Alien Robot Invasion

Alright, obviously not a robot, probably not even passable as an invading force in an Ed Wood flick, but actually the Pick ‘N’ Pluck foam from my new CamDolly case.

So far everything about my new CamDolly has been great, except for one thing… it didn’t come with a case! It simply arrived in cardboard boxes from Tube Tape and once it was open all I had to move it around was a couple of old suitcases. Not very practical.

I know Met Hrovat over at CamDolly is working on a solution, but I have a show coming up where I’m hoping to use the dolly so I couldn’t wait. I decided to go at it DIY style…

Now, I’m not a particularly handy person. Sure, I can build IKEA furniture as fast as any other Swede, change a tire or mount shelves on drywall, but figuring out how to fit all the parts of this dolly neatly into a case was definitely a bit of a challenge.

I started with the case. I knew I needed something big, sturdy, secure and relatively lightweight. After looking at anything from build-it-yourself roadie cases to plastic storage bins I came back to the only viable alternative – a Pelican case. Pelican is the industry standard and for good reason. They have amazing durability, they are watertight, dust proof, crush proof, pressure safe through a release valve, and they come with a lifetime guarantee. Seriously, you break it, they replace it. For life. Can’t argue with that.

Here’s a torture test video from Pelican. The coolest test, where they fire a shotgun at a case holding a running laptop, comes at about 1:40 in…

The case I chose was the Pelican 1660 case, taking a few quick guesstimates on the dolly and figuring the size would just about do me. It’s a big sucker, coming in at around 32″ x 23″ x 20″. The pic on the left shows it will all kinds of inserts that I didn’t bother getting since the Cam Dolly wouldn’t fit in them anyway.

My plan was to build a set of padded dividing walls and stand the dolly parts up, so that they would be easily accessible, enabling me to pull out one piece at a time in whatever order I wanted. I even bought plywood and borrowed a skill saw from a friend planning to execute this brilliant idea before I realized the main parts didn’t actually fit in the case standing up. Oops…

This pic shows just how far off I was…

This called for a new plan. The parts had to lie down. So how would I make the entire kit easily accessible? If I just put them on top of each other it would all be a big mess of parts scrambling around each other. Also, to get to the stuff at the bottom I’d have to move the stuff at the top every time, and if i was to do that i had to create a system that would allow me to move things out fast and easy, and with a way to maintain some order with all these lose bits.

I figured I’d create a tray system. By layering the pieces on sheets of plywood that could come out one at a time I would be able to pack everything in and out pretty quickly. Plywood – done. But how to keep the bits I placed on the plywood from sliding around and banging into stuff?

I went with a simple solution I’ve found a bunch of other people talking about online. I bought some thin camping mats from Sports Chalet, cut them to the shape of the parts of the dolly and clued them onto the plywood with some spray-on glue.

On the right is a closeup of one of the trays with the camping mat glued to the top. This solution was pretty simple and keeps everything from moving sideways. The addition of layers on top keeps everything from moving up or down, provided the case is full. The trick was figuring out what bits go on what tray and in what order they would go in the case.

This is also affected by what I’m shooting, and how I have to travel to set. If I’m shooting locally in LA I can bring everything, no problem. The fact that you can fit an entire dolly like this, that covers all the functions the CamDolly v2 covers, into a single case is simply amazing.

But if I’m on the road, or flying, it’s a different story. Airlines have gotten really stingy with overweight charges and crazy demands on maximum weight (I’m talking to you, Continental Airlines!) and it would be important to be able to take a chunk of weight out of the case, choosing to only bring the slider and other small-wheel parts for example, leaving the big wheels and other ride-on options. I had a few hiccups but I’m pretty happy with what I came up with.

I’ll try to explain it layer by layer, starting at the bottom:

The bottom layer is simply the big wheels, the T-bar and the seat. They all sit in a snug way right at the bottom, on top of a thin layer of foam, and if I ever want to travel without them, I can simply replace them with a layer of foam of about the same thickness.

Above that sits the first plywood layer, with the main dolly “spider” piece.  This layer is slightly shorter than the width of the case, which makes it sit great at the bottom of the case as well, where the indentation of the case wheels make the bottom a bit less spacious than the higher areas of the case.

Being able to place this entire layer flush on the bottom will be very useful when I want to take the big dolly wheels out, but for most of my uses it sits right on top of those wheels.

Over that sits another layer with three of the “legs.” I’m sure I could have fit all four legs onto this one layer but I didn’t need to and it was easier to stick with three, cutting and gluing that foam is a bit of a pain and if I needed to make the edges thin enough to fit four legs it would have been even trickier. Good thing I realized I should cut the foam before I glue it down, otherwise the plywood would get very sticky.

This second layer has plywood extending all the way to the ends of the case, making it impossible to get your fingers in to get it out without tipping the case upside down. Believe me, I know from sup idly bitter experience.

My solution was to cut some straps from one of the old suitcases I didn’t need anymore and attach them to the bottom of the plywood, making easy lifting and carrying handles.

The next layer also has handles and it holds most of the other bits and pieces, such as skateboard wheels, tripod cups, spacers etc.

Up until now the bits on each layer had been kept from moving sideways by the blue foam (blue being better than black to help me see the parts) and from moving up or falling out of the foam by the next layer sitting on top, holding everything down.

With the next layer, this wouldn’t work anymore. This piece holds all the skateboard wheels and other nicknacks, and they were all of varying thickness, meaning if I simply put a flat layer of plywood on top it would only hold the tallest pieces in place, everything else would go flying about. This is where Pelican’s Pick ‘N’ Pluck foam came into play…

The foam is really easy to work with and an elegant solution for irregularly shaped objects. I simply pulled the foam apart and made strategic holes, allowing all the wheels to protrude while the remaining foam still pushed the lower/flatter bits into the plywood nice and tight. This solution will probably deteriorate over time, as the foam gets pulled in and out of the case. I may need to cover the foam in fabric or even fiberglass, or simply replace it over time, but for now it works like a charm. And, as a bonus I got my foam to look like an invading robot out of some old Ed Wood Sci-Fi extravaganza!

As you may have been able to tell I’ve had some fun with those simple picture editing solutions on my iPad. I mainly used Snapseed, PhotoForge2 and Pixlr-o-matic. Don’t ask me which pic was tweaked with what software, I can’t remember…

Now, the Pick ‘N’ Pluck is an excellent solution since it requires no skill or tools to mold it into a shape that will fit your gear, but since it’s literally designed to be picked and plucked, it does have a tendency to fall apart. I’m sure that in the future I will either incapsulate this foam in a piece of fabric or replace it with something else, but for now it works great.

At this point I’ve ended up with a nice flat layer of foam very close to the top of the case and all I had left to put in were the slider ends and some bolts, everything else was already in place. A few neat hole in the foam from the top and everything had a home. The lid fits nice and snug, keeping everything in place without crushing anything inside.

Of course the one thing I didn’t even try to fit inside the case was the 50 feet of flexible track! That may need a case all it’s own some day…

Overall – the build was an effort but not nearly as complicated as imagined. Once I had my tools and material I think the whole project took me about 6 hours, and most of that was spent figuring out a new plan since my initial one failed miserably. Had I known I was going to create a tray system from the beginning I could probably have done it much quicker.

Now I have a great case for a great piece of gear at a fraction of the cost of other systems, and I’m sure it will serve me well for a long time.

I’ll post my experiences with the actual Dolly once I have more of them!

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