Redrock Micro's Halo, Andra Motion Focus, and Preston Cinema Systems Light Ranger 2 Promise More Precise Control During a Shoot

Focus-pulling may be about to get a lot more interesting as new systems come on the market that promise to automate some of the most precise, grace-under-pressure focus adjustments required during a shoot, while still giving the human operator complete control—plus or minus a helping hand—whenever it's desired.

The slickest such system on display at NAB 2015 was probably the new Halo from Redrock Micro. Redrock says it has adapted the same technology that keeps self-driving cars from running into objects in their path to create a map of an entire 180-degree scene in real time.

Data from the Halo Explorer unit, which scans the environment, is used by a handheld focus-control module with touchscreen to create a visual representation of the scene that resembles a radar display. Real-time data pulled from the lens includes iris info, the distance to various subjects, and a graphical representation of depth of field. Focus can be adjusted manually, scrubbed on the touchscreen, or snapped to a given element in the scene with a finger-tap. Watch a demo in our video coverage from the show floor.


Redrock Micro's Halo

"I describe it as our Avatar product," Redrock's Brian Valente told StudioDaily at the show, explaining that it has taken a while to bring some the magic behind-the-scenes technology from James Cameron's famous project to a larger market. Noting that different styles of operation demand different degrees of auto-focus capabilities, Valente says Redrock wants the technology to give operators the freedom they need to become more creative on set.

"Our hope is to elevate the role of a focus puller from a real technical, watch-the-numbers [position] to more of a focus director," Valente said, "where they're now watching cues and dialogue and action and worrying about how to adjust focus according to those kinds of things."

Valente said Redrock's goal is to ship Halo by the end of 2015, with a price target of $2,000 to $5,000 for a complete system.

Meanwhile, Andra Motion Technologies, which generated a mighty buzz with its own automatic focus-pulling system at last year's NAB, had a more prominent booth at this year's show—but still no shipping product.

The company has spent the last year refining the system, making it more portable and lightweight, and rethinking the Arc, a handheld device that can be used to control it, Andra's Sam Fischer told StudioDaily at the show"First ACs told us they really wanted total manual control," Fischer said. As a result, the redesigned Arc Elite hand unit offers the Andra's auto follow-focus along with "total control, like a manual system, so you can bounce back and forth seamlessly."

andra arc hand unit

Andra's Arc Elite
As we described it last year, the Andra is designed as an assistant, not a replacement, for traditional focus-pullers. Small "sources" create a magnetic field for motion capture within a scalable area of coverage. One or more "sensors" are affixed to each performer (or object) that is to be tracked in the scene, along with a connected "hub" that wirelessly transmits position data from up to three sensors to the control unit. If the camera is moving, a hub and sensor, or in some cases just a single source, must be mounted on the camera along with the requisite follow-focus motor. It works with geared lenses that have hard stops, including long lenses and macros, and functions as a full replacement for an existing FIZ controller. The system can be controlled with the Arc hand unit, or with the touchscreen of an iPad.

Andra said it has improved measurement accuracy over the last year, figuring out how to make smoother focus pulls and how to better track fast-moving objects. The lighter design makes it easier to mount hubs or sources directly on the camera, which is required for run-and-gun shooting or any time the camera is moving. The hardware specs have also been increased, and the system is now designed to accept software upgrades to enable new features.

The system is available for pre-order in three basic configurations that differ only in the number of sources, hubs and sensors included: the DSLR starter kit, with a range of about 10 feet is $12,750; the Standard Package, offering a 24-by-16-foot coverage area is $17,050; and the Pro Package, offering roughly 600 square feet of coverage, is $28,800. Custom Studio Packages with more components are priced according to spec. The original Andra ARC hand unit runs $4,400, and the ARC Elite is $7,400. 

So when is it coming? Fischer said the Andra is "almost ready to ship" pending some final refinements to the software. The company plans to manufacture the first production units sometime this summer.

Preston Cinema Systems was at NAB with its own, somewhat less flashy Light Ranger 2, first introduced last year. The LR2 consists of a sensor that measures distances to subjects using infrared light and a video overlay unit that generates graphic overlays for display on the focus puller's monitor. Also required are the motor system and driver from Preston's FI+Z remote lens control system.


Preston Cinema Systems Light Ranger 2 sensor and video interface

feb-4In manual mode, the overlay elements convey distance information for objects appearing on screen as well as their position relative to the lens's depth of field, calculated using information on the lens focal length, distance to the subject, and T-stop. Green rectangles show objects in focus and white rectangles show objects outside the field. And in autofocus mode, a red rectangle shows where the distance measurement for focus is taking place. Distances are indicated with graphical representations (vertical bars) as well as digits displayed on screen. A smooth transition can be made from autofocus to manual focus mode by matching distance settings before exiting autofocus mode, the company said.

Preston said the LR2's operating range goes over 40 feet with an 18-degree angle of view horizontally. The video overlay unit has a wireless G4 transceiver as well as HD-SDI in and out. Like the Andra and Redrock systems above, the Light Ranger 2 isn't shipping yet, but is due later in 2015.

If these three companies are almost ready to ship products, surely similar R&D work is going on elsewhere in the business, too. Keep your eyes open at Cine Gear Expo in June and IBC this fall to see if more vendors announce next-generation focus-assist systems.