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To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question

To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question

The Arri Alexa Mini On A Freefly Movi 15 gimbal is used in high-end film and television.

How important is moving your camera to you? More importantly, how important is moving your camera well to you? I guess a good context to place these questions into is where do you come from with your shooting? Have you studied the language of cinema and are pursuing making narrative films? Or are you Vlogger on YouTube? Do you do corporate production for more conservative clients or do you shoot music videos for a label that is always encouraging you to “take more chances visually”?

If you create video or cinema content, you will notice that video has a vocabulary of it’s own that sets it apart from still photography, painting, sculpting or illustration. Movement. Sure, the other mediums can try to capture and mimic movement but video and digital cinema are the only mediums that actually capture movement as part of their process. How you move your camera and more importantly, why you move your camera is a subject that more video and filmmakers should ask themselves.

To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question
The DJI Ronin-S is one of the most popular one-handed gimbals on the market.

Gimbal Considerations

If you don’t already have one or have been considering trying out your first gimbal, besides the considerations about which gimbal to buy, you might want to consider why you think you want to buy a gimbal. Is a gimbal the right tool to move your camera? More importantly, why do you want to move your camera? Will camera movement help you to tell your story more effectively? What about a Steadicam? A dolly or slider? What about shooting handheld? Have you actually tried any of these other tried and true methods of moving your camera before deciding that a gimbal is the right tool for you?

Camera gimbals have:

Pros

  • Gimbals are easy to use. Easier to than learning and practicing with a Steadicam or Steadicam-like device.
  • Gimbals are smaller and lighter than sliders, dollies or jibs and most Steadicams as well.
  • Gimbals are so popular, meaning that there are many models and features to choose from.
  • Gimbals benefit from economies of scale, their popularity has significantly reduced the cost over the past couple of years.
  • Gimbals are flexible, allowing the camera to follow talent and subject more easily than ever before.

Cons

  • Gimbals tend to have more robotic/mechanical movement than Steadicams/Steadicam-like devices.
  • Gimbal users tend to get lazy and use the gimbal as an all-purpose way of shooting because it’s so easy to deploy, leading to the dreaded “constantly roaming camera” aesthetic
  • When using a Gimbal, switching from normal to inverted mode can be challenging and many gimbals aren’t as smooth operating in inverted mode.
  • Gimbals can be challenging to balance quickly.
  • Gimbals require another set of batteries to mind and can also require additional cables and accessories.
To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question
Gimbals have also become a popular way of smoothing out car-mounted shots.

In production, motivation is sometimes discussed around actors and their characters but what about motivation for your camera? What I mean when using the term motivation is that in visual storytelling, generally, the camera shouldn’t move excessively unless there a reason in the story, characters or subject that makes the camera want to move.

If I’m shooting a home cooking show and the scene opens with the camera standing on the front doorstep of a chef, we knock on the door and the chef answer’s to the camera, “Come on in, let me show you the kitchen!”, the scene has been set for the camera to move and follow the chef. But what if we were shooting the same scene as a narrative story, rather than a cooking/reality show? What if we went from a first-person viewpoint in the story to an observational third-person viewpoint of the scene? We might then open on a static wide or medium shot of the same person standing at the doorway, cutting to a medium or CU shot of the chefs face as they answer the door, then cut to a reverse of the person who knocked on the door. Once the chef invites the other person in, we might cut to a shot inside the house. Once we see the person and the chef step into the house, we might switch to a dolly, slider or Steadicam shot following the two people toward the kitchen.

My point in painting this scenario is that in the first version, if the camera is in the first person mode, having a gimbal might make the most sense to keep up with the first person view of the story whereas in the second version, while you could use a gimbal on a few of those shots, the established language of cinema would probably utilize more tripod, handheld or dolly shots of the same scene and using a gimbal could be superfluous, based upon the look and feel of the scene.

You have to decide if a gimbal is really the look and feel for your story/project/script or documentary. Just know going in that the gimbal look and feel is already way overused in many types of video and film in my opinion. It really all goes back to asking yourself, “Why am I moving the camera now”? If there a story or context motivation to moving the camera, it’s usually fine but if you cannot answer this question honestly, then you probably shouldn’t be moving your camera with a gimbal. What about a pan or tilt from the tripod? Would a dolly shot work better? Jib arm?

To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question
The Zhiyun Crane 2 continues the popularity of the company’s single-handed gimbal lineup.

I’ve owned three different camera gimbals. I have recently viewed a few projects that were shot from gimbal and I was amazed at how bad some of the movement looked and felt in the projects. I saw a project shot by a colleague last week, who shall remain nameless, but this person shot an entire 6-minute corporate video ONLY from gimbal, even their “locked off” interviews (which actually were roaming with a slight, unmotivated shaky movement that looked awful, rather than a locked off tripod shot).

To Gimbal Or Not To Gimbal, That Is The Question
Gimbals are also combined with devices like the Ready Rig, pictured here, to smooth out fourth axis vertical movement.

I constantly ask myself the same question, “Why am I moving my camera around?” You should do the same. When it makes perfect sense to move your camera, buy a quality gimbal, Steadicam or Steadicam-like device and rehearse and practice to refine your moves. It makes a difference. To me and to many others, the unmotivated, constantly roaming camera is probably one of the most egregious camera mistakes you can make so use a gimbal to add impact, not dull your audiences senses from overdoing movement. Camera movement only has an impact for the viewer if it’s sandwiched between locked off and minimal movement shots and sequences. If all they ever see is camera movement, moving the camera has no effect on the audience and is a waste.

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