3 Camera Rigs That Tell A Better Story–NAB 2013
While it seems that every year NAB attendees are focused on the newest camera technology, to me this is one of the least important storytelling elements. Most stories can be told well with nearly any camera, and having a high end camera certainly doesn’t guarantee that a great story will result.
For me, story is about movement. In order to be immersed in the universe where the story takes place, to become intimate with the characters as the plot enfolds, the viewer (and therefore the camera) must move. Movement inserts the viewer into the space where the characters reside.
Obviously, an entire film could be shot from a tripod. However it is very rare when a GOOD film is shot solely from sticks. Even in the tight quarters of the movie “Buried,” the camera moves. So unless the story is solely a POV shot from the hospital bed of a comatose patient, the camera must move.
Keeping this in mind as I walked the aisles of NAB 2013 I sought out new products that allowed me to move the camera in ways which would advance my stories.
Aviator Travel Jib
While jibs are common on bigger shoots, their downside is their size and weight. In the studio this is not much of an issue, but when the story requires shooting in remote locations where cars do not travel, jibs are a rare commodity. High on a mountaintop, hanging off the cliffs of a remote river, deep within an underground cave: all places where there are stories to tell, all places where it would be difficult to get a jib. That is until I came across Aviator Camera Gear.
The Aviator Travel Jib (aluminum $497; carbon fiber $797, normally $847) is a compact little jib that is light (2.75 lbs for carbon fiber, 3.75 for aluminum) and compact (breaks down to 24″ while extending to 6′). You do have to supply your own tripod, but there are plenty of small light tripods to would do the job. There are mount points on the jib for a small monitor, which is a no brainer when it comes to jibs. They’ve added two bubble levels to make the set-up that much more easy. (Surprisingly I seen more expensive jibs than this that didn’t have bubble levels built in.) All pivot points have ball bearings for smooth travel, and they used standard sizes if by chance you needed to replace them. A bonus is that I can use my water bottles as counter weights so that I don’t have to carry in dead weight for a counterbalance. There is even an empty sandbag included so that I use dirt at the final destination to build my sandbag. And while I would have preferred to have more than a 1:1 ratio for my jib, they designed it this way so that less weight is needed on the counterweight.
Dollies and helicopters are valuable storytelling devices. However I’ve seen many instances when the dolly track simply isn’t long enough, or the terrain won’t permit it. Helicopters, even these new radio controlled versions, are limited to spaces that are wide open with controlled air conditions. This excludes forest interiors, waterfalls, stormy days, and traveling at high speeds. Furthermore, helicopters are very expensive, both for the vehicle and the pilot.
Cable cams are a good solution, but have their own issues. The less expensive devices often are made with a couple pulleys and a tightly stretched rope or cable. But the camera movements on these cable cams are a headache: wobbly travel, difficult to control and aim, and they aren’t even level. More expensive versions do exist (such as Skycam), but these are cost prohibitive.
Enter Dactylcam: A 3-axis, self-leveling radio controlled cable cam that can reach 40+ MPH. Many of the benefits of a helicopter system without the unpredictability. The Guerrilla Rig ($12,200, normally $14,200) can handle cameras up to 13 pounds with ease. Controlled by a 6-channel helicopter remote, four of the channels are currently dedicated to tilt, pan, roll, and speed. The rig is run off of 3 to 6 cell LiPo batteries, which last about 10,000 ft of travel on the cable depending on how you drive it. The max span of the am steel blue cable is around 1200 ft, so you can probably get 4 laps (8 lengths) in before the battery runs dry. With a max speed greater than 40 MPH, it will take 30-35 seconds to travel the 1/4 mile of cable when you factor in speed up and slow down time.
Because of the heft of the Guerrilla Rig, it might be too much for a small crew to take on wilderness shoots. For those times when it too much to bring in the big guns, I’d most likely go with the Go Rig ($780, normally $999). The weight capacity of this rig is only 2 lbs meaning the Canon 5D Mark2 is pushing it; this means going with a POV camera such as GoPro Hero3, Contour+2, or similar camera. This smaller rig doesn’t have the 3-axis self-leveling gimbal, which is a big bummer. But I guess that is where a majority of the cost and weight is, so in order to make it compact these had to be removed.
My list would obviously not be complete if I didn’t include the “game-changer” from Freefly: Movi M10 (around $15,000). This device is the logical next step from all of the 3-axis gimbals previously used on radio controlled helicopters, and allows operators to move the camera is real space without having to worry about keeping it level; the Movi does that for you! At times the Movi will require two operators, just as with a helicopter: one moves the rig, the other controls the camera. However, the Movi can be set-up to be a one man show by programming it to allow for independent pans, or perhaps to not dampen out all of the jiggle so that it feels more handheld. But story still wins since these are elements that are controlled by the operator, not dictated by limitations of the rig.
This is an enormous step up from previous camera stabilization rigs (e.g. Steadicam, Glidecam, etc) which relied on physics to keep the camera level. While these stabilized rigs worked great for decades, the downside is it is an art to use them: operators are limited by physics, always keeping in mind rotational inertia, static balance, and the pendulum effect. As a result only skilled operators could fly these rigs. And even the best operators were limited in windy conditions (both natural and that from helicopters), locations with obstacles taller than a foot (since the bottom of the sled would hit them), situations when the rig would need to be passed through an object (such as a window or small opening), or when the rig would need to be jerked around. These situations are nearly impossible for a traditional stabilization rig, but all possible with the Movi, even when operated by beginners (Sinbad included)!
The storytelling possibilities expand ten-fold because of the Movi. All space and locations are fair game. Gone are the discussions between camera operator and director as to if it is possible to fly the rig certain ways. The answer now is just “Yes,” the only question now is “How”?
Also gone is the need for high end steady cam operators, since even people who have barely even touched a camera can now fly the Movi with ease. [Update July 2014: Operators are finding the Movi to be more difficult to control than expected, and that it has some limitations that Steadicams don’t have.] Sure, to effectively tell a story it would be wise to hire a skilled camera operator. But now those skills can be in other things than “the operator can finesse this camera that is perched on this counterweight.”
The 2013 edition of NAB advanced storytelling tremendously. With all this new technology it will be exciting to see how writers, directors, and camera operators dig deeper into their stories to take us on new adventures, moving us both physically and emotionally in ways we only dreamed of before.