A trip to the movies is a classic date night, family outing, or a way to blow off a few hours on a slow day. You might not have thought of it before but engineering is a critical part of the movie industry. Many of the sweeping cinematic shots or awesome explosions require a solid understanding of engineering. For any of these shots any unanticipated quivering of the camera can ruin the shot.
Keeping a camera steady while the operator moves around and the shot pans is taken for granted nowadays, so much so that shaky camera work is considered a stylistic choice. It is by no means an easy thing to do. There are several ways to approach this problem.
One method is keeping the camera on a cart and laying track dictating where the cart needs to go. This cart needs a suspension system, and that system has to be finely tuned so that if any small disturbances impact the wheels of the cart they are dissipated before they reach the camera mount. These operate much like the shocks in your car, you only really feel the large bumps in the road. That is at least if your shocks are good!
If you need more mobility you can get a person mounted steadicam. Some of these cool gadgets use a full torso harness, like a vest, while others are hand held. Most of these operate on the same principle: there is a large weight hanging under the camera. This means every time the hand shakes the weight acts as a pendulum and absorbs the energy before any detectable quiver makes it into the film. As a purely mechanical system these only work to a certain extent.
The top of the line steadicams use active stabilization, this means that there are sensors all over a camera mount connected to motors. The sensors detect when there is any kind of unsteadiness and tell the motors to correct for it. These systems can be a bit bulky but with a torso harness they are quite feasible.
A large amount of technical know-how is required for these devices but that’s where engineers come in. The dynamics of vibrations and the electronic controls are just two areas that an engineer can help in. Next time you go to the movies check out how many different ways engineers helped, from designing explosions, to making cameras and sets. Pretty much anywhere you look an engineer had a part in some of it!