Fluid Power in Film

Invented by Henry Gordon Jennings in the late 1940s for Paramount and MGM, the early effects engineer developed a motion-repeater system which was essentially the first "motion control" device, for a big budget film. Small servo motors controlled pans and tilts. The camera move was rehearsed and recorded on a punch tape system, and then the live action and miniature portions were filmed, with the camera repeating the moves automatically, the punches sent signals to servo motors mounted on the pan and tilt axes of the head. The system was used on the classic Samson and Delilah in 1948.

Since then, special effects in cinema have continued to evolve to new heights, allowing us an audience to truly immerse ourselves in these incredible stories. With Henry Jennings' invention of the motion controller, the technology quickly evolved to larger set designs and bigger productions that required more power. And with the use of hydraulics, and pneumatics, these once impossible feats of artistry were now achievable through, you guessed it, fluid power. In this article, we will look at some of the most common types of fluid power technology advances that have forever shaped the film and T.V. industry.

Motion Bases

Have you ever been to theme park that features a 3D simulated ride? If your answer is yes, chances are that you have experienced the magic of of motion bases. Motion bases or motion platforms, are a very common use of hydraulics and pneumatics in the entertainment industry, on and off the screen. 

A motion base or motion platform is a mechanical device that creates the feelings of being in a real moving environment. This is done by providing movement across one or more of the six degrees of freedom, or DOF for short. For instance, in a simulator, the movement is synchronised with an outside visual display of the of the scene. A great examples of this would be a spaceship traveling through space.The ship would be free to turn, tilt, dive & climb.These actions would display the six degrees of freedom; three rotational degrees of freedom (roll, pitch, yaw) and three linear degrees of freedom (surge, heave, sway) and are achievable by hydraulics, pneumatics, or a combination of electrohydraulics. In general though, hydraulics tend to be the most reliable and responsive drive system for most applications.

The cylinders themselves are controlled by the use of motion controller that offers the "driver" the ability to move up and down, twist and tilt, by simply controlling multiple joysticks on the controller. Sometimes these effects are sequenced in real-time with the scene, or done before shooting, and programmed to set actions that follow along the scene. This is by far one of the funnest jobs on set and it is easy to see why. 


When thinking about hydraulics in film, once of the most famous examples of this will always be Jurrassic Park. While animatronics were first introduced in film by Disney in 1964's Mary Poppins, Jurassic Park truly showed us how terrifying and realistic these creations can be. Even to to this day, the dinosaurs of the original trilogy remain as some of the most impressive feats modern animatronics. The T.Rex used still remains the largest animatronic ever used in film, and its final model measures out to 20 feet tall & 40 feet long and weighs 9000 Pounds. To bring this megalithic beast to life, different valves pumped almost 60 gallons of hydraulic fluid in one single minute!

Animatronics are essentially made up of a combination of technology involving puppetry, anatomy and mechatronics. Generally, they can be controlled by computer control and human control, including teleoperation. Motion actuators are often used to imitate muscle movements and create realistic motions in limbs. For smaller animatronics, electronics are generally used, but for larger creations, hydraulics and pneumatics a more dynamic and realistic experience.

Film Cranes 

In video production, film cranes are used to emphasize a pan effect, zoom or focus with expert control and stability. This type of shot is done by a camera on a moving hydraulic crane or jib and is referred to as a "Crane Shot." Most cranes accommodate both the camera and an operator, but some can even be moved by remote control. Crane shots are often found in what are supposed to be emotional or suspenseful scenes. The zooming out effect at the end of a movie, or the panning effect between characters in an intense conversation. All of these scenes can be attributed to Film Cranes.

While typically a film crane can be seen as a stationary set of equipment, over the years it has become more mobile and now movement can even be achieved with a dolly system connected to the crane. This allows much more precise control over the scene, and gives the cameraman even more control over the scenes. This is especially true for scenes that require a much longer set for the shot. A great example of this would be a high speed chase, or a fist fight on top of a moving train. These sets require the camera man to be either traveling with the set or following the scene along the set. Remember all these techniques next time you watch an action film and see if you can spot them.

Motion Seats

Imagine sitting your theater and as the screen focuses on a high speed chase, your chair starts to twist and tilt with the scene. Or as the protagonist skydives from an aircraft, the chairs blows a gust of air that captures that same feeling of falling from the skys. Scenes involving a kayak racing through rapids of a river now offer a burst of water or upon entering a smokey nightclub you start to smell colognes and perfumes around you. All of these experiences are now a reality with these machines. 

The Motion Seat offers a multitude of engaging and dynamic effects that transport you into the film itself. They can achieve this by using similar technologies found in the hydraulic motion bases, but are typically engineered with pneumatics and high end electronics instead. The pneumatics also help provide power to the additional effects of scent and feel by providing pressurized air that expels either the strong physical effect or settle smells that add to the experience. Never before have we ever been so close to the action itself.

With modern technology now and the advances of how far these amazing technologies have evolved too, its not just the actors on screen that get to enjoy them, but now the audience can take part in this magic. Welcome to Motion Seats.

Motion Seats have been utilized in theme parks for years for 3D simulated rides, but now as the technology has become more commercially available and affordable, the theater industry is starting to adapt more to this new technology every day. While they may be only found in specialty theaters, the experience alone is entirely worth it if you have the opportunity to witness cinema with such an immersive experience.



The Future of Fluid Power in Film

Even though we came this far in the last 100 years of special effects in film, we are rapidingly excelling with technology it won't be long till we see the next innovations of tomorrow. While digital effects such as CGI still remain on the forefront of most visual effect studios, technology in fluid power will continue to evolve and provide even more intricate and lifelike scenes than ever before. 

Electrohydraulics have continuously pushed the envelope for what fluid power setups are capable of, especially in size management. With a mixture of hydraulics and electronics, we have been able to make electronic motion sensors more powerful while making the hydraulics more compact and accurate. It is inevitable that we will see this technology cross over with the entertainment industry in the near future. Whether be for managing and optimizing set design, to faster and more lifelike movements down to the theaters themselves utilizing them in conventional theaters. Fluid power continues to move the film industry and has a rich future ahead.