Propellers with rolling shutter

I really loved Smarter Every Day’s cool video about propellers shot by digital video cameras:

I especially like how he stuck with it over several years! I liked the explanation a lot about why the propellers take on such weird shapes, but I didn’t think much about the mathematical structure of them.

But then I saw this page and got really interested. Ok, I admitted to the world that I was stumped

So then I decided to dig in to figure out why the simple Mathematica command:

ContourPlot[Sqrt[x^2+y^2]==Cos[5 ArcTan[x,y]+17y], {x,-1,1},{y,-1,1}]

gives the correct form for a simple mathematically-based propeller. At first I thought that maybe it was just similar enough to the image the original poster wanted but then I made this gif and realized that it was dead on:

(Click through and you’ll see a bunch of other examples that I slapped together)

So why does that simple statement (ContourPlot) do the trick? Well, what do we need to figure out? We need to find the locations on the plane where the black rolling shutter line intersects with the blue propeller function. So let’s see if we can express that mathematically:


where v is the vertical speed of the shutter and a is the maximum radial extent of the propeller.

r_\text{propeller}(t)=f(\theta-\omega t)

where \omega is the angular rotation speed of the propeller. This gives you the distance from the origin to the edge of the propeller for a given angle, \theta. Expressed as a function of x and y you just need \theta=\tan^{-1}(y/x) or better yet Mathematica’s ArcTan[x,y] function that can work on the whole plane.

So what we’re looking for are locations on the plane whose distance to the origin matches the propeller’s radial extent at that angle when the rolling shutter is there, or:

\sqrt{x^2+y^2}=f\left(\tan^{-1}(y/x)-\omega \frac{y+a}{v}\right)

where I’ve solved the equation for the y-position of the shutter for t.

Aha! So we just need to find points on the plane where that equality holds. But that’s what ContourPlot is really good at doing! Really all it does is make a big grid on the plane, check all the points, and if it finds points where that equality is close it zooms in and makes a smaller grid until it finds points that are close enough. That process repeats MaxRecursion number of times (I think the default is 2). The suggestion on the StackExchange post is to set PlotPoints->100 so that the initial grid is fine enough. If I do that but set MaxRecursion to zero it looks pretty jaggedy (not sure that’s a word).

Yesterday when I was futzing around it took forever to make the movies. That’s because at every time step I was redoing that ContourPlot command but with a plot range only below the rolling shutter. It’s the ContourPlot that takes forever so I found a better way today. Now I do the ContourPlot command just once for the whole plane. Then I extract from it the points it finds and then I just use a Graphics command to plot the points that are below the rolling shutter for the movies. The whole process (including exporting the GIF) is about 30 seconds now compared to 5-10 minutes yesterday.

What’s fun is that you can set your propeller function to be anything. Here’s a couple examples:

r=0.75+0.25 \sin(10\theta)




So, I’m glad I put a little more time into this, it’s certainly been both fun and entertaining. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.

Your thoughts? Here’s some starters for you:

  • This is cool, do you mind sharing your code? (as usual it’s incredibly sloppy with almost no comments)
  • None of these look like real life propellers, this sucks.
  • Why didn’t you do this in python? (seriously, does the contour plot package in plotly or mathplot lib work for this type of problem?)
  • Can you try this function for a propeller: _____
  • What happens if the shutter comes in from a different angle?
  • If Smarter Every Day already explained all this, why did you bother at all?
  • Instead of just giving the outline of the blades, can you fill it in?
  • Why did you write “seriously, . . .” in that fake comment above? Aren’t these starters supposed to be strictly for us readers to use?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in fun, math, mathematica, physics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Propellers with rolling shutter

  1. Sim says:


    I just want to drop you a quick message that if you need help in your SEO for your website, & wanted to know why your competitors websites are ranking on Google first page and not yours, I am offering you a free comprehensive SEO audit service for your website –

    This is an absolutely no obligation service, & it may cost you at least $500 if you are to do it with other SEO agencies.

    Kindly reply to this email if keen to take up my free SEO audit service. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Thank you,
    – Freelance SEO Professional

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s