Six-axis KUKA robotic arm at work. Film still.


KUKA is the leading producer of articulated robotic arms for the automotive industry. The Barcelona Fab-Lab owns a six-axis robotic arm. A Fab-Lab, which is an acronym for ‘fabrication laboratory’, is a concept space dedicated to digital fabrication research that was born in the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab. All Fab-Labs are connected by a worldwide network, but each is financially independent and needs to obtain its funding from local agents. The Barcelona Fab-Lab is the outcome of an alliance with the IAAC (Institute for Advanced Architecture Research of Catalunya). IAAC master’s students use the Fab-Lab as a production and research workshop.

Wanting to use this robotic arm in an artistic project, I sent a proposal to Alexandre Dubor, who is responsible for the maintenance and programming of the KUKA arm. They agreed to collaborate and provide me with programming and machine hours. The project, as I introduced it, was an exploration of the following question: 

How would a six-axis robotic arm see a motorbike that was produced by hand?

Movement itself is a narrative resource. It breathes air into a static object. The camera and the eye are the same thing. The spectator assumes the camera operator’s gaze, or vice versa. Whoever is looking needs to identify him- or herself with the choreography of the movement, and to adopt the perspective of the narrator, which could be someone or something.


On the other hand, the human arm has historically been regarded as a synecdoche of labour. It’s a term that highlights power and skill as main features of a productive force that is associated, over all other kinds of work, with factory labour. This kind of labour has traditionally been portrayed in cinema through the assembly line, where workers appear along its length performing a repetitive action on circulating products.



An assembly line has a linear structure. In its abstract, ideal form, it reminds us of a celluloid strip, as if workers worked the history out, injecting life into the film with the force of their arms and the skill of their hands.


What would be the narrative of a robotic arm’s movement?

The complete shot is a single take. Therefore, the product of its work is one film. Each repetition would produce once and again this one film. Each film is made of a number of movements. Each movement explores one of the main components of any motorbike. Exploration is defined as a camera panning over each particular component, keeping a fixed distance from the object. This distance is the result of choosing a fixed 50 mm manual lens, due to budget restrictions, that made it impossible to use a follow-focus system. The sequence of movements follows the order in which motorbike components are mounted. In between movements, from the end of one given movement to the start of the next, the arm was programmed to perform its most efficient movement – that is, the one that would minimise tensions for its structure by moving both the motorbike and the arm. 


Each movement is in fact a line drawn inside the Kuka room’s 3D space. This drawing is later translated to code and carefully tested. There are some specific variables, such as the movement speed, that the drawing does not contemplate and that need to be set as well.


Speed needs to be defined both within and in between movements. I decided to keep it slow and constant within each movement, and a bit faster but still constant between them, but for different reasons. Slow steady movement is much more difficult to obtain on a hand-held camera, and it allows for a detailed exploration of the object. In between movements, the arm would have chosen quite a fast speed that may have been dangerous for the safety of the camera.


Overall, the result had a bit of a familiar air.

Robotic arms were already being used for shooting

commercials and mainstream films.





Fab-Lab decided to take part in this project because it was of some business interest to them. They had two main objectives: to develop a piece of software based on free software for arm and camera control, and to have a nice demo to show; they expected to sell this kind of arm use to local advertisement and production companies.

They published their own version of the project in Vimeo, which is far more illustrative than Rodar y Rodear.

One KUKA Robotic Arm

Arms don’t see.


Robotic arms perform movements in a given three-dimensional space. They execute actions as defined by programs that are coded, tested, and stored in their memory drives.


Current industrial production plants are designed on the basis of a specific terminology that refers to the robotic nature of the process. Cells, actions, and plants are nothing but movement choreographies distributed in a blind mathematical space that is carefully customised to meet a given physical space.


This particular six-axis robotic KUKA arm operates within the space of its walls. A 3D model of this same space, called ‘The KUKA Room’, is used to program it. Any additional object, such as the MYMSA motorbike, needs to be added to that drawing. The best way to add an object is to scan, render, and add it into the model, which is quite an expensive procedure. I chose a much cheaper option and bought a 3D model of a Ducati motorbike, which inspired MYMSA’s design, from a US-based internet company. This drawing required just a few minor adjustments to meet our programming needs.


Some robots have incorporated artificial vision as part of their work routines, but even in these cases workers still do visual inspection tasks that robots cannot perform well enough. Vision, the function of seeing, has become an important activity for factory workers. Then,



Why use a robotic arm to produce a moving image? 

The use of the term ‘arm’ to refer to a six-axis robot is an anthropomorphism that simplifies the machine. If its movements were to be closely analysed, it would be clear that its mobility would be that of a human body, from the waist to the fingertips, with an extraordinary torsion capacity. Each arm would represent a worker who stands on a fixed position along the production chain – a worker whose feet would not move at all, but whose upper body and arms, long and flexible, would allow him or her to cover the totality of an operation at great speed and with considerable precision.


Fixing a camera to the extreme of a six-axis robotic arm is like putting an eye on the fingertips of a super-worker while still expecting the image of what is seen to be understood by the spectator.


I asked Carolina Bonfim, a fellow performance artist and researcher who is also trained as a dancer, to explore the arm’s movements as they were described in the robot’s specs. Together we studied the range of movements an arm can handle, and translated it to the human body in a few simple exercises. Her body’s movements were limited compared with those of her arms. There is a certain sense of power in the arm’s movement, which is far more meaningful than the specific choreography it was programmed to perform in this particular case. 

How is the robotic arm’s movement defined?


Articulated robotic arms are also used to move cameras in film production. A company named Bot & Dolly presented the first model, called ‘Cinematic Automation’, at the CineGear fair, which takes place in September each year at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, California. Its motto is ‘Where Hollywood Meets Detroit’.


Bot & Dolly is not based in Detroit but in San Francisco, California. In an article published on, Bot & Dolly co-founder Jeff Linnell declared, ‘We are taking a movie set and thinking about it like a manufacturing facility’.[1]


Just two weeks after being purchased by Bot & Dolly, these robots were already shooting a commercial for Louis Vuitton. In the feature film market, Alfonso Cuarón shot the Oscar-winning film Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, using Bot & Dolly’s robotic arm systems. Ian Sherman, development manager at Bot & Dolly, declared, ‘We pitched the idea of using four industrial robots for props, actors, lights, and cameras to create the effect of zero gravity by not only moving the actors around the set, but by moving the environment around the actors’.[2] Gravity premiered shortly after I finished this project.

[1] Ciara Byrne, ‘How Robots Filmed Hollywood’s Latest Blockbuster, “Gravity”’, Venturebeat, 7 December 2012 <> [accessed 2 July 2013]. 

[2] Wade Roush, ‘Bot & Dolly’s Robotic Cameramen Rewrite the Script in Hollywood’, Xconomy, 4 January 2013 <> [accessed 2 June 2013].

Alex at work. 35 mm b/w negative scan.