Cinematographer Rich Schaefer Talks Motion Control Robots and the Impact of COVID-19

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Rich Schaefer is an award-winning cinematographer with more than 25 years of experience. By delivering stunning images across a variety of entertainment and commercial projects, Rich’s punctilious eye and valued ingenuity makes him a top collaborator and creator in his craft.

A member of the Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild, Rich’s narrative credits include Frenemies, Star Struck, Thug Money, the upcoming film The Last Champion, and Orange Sunshine, for which he received the 2019 Newport Beach Film Festival Award for Best Cinematography. His documentary series, Awkward Family Photos, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. In his commercial line of work, Rich has created content for many prolific brands including Neutrogena, Toyota, Microsoft, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett Packard, Nestle, Target, and Chase. Most recently, he worked with TRULY Hard Seltzer on their 2020 Super Bowl Ad.
 
ProductionHUB spoke with Rich about new technology that is helping enhance DP work and the pandemic's impact on the industry.
 
PH: Can you talk a bit about the Kira2 motion control robot?  
 
Rich Schaefer: The Kira2 is the latest and greatest motion control robot from Motorized Precision. It is an industrial robot that has been modified for cinematography. The robot itself is made by the German robotics maker Kuka. They are commonly found in many factories, including Mercedes, BMW, and our Tesla plants. I like this because they are proven machines. There is so much research and development behind their robots. Kuka also provides tremendous knowledge, parts, and support for their machines.  
 
What really makes Kira2 special is the human interface software called MP-Studio that Motorized Precision writes and provides. Programming a robot in the manufacturing world is very different from what we need in the production world. Motorized Precision's MP-Studio software is designed for cinematographers. I can literally program a simple move with focus in three or four minutes, including running a rehearsal. Building a move is simply done by positioning the robot with an Xbox controller and making some keyframes on a familiar-looking timeline. While doing so, you have the option to set focus with a FIZ unit or in the software, and you can also set a target. If you set a target or multiple targets, the robot will use those targets to look when performing its move.
 
PH: What have you shot so far with this robot?  
 
Rich Schaefer: With my new Kira2, I photographed the latest Truly Hard Seltzer ad and I've also filmed product shots for Cleveland Golf, food photography for Cup-Noodles, and a PSA for COVID-19.
 
PH: Speaking of which, how have you had to pivot due to COVID-19? 
 
Rich Schaefer: COVID-19 has been an enormous challenge for the production industry. My work has taken a huge hit. In March, my work calendar got wiped clean. But, I have used the time to really learn and hone my skills on the MoCo robot (Kira2). Additionally, I have pivoted to focusing on small shoots that I can do with the stay at home order from my home shop. Los Angeles camera and lighting rental houses are closed due to COVID-19; but since I own my lighting, cameras, and MoCo, and I have it all at my shop, I have been able to do a couple of tiny shoots. It's definitely not the same, and challenging, but we are all just trying to do the necessary adjustments to continue working and, more importantly, to keep everyone safe.
 
PH: You said you are shooting in your home shop. What is your new COVID-19 work process now? What safety changes have you made? Are you planning on working with crews soon?
 
Rich Schaefer: I have implemented a system where I stream my camera's signal to clients on the other side of town or the other side of the country, so they can also adhere to their stay at home orders and stay safe, while participating in the shoot. They can communicate and give feedback via phone or Zoom. I do this all from my home shop. Obviously, this is an adjustment made for the time being and I'm looking for solutions that will allow us to start slowly getting back to normal shoots. Safety is the most important thing. 
 
I recently did a conference call with my crew where we all discussed what we would need to see on set for us to feel comfortable and safe. Some of the precautions we discussed: masks and gloves worn by everyone at all times; the use of many monitors on set for distancing; as few people on set as possible; individually wrapped lunches and social distancing during lunch (six plus feet apart!). These will soon be part of the guidelines that will be implemented once we go back to work. 
 
PH: How are you constantly evolving as a cinematographer? 
 
Rich Schaefer: I absolutely love love love what I do and learning about cinematography is a pleasure for me. I subscribe to the notion, even after shooting for 25 years, that you will never know everything about cinematography. I am always looking to learn more about the equipment, how different DPs and gaffers are using it, and how it is used to motivate a story. I also try to step back and think of the big picture and the art, to admire the masters, whether it be Rembrant or Roger Deakin's 1917, and learn from what they have done. It is so easy to get lost in the menus of the gear and minutia of shooting, and often, you need to pop your head up and ask 'What are we doing here? Does this 1/2 second shot warrant this much time futzing?' Sometimes we have more important dragons to slay.  
 
PH: What does the future of the industry look like to you?
 
Rich Schaefer: I believe the entertainment industry, like many sectors of the U.S. economy, will continue to struggle during COVID-19, until we get a vaccine or some kind of herd immunity. I think smaller shoots will find ways of safely shooting, but the large TV and feature film shoots will take longer to resume work.  Those who employ us and produce shoots are concerned about safety and the huge liability issue that COVID-19 presents. 
 
At the time of writing, there are no official guidelines for filming. I really feel a set of COVID-19 safety guidelines needs to be issued for our industry -- guidelines that include similar safety procedures like the ones I discussed with my crew. It could be a set of recommended guidelines and best practices that will satisfy insurance companies and government officials to allow filming to resume. I know the producers out there have been working hard for weeks on just such a set of guidelines. Hopefully, they can be advised by medical professionals and approved by our unions and state and local governments soon to allow for filming to resume.
 
PH: What's next for you?
 
Rich Schaefer: For me, I am going to spend the short-term looking for small shoots and continuing to learn so I can elevate my knowledge and craft. I really enjoy storytelling, so long-term, I would like to do two movies a year and spend the rest of the time doing commercials. I have a feature-length film set to release this fall called The Last Champion. I am excited to see the project on the big screen, and I hope it will lead me to more narrative work.
 
Rich currently resides in Southern California where he owns and operates High Impact Pictures, Inc. To see more of his work, visit richschaefer.com and follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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