Finding an inexpensive, small and light way to mount an overhead camera has been a challenge. The methods we’ve used work but are not small, light or inexpensive. Until now.
One of my favorite types of production to light and shoot is tabletop. It’s rare as a DP to have complete lighting, art direction and stage control over a scene unless it’s a higher budget production shot on a stage. I usually only have an opportunity to work on a couple of projects like that each year, but they are not a typical occurrence in my world.
Tabletop is a sort of distillation of the same thing but on a much smaller scale. With tabletop photography, you regain all of the control that you generally would hope to get on a larger project but because the entire scale and scope on tabletop is shrunk down in size, it usually requires a far smaller crew than traditional production.
Recently, I was called upon to light and shoot a variation of a traditional tabletop shoot. The project was for a bonus content piece for a major studio project for a soon to be released feature film. The video was a how-to instructional piece for kids on how to craft a small terrarium at home. We’ve shot some of these same sorts of projects for the same client in the past and have encountered some technical challenges that we’ve had to learn to overcome.
For this shoot, the client specifically wanted to have one camera located overhead for a straight-down view, accompanied by a second camera getting a more user-level shot of the same action. The video is instructional with a lot of detailed shots of small things being manipulated by a set of hands.
We could go into a full lighting and camera breakdown, but for this blog I’d rather highlight a particular piece of gear that I discovered that was inexpensive and did a really good job for this specialized application. The challenge on past videos was that the ones we’ve shot on a stage, the stage had a 12-foot jib arm available that we utilized for the camera for the direct overhead shot.
The pluses to that situation were that we had access to a nice jib arm that worked well with our Canon C200. The challenge to that setup was that we had to control our C200 via an iPad using the Canon Wi-Fi function built into the camera.
That part of it worked fine, but the size and weight of the jib arm meant that we had to be very careful of any movement around or too near the jib arm, including clients walking around and talent moving to perform their actions for the camera. Any tiny movement of the jib arm from the floor vibrations was highly accentuated by the time the movement made it to the end of the jib arm where the camera was mounted.
Mounting an Overhead Camera — Then and Now
That older project we shot on a full stage with plenty of room around the tabletop setup and the 12-foot jib arm. For this shoot with the terrariums, we’d be shooting in a medium-sized conference room instead of a stage. This meant that even bringing my own PortaJib Traveler would be tough simply because there wasn’t enough room to set up the jib in the conference room.
If you think about it, using a jib for a stationary shot isn’t the most efficient use of resources either. With no jib arm possible for this shoot, I had to find another solution. Some sleuthing around and talking with a couple of colleagues who have done similar shoots yielded some ideas. The first challenge was to figure out which camera to place overhead for the lock-off shot. We’ve recently been using the Fujifilm X-T3 as a B-cam for our Canon C300 Mark II and C200. The X-T3 is small and light yet has a very good quality image, so it seemed to fit the bill.
I Thought WALI was a Pixar Film?
In doing some research, I stumbled upon an LCD screen desk mount called the WALI. If you examine what the arm looks like with an LCD monitor and how it mounts to a desk, it’s not difficult to visualize that, if you could mount a small ballhead and mirrorless hybrid camera, this could be a viable solution for inexpensively and cleanly mounting an overhead camera without having to lug in two or three C-stands and sand bags to construct a triangulated multi-arm mount that would work well but would require more grip equipment than I could fit into my compact car.
The WALI was available for only $47 on Amazon, making it doubly appealing as most solutions made specifically for production use and rigging cost many times more than this. I ordered the arm and waited a few days for delivery.
Once the arm arrived, I took it out of the box and assembled the arm. If you didn’t install the VESA mounting plate for monitors, you were left with a small male threaded fitting. I fitted a male ¼” 20 to 3/8” male adapter, which allowed me to thread my Manfrotto 496RC2 ballhead to the threaded extension on the WALI arm.
I then affixed it to my desk using its built-in C clamp. Lo and behold, the whole setup worked like a charm, giving me a direct overhead view in 4K with a nice sharp image.
In order to get the picture to a monitor for my client to see and to have portability so they could move the monitor easily, I hooked up my Accsoon Cineeye 5G wireless transmitter to the HDMI output of the X-T3. The Cineeye uses 5G to beam your camera signal to any phone or tablet. I brought an iPad Mini to use as a monitor, which seemed to work out extremely well.
The End Result
Because of Covid-19, the studio has delayed the release of the film into theaters since nobody can go see it. This was day one of shooting on the project. Sometime in the not so distant (hopefully) future, we’ll resume production on this project to shoot for the client. In the meantime, my client told me that the footage looked perfect, they’re very happy with the results and I’m happy with the results I obtained with mounting an overhead camera like the X-T3 using this hacked monitor arm.
If you need to locate a small camera straight overhead for a tabletop or macro shoot, this arm is a great value and works. I bought the arm a month ago and just looked it up on Amazon, and it’s showing as out of stock, but I found it sold under a few other names including Vega and MMount, so all you have to do is a bit of hunting around Amazon if you’d like to buy one for your own use. It was quite a solid deal for a good problem solver. Enjoy!