Building Betty

crazyAlmost everybody thought I was crazy.

We did everything the hard way, and it took 2 long years.

Betty was born out of filmmaker’s frustration: a landscape of cameras that increasingly had to be rigged up in order to be functional tools.

I was learning to love/hate DSLRs, and I was really missing 16mm.

I missed the run and gun cinema approach that I could operate efficiently by myself with a 16mm shoulder camera and zoom. What an unnecessary pain in the butt DSLRs and the like had become with rigs full of bits of gack, shifty shoulder pads, and counterweights.

I said, “Enough with that!” I was on a quest to find a 16mm Digital Cinema camera, but I was coming up short.

Having exposed many hours of documentary footage with Super 16 zoom lenses in 2K on a Red One MX I found the Red very awkward to handle.

The Ikonoskop A-Cam dII was a beautiful design, but had limitations in its recording media. It also needed a rig to be practical.

The P+S Technik 16 Digital SR Mag and EasyLook EasyMag were brilliant, yet would have made for a hefty camera and price tag.

The full size SI-2K was big and antiquated, and the Cinedeck was a boxy, power sucking, however reliable SI-2K recorder.

Digital Bolex & Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera had not been announced yet.

I didn’t want perfect images. I didn’t desire my footage to look like every prosumer sensor; I was looking for something more impressionistic.

The SI-2k Mini showed a lot of potential to “build your own camera”. In August of 2011, I took the plunge and picked up a used SI-2K Mini camera head off of eBay. I immediately fell in love with the SiliconDVR software interface. It was so simple and well thought out.

I started building a small Mini ITX PC and put it inside a metal frame. Using some parts from a low mode cage from an elderly Glidecam V20, I mounted the camera with odds and ends into a basic camera shape. It was magnificently sucky; The computer heat failed within a week!

Along the way I had convinced my employer that this could be a great company project, but when things kept failing and became incredibly complicated, it was dropped. “Betty” became a passionate personal endeavor.

elements

It soon dawned on me that a Mac Mini could do much better inside the rig. It turned out that many newer generations of Mac Mini could run on unregulated 12V power when the power supply was removed; this was a huge discovery! It removed the need to add any voltage regulation into the camera design. After some research I went to MicroCenter in Cambridge and picked through a bin to find every SATA/Mini/Micro/eSATA adapter I could grab. I took out the optical drive and hooked up an external eSata dock, yanked the latch off the 2.5″ door and crimped on a key ring as a pull tab.

birdhouse3     birdhouse5

We started building “the birdhouse” (a big thanks goes to Tim Coughlan for his woodworking craft) to give the Mac Mini a nest.
The birdhouse was a proof of concept; it showed that the camera could actually work in tandem with the Mac Mini and not fail.

It had a top handle borrowed from an old Arri 35-3, and a Kodak Cigar Box logo taped on the side for good luck!

The monitoring at the time was a Lilliput touchscreen and a Zacuto EVF in tandem. That combination proved to be rather problematic, because the Lilliput had detection issues and the Zacuto had serious frame lagging due to the firmware at the time.

birdhouse4

The cabling of the birdhouse was something out of a steampunk dream. It was way overbuilt; I kept reworking it, improving bits and pieces as we got some viable feedback.

I worked with a few Emerson College students, Dan Finlayson and Ryan Oppedisano, who were willing to be guinea pigs for the camera. They took the birdhouse out into the real world and shot a few shorts and music videos. Amazingly, the camera never failed.

By February of 2012 it was time to get serious about building a real camera housing. I called in Mike Szegedi to the project, a good friend and exceptional builder who loved cameras too.

We spent a lot of time looking at 16mm film cameras, comparing, measuring, and studying their designs. We wanted the body of an Aaton, and an Arri SR somehow morphed into one. It became clear that 16mm film camera shapes were heavily dictated by their magazines and the film within them.

We realized that to make the smallest package, we would need to follow the shape of the Mac Mini.

cardboard

We started by building mockups out of cardboard and foam. With a tiny budget, we began exploring sheet metal frames, and it soon became apparent that the housing would have to be made from a large block of machined aluminum.

solidworks

We went through about ten different designs in SolidWorks, and we ended up with a camera that most resembled a Cinema Products GSMO. Along the way we got a lot of feedback from local DP Stephen McCarthy, who lent us his Aaton XTR, and local AC Joe Christofori, who helped us discern what we had missed. They could see where we were going, and why we chose that direction. The final design had to be intuitive, user-friendly, and simple.

machining

We figured out ways to access the Mini’s power button and power LED, while keeping the Mini well ventilated.
Building the front camera cage first allowed us to make the camera serviceable, detachable, and modular.

The beauty of the final design was that all components were easily swapped out. If the Mac Mini (An old Core 2 Duo) were to fail, we could change it out in short order.

Severe cabling reductions had to happen, which was rectified by the introduction of a Xenarc monitor. Unlike the Lilliput, the Xenarc did not combine its touch functionality into the HDMI cable. This allowed us to use HyperThin HDMI cables inside, which reduced most of the cable bulk.

We spent a lot of time obsessing over proper hole patterns, weight distribution, and rod support.

smileychrosziel      smileycamhead

We re-purposed and re-engineered some fine pieces of aluminum & steel, a Chrosziel rod support bracket, a Red One handle, and rosettes and tape hooks from a P+S Technik Mini35. We settled on a hole pattern that could accommodate Red accessories, including a grip we already had on hand.

We made sure the bottom hole patterns could fit just about any plate we threw at it, including 16mm Arri bridgeplates.
A short VCT plate from an old Canon XLH1 became our go-to quick release mounting system. We decided a small scrap of velcro-ed neoprene worked as great little shoulder pad.

My friend, Jeff Stern, had the perfect project for the camera, and we were committed to shoot with it the morning of August 30th, 2012 on a beach! We finished the prototype build at well past 1AM on August 30th, and drove through the night to location.
Betty survived the surf, the sand, and blistering heat.

beach

However, the Mac Mini did not fit as planned the night before; the CNC’d parts were slightly off. We messed up, but we worked all that day and night to make them fit. The operator side door was not finished yet, so we saw cut one out of ABS and taped it on like the door to a film magazine.

tapeddoor

The Mac Mini (as we expected) transferred its heat directly to the surrounding frame, it was toasty, but never overheated.
I was quite relieved it didn’t go belly up in the middle of the shoot. I had reluctantly thrown a DSLR in my ditty bag, just in case.

The later addition of more threaded holes to the top plate allowed for a heat sink effect, which provided more efficient cooling.

The prototype proved to be too heavy. We put Betty on a severe diet at the skill of Mike’s hand machining.

This put us in good shape for round two of Jeff’s shoot in October 2012. We encountered some random issues with the drive module, which needed to be replaced. I located a 2.5″ PCIe slot dock (similar to that in the KineRaw) and wired it up with a SATA to USB power hack.

We were doing quite a bit of guerrilla shooting in crowds of people that weekend, so I re-purposed an Aaton XTR raincover to fit and hide the body. We ran into local AC Jill Tufts, who asked: “Are you shooting film?”

Betty lightened up, but we wanted lighter, so Mike devised a featherweight ABS door with a reinforced aluminum plate. It finally all came together! The door had a rough ABS appearance, so we settled on a leather finish; it seemed the best homage to the cameras we admired!

camopside

Black anodized and buttoned up, we had no idea what to call the camera.
Somehow after a night of drinking in Davis Square it became “Black Betty“… The name stuck.

A special thanks to understanding wives, girlfriends, children, parents, coworkers, and friends in the biz, you made it all work.