example to the right I have it set for 24.6 seconds. This is a fairly long delay and one that would often be used when capturing long exposures of the night sky. It is set for 24.2 seconds in order to give the camera enough time to capture the scene using a 20 second exposure and write the image from the buffer to the card. For an afternoon time lapse I might set the interval to just 3 or 4 seconds depending on how fast the subjects (clouds, cars, people) in the scene are moving.

3) Tap the right arrow key again and the cursor will drop down to the next line where you'll set the direction you want the motor to move the carriage. This can either be "R" for right or 'L" for left. Due to the positioning of the motor you'll often find yourself on the opposite side of the carriage where "R" and "L" will provide opposite movement. If you're standing facing the carriage and the motor is on the back right side of the carriage then the carriage will move to YOUR left when you select "R" and to the right when you select "L"

4) Tap the right arrow again and you'll be ready to change the distance in which you want to the dolly carriage to move between each shots. This ultimately controls the speed at which the dolly moves down the track. The letter "i" reminds you that this number is in inches.

Once your done with the settings you can now change the OFF to ON to start the time-lapse. You do this by tapping the left button to move backwards through the main screen until you get to the word OFF. Now use the up arrow key to change that to ON. These settings can be changed even while a time lapse is running, so if you find that the interval was too short or too long you can manually adjust it on the fly and the change will take affect instantly.

More In-Depth Controls

There are many more controls that can be accessed through the controller.

  • Pulse Mode vs. Interleave Mode: You can tell the carriage to move continuously (Pulse mode) down the track while the camera snaps away or you can switch to a move-shoot-move mode (Interleave mode) where the controller will snap a photo before moving the carriage and will snap the next photo once the carriage stops moving, and so on. Move-shoot-move mode is most often used in night photography since a moving carriage during a long camera exposure would add motion blur to the final image, but for most daytime lapses the continuous (pulse) mode is often more ideal. You may always want to use the move-shoot-move mode when you want very slow camera movements.

  • Ramping / Feathering: The MX2 controller allows you to set up a time lapse where the carriage slowly increases or decreases in speed until it reaches the intended speed. This effect is subtle but allows the time lapse to end or begin with a gradual speed change.

  • Calibration: As payloads on the carriage change you can achieve higher accuracy by re-calibration the MX2 controller. The controller comes pre-calibrated for an approx. 3.5 lb load (DSLR with Zoom and Ball head), but if you move up to a heavier camera or camera / lens combination you can quickly tell the MX2 controller the new payload and it will remember it from that point forward.

  • Angled Dolly Moves: When adjusting the angle of the dolly to 45 or 90 degrees the carriage can be moved more accurately if you tell the MX2 controller the angle at which you've positioned the track. There are settings for 0°, 45° and 90°.
  • The MX2 controller has many additional options that I don't have time for in this review, but you can get more information on this Getting Started with the MX2 controller page.

    Operation of the Carriage

    The movement of the carriage across the track is controlled by the installed motor which pulls itself down the track using a rubber-toothed belt that wraps around the motor gears. The dolly is designed first and foremost as a motorized system, but you can use it as a manual dolly in situations that call for it. Even when using it as a motorized system you will often want to disengage the belt in order to manually slide the carriage - in order to do a trail run. This will allow you check for unforeseen obstacles and balance issues.

    If I had one wish for a future version it would be to add a mechanical way to disengage the motor from the belt. Currently you have to loosen one end of the belt, then manually unthread it from the motor wheels. While this is easy to do at eye level, it is a bit more challenging when the dolly is set on the ground. You really won't enjoy laying in dirt, mud, or water just to disengage the belt - and more often than not you'll just say the hell with it - only to discover a problem when it might be too late to do anything about it.

    Figure 1Figure 2

    In the Field

    The Dynamic Perception Dolly arrived in my hands the day before I was heading to Connecticut to shoo sunrise & sunset time-lapses for five-days for a local news station. Because I hadn't had a chance to get comfortable with the operation of the MX2 controller I only used the dolly a few times that week. I started with an easy daylight time-lapse of a lighthouse and positioned the dolly so that large rocks along the edge of the ocean would provide foreground motion as the dolly moves from right to left. Since I laid the track across two large rocks over ocean water I didn't really have an easy way to do a manual test slide. The track felt stable and balanced so I proceeded, but later when I was checking out the footage I discovered that the track had wobbled quite a bit as the camera moved down the track. While the legs seemed secure from where I was putting pressure - as the camera slid down the track the pressure point was constantly changing, as was the balance. Luckily, Adobe After Effects Stabilization was able to clean up the shaky footage.

    My second time using the dolly came just a few hours while at the same location. For this shot I positioned the dolly behind rocks facing the city skyline. The goal was to capture the sun as it went down over the city with the rocks in the foreground to add some perspective. This time around I had the balance perfect, but unfortunately I hadn't set up the MX2 controller to account for the longer exposures as the sun went down. The camera was set to aperture-priority mode so that the shutter duration would increase as light-levels decreased. Well, as the shutter speed decreased (longer exposure time) the carriage movement started to overlap the exposure, resulting in blurred motion. It's amazing that in my first day of shooting I learned two major lessons: 1) always do a manual test slide; and 2) understand how to set the controller for any given situation - before going out to shoot.

    Once assembled the dolly is a breeze to set up when on location, however I highly suggest that you watch the online tutorials and read the users guide a few times in order to become familiar with the MX2 controller and all of the options it offers. The time you initially put into learning the MX2 controller will be well worth it when you're out in the field and under the stars. For anyone interested in adding motion perspective to their time-lapse sequences you'll not only get great results with the Dynamic Perception dolly, you'll save quite a bit of money compared to other motion time-lapse rigs.

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