Cinetics Axis360: One, Two, and Three Axes of Fun
The Cinetics Axis360 Motion Control System and Slider was designed to enhance motorized slides, pans, and tilts in videography using most DLSR, mirrorless, and digital cinema cameras. Since I spent the early part of my career as a motion control camera assistant, working on complex multi-axis motion control rigs, doing stop-motion animation with 35mm motion picture cameras, I've had a fair amount of experience programming and operating motion control units, and I looked forward to seeing what the Cinetics rig could do.
There are three versions available, starting with the Single-Axis unit, which includes:
- the slider track
- one motor
- one controller
- one drive belt
- the carriage
- the ball-joint head
- brackets for setting up the pan and tilt axes
- quick release clamps
- Arca-Swiss-style plate, and various camera-connection cables.
So, of course, the first thing I did when I got the Cinetics unit home was to unpack it from the case, and try to figure out how it all went together. What I found was a simple-looking rig that, in many ways, is highly complex and well thought out. It is pretty much everything I’d want in a portable motion control system, and once I got accustomed to it, the system really made sense. However, there are a few minor improvements I'd like to see. For example, the support legs work well, but I wish that instead of knurled knobs, a spring-loaded lever could be used to tighten the leg position. Something else I would like to see would be indexed marks where the legs attach to the slider end caps, so I could line up the four legs more easily. The existing rosettes have many detents for fine adjustments, but it is difficult to tell when the legs are all aligned. Since there is no bubble level built into the carriage—although you can acquire and attach an after-market level—indexing points would let me quickly line up the legs when I set up the unit. Other than these points, I really have no complaints regarding the build quality or design.
To expand the slider to its full length, you have to remove one of the track ends, screw in the additional set of track rods, and then reattach the set of legs. The rod join uses 3/8"-16 threads and makes a really tight fit. I can barely feel the joint between the track rods and there doesn't seem to be a jump when the carriage travels over it. The slider carriage glides smoothly over track and features a locking knob to hold the position and a tension adjustment knob, which you can use to adjust the amount of tension that the slider carriage applies to grip the track. The carriage features a 1/4"-20 tie-down screw so you can attach a fluid head or your camera directly to the carriage. You can easily use the system as a manual slider without adding any of the motors, and it comes with a ball-joint head. The slider can be extended with additional track rods in the Cinetics 32" Slider Extension Kit.
The carriage itself features two 3/8"-16 threaded accessory mounting points, and the pad is rubberized for good grip so your camera, the ball-joint head, or your fluid head won't twist on top of the carriage. Removable support legs feature rubberized ball-style feet, which provide sufficient grip, and use rosettes to set their position. The legs can fold out of the way if you don't need them, or for transport.
Before we move onto the motors and controllers, it is worth pointing out that there is a top mounting plate that you can slide onto the track rods (remember, you need to remove the track ends to do so), and this plate allows you to attach a bottom plate with a 3/8"-16 threaded mounting hole for attaching the slider track to your tripod. The bottom plate clamps the top plate for a rock-solid tripod-mounting solution. All this can be accomplished without tools, and simple hand-tightening of the knurled knobs will do the job. The mounting plate can be left on the slider if you wish, and the the top plate is held in place, even if the bottom plate is not attached. This mounting system does not interfere at all with the slider carriage's movement along the track.
Now that you've assembled the Axis360 and set it up, it's time to add the first motor. The motors that came with my test unit were identical, and each came with a belt-driven pulley and an integrated 1/4"-20 threaded stud, which allows you to use any motor to drive any axis, making setup a lot simpler. The motors have various 1/4"-20 mounting holes for use in any of the three axes. I recommend starting out building only the slider axis first, and attaching your camera straight to the carriage to get familiar with the motor-control capabilities and procedures. Although the controllers are straightforward, you will want to test the settings to find the right combination for each shot.
The controllers are battery powered and, according to Cinetics, should run the motors for about three to four hours on a full charge. So far, this seems to hold true, and happily, the controllers seem to hold their charge well when stored. You can also plug the controllers into a DC power source, and the included AC adapters let you charge or power them from your household outlet. However, it's the battery-powered feature that's really cool, since you don't need to be on the grid to do stop-motion photography or even motion-driven videography.
So, let's talk about setting up the one-axis version. Before you mount the motor, you will notice that there is a removable pulley on one end of the track, which is adjustable, and will take up the slack on the drive belt. Loosen the pulley, and then mount the motor on the other end of the slider track. There is a machined channel, so the motor won't spin once it's mounted, and a 1/4"-20 mounting screw. Make sure you mount the motor with the pulley pointed down. This is all pretty easy, and there are printed diagrams online to help you with the setup. The drive belt has two small loops, one at each end, and these attach to studs on the slider carriage. Just loop the belt around the pulley, slide the belt loops onto the slider carriage, add tension to the belt, and then tighten the pulley. It takes longer to describe it than to do it.
The next step is to connect the controller to the motor. You'll notice a cable, with a telephone-style connector that extends from the motor. The telephone connector is resembles an Ethernet connector, but thinner, and with fewer wires. This cable plugs into the controller over the icon that looks like a gear. Now, however, comes the hard part because, if you are like me, over the years you've developed a sense of how much pressure to use when mounting equipment. The Cinetics guys have instituted an interesting system for mounting the controller to the motor (or the rig). It consists of a half-ball made of plastic with a slit in it so the half-ball can compress a little. The controllers have the female part, which press-fits onto the half-ball. This is a simple mounting system and it works well, but it took me fifteen minutes to get comfortable with the amount of pressure needed to mount the controller to the motor.
The controller itself is fairly simple; it's a small black box that has an On/Off switch, a small, LCD information screen, a Home/Play button, a Menu button, and four Navigation/Input buttons. On one side is a power connector, telephone-style connector for the motor, camera-control port, a port for connecting controllers, and a Micro USB port for control using optional software. Once you've mounted the controller on the motor and you’ve connected the motor to the controller electronically with the retro telephone-style connector, you can then move the slider carriage along the tracks. There are many settings to adjust, so take your time getting accustomed to it.
From the home screen on the controller, moving the carriage and setting start and end positions is fairly straightforward. If you find that pressing the button to move the carriage to the right is moving it to the left (and vice versa), then a setting at the bottom of the main screen allows you to adjust direction from clockwise to counter-clockwise. Settings for exposure, record time, playback, frame rate, move type, and ramp are also found on the main screen, but what you want to do is delve deeper. Touch the menu button, which brings you to the general screen. The choices there are time lapse or video, and below these is the option of key frames or run. As you can see already, the controller presents you with many options. I'm shooting stills for time lapse, so I chose time lapse and key frames. As you go through the menus, it is pretty self-explanatory, and the Cinetics people have done a yeoman’s job designing the menu layout and controls.
However, be aware. There is a setting for “Bouncing,” and while this sounds as if it would let the rig stop and settle before taking a picture, that is not the case. It should probably have been called “Loop,” because if you activate Bouncing, when the rig reaches the end of its move, it moves in the opposite direction, over and over. Another reason to choose key frames over run in the general screen: setup selection requires you to start a move over in key frames, and will return to your start position. In the run mode, it will just start the move over from the camera’s current position.
A very useful “camera delay” setting is found on the camera control menu screen. This is especially important if your camera takes time to process your image before moving on to take the next image. If you notice that your camera is not shooting as many frames as you’ve planned, then you may want to experiment with the camera-delay setting. Until you tune your camera settings, you will probably be vacillating between programming your moves and the menu settings. But don't worry, this is normal. It is a motion control system, after all, and not point-and-shoot.
The multiple settings give you control over exposure time, the number of frames to shoot during your move, how long your move takes to shoot, and even what your playback rate is. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to master all the settings, but I'd like to point out the different shooting modes. S-M-S, or Continuous modes, are referred to as Move Type on the home screen page. S-M-S is the acronym for shoot - move – shoot: the camera takes a frame, then moves, then stops and takes another frame before moving again, until the move is complete. I found this to be somewhat involved, although changing the “ramp” settings may simplify this. I liked the Continuous setting—in this mode, the move happens and the camera is triggered, rendering some motion blur to smooth things out. The Cinetics rep told me that you can “trick” the controller into doing stop-motion animation by setting the number of images to 1, and then triggering it.
At first, I was stymied by trying to set up more than two motors—each motor only has one port for interconnecting, which would seem to prevent the use of more than two motors. This is where the Chain ID setup comes into play. Each motor can be designated as a Master, or with an ID from 1 to 15. For a three-axis setup, you assign one motor (the controller/motor combo) as Master, and then every other combo with a unique numerical ID #. Connect the motors using the included cables and y cables or adapters. You don't daisy-chain the motors, as the unique ID's handle the communication between motors. Once this is done, go to the controller menu on the master motor and press “Update Chain.” Now you control each motor from the Master controller. Any controller can be the Master, and you can trigger your camera from any controller, Master or not.
You should be aware that the home screen will change, depending on your settings. Setting a motor to a slider gives you a readout in distance, while setting it to Pan/Tilt will give you a readout in degrees. Setting up multiple axes, as opposed to a single-axis move, adds a selection of “Motor” to the home screen—you can toggle through to control any individual motor or all at the same time. One more hint on using multiple axes: when you program, you must program each axis using the Master controller.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the hardware for the additional axes. The included ball head and brackets for pan and tilt are well designed and sturdy. The first time I assembled the complete three-axis rig with motors and controllers, it took me about 40 minutes. I can easily see cutting that time down to 10 minutes, now that I have more practice using the unit.
An option for computer control to bypass the software is built into the motors. I did not try this, being more concerned with setting up motorized, repeatable time-lapse moves without being tied to a PC or laptop.
Overall, the Cinetics rig impressed me a great deal. Aside from the few minor mechanical tweaks I mentioned earlier, the hardware is well designed, and accommodates expansion and easy upgrades. Making the motor units modular so they can be used for any axis without having to swap parts or connectors is a smart move that improves set-up time, and makes the rig very flexible. The controllers and software are also smartly designed, as well. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature to make adjustments and tune your moves and settings.
Although I would like to be able to set multiple key frames for more complex moves, I have a feeling that is coming in future software upgrades, and may be available with the computer-control software. As it is, the controller software is so complete that you should be able to program your system to get just the moves you want. It is a flexible system that you can set up, tweak, and adjust to suit your needs. Suitable for manual, motorized, or motion-control operation, shooting either stop-motion animation, time-lapse stills, or video, the Cinetics Axis360 is a great platform. Compact, portable, useable on location or in the studio, it’s a great rig to have on your equipment list.