New stabilizer technology allows filmmakers to set up and capture just about any shot they desire. Here, a Jeep is outfitted with Freefly Systems equipment to stabilize two RED cameras, each mounted on cinema vibration isolators by Stratus Productions. The spinning Revolver Rig on top of the Jeep is especially useful with its extensive range of movement. All Photos Courtesy of Eric Ulbrich & Phil Miller
LET’S FACE IT: Stabilizers are cool gadgets, allowing smooth movement for cameras in a wide variety of challenging situations. But mechanical and motorized stabilizers were once very difficult and cumbersome to use, with supports regulated to aerial mounts with gyroscopes and large egg-shaped orbs requiring their own separate power supply. These types of options were initially a military surplus item that, when powered, would wind up like a whirling top until they attained top speed. Sometimes they also didn’t work, requiring a handy backup. Truth be told, all they really did was dampen vibration and control erratic movement by fighting the operator, or the pilot, from moving the camera too quickly.
Smarter and more advanced stabilizers have since made it to the marketplace. All are designed to remove shake and vibration to achieve smooth pans and tilts while fighting elements including vibrations caused by telescoping cranes, jib arms, bumps in the road and air resistance when traveling rapidly on a vehicle, plane or helicopter.
Technological advancement was first seen in smaller, micro gyros on mobile phones, video games and remote-control toys. This development kick-started the modern movement of stabilization units that now feature an interactive gimbal with a micro gyro, a design opening up a whole new dimension of steadiness.
Today, Freefly Systems (facebook.com/flyspeedcamera) and DJI (dji.com) are two highly touted technological companies offering quality stabilizers for different weighted cameras. Freefly first introduced their MVI M10 in 2014, releasing a micro-gyrostabilized gimbal designed to hold anything from HDSLRs to smaller cinema cameras.
Micro-gyros work on a feedback loop relative to the unit and the attached camera. A feedback loop is also created with an additional unit that maintains horizon by way of GPS. Once calibrated, the motors know exactly how much the camera has moved from its home position, thereby adjusting for various tilt, pan and roll changes. As a result, it makes a smooth concerted effort to keep the camera in the center of your gimbal no matter where you point it.
The motors do have limitations in speed and feedback, so jerking, whipping and erratic movement may result in unexpected and less than desirable results. This is due to the gyros and motors not reacting fast enough to keep up. Just remember that these stabilizers aren’t magic wands and won’t defy the laws of physics.
Stabilizers aren’t plug-and-play, either, any more than a camera will shoot your project on its own or your computer will write your script. Stabilizers require homework and research, a bit of education and some valuable time in prep. For best results, careful calibration is essential.
Freefly Systems also offers the MōVI M5, a unit with a smaller footprint for a maximum payload of 5 pounds. The MōVI M10 is the next size up, offering a payload of 12 pounds, while the robust MōVI M15 offers a larger payload of 15 pounds. All three gimbals do the same job, each offering an application for size-relative cameras.
Additionally, Freefly Systems possesses a stellar customer support record, staffed with knowledgeable users and qualified technicians to answer all Freefly and gimbal-related questions.
DJI, top-notch manufacturer of the popular line of Phantom drones, also entered the stabilizer game with the Ronin and the Ronin M. The Ronin has a payload of 16 pounds, while the M (for mini) offers a payload of 8 pounds. As with other stabilizer gimbals, both behave with the same functionality aside from payload considerations. Support from DJI is also exceptional.
Both Freefly Systems and DJI are indicative of the innovation in the world of camera stabilization. Other manufacturers are also jumping into the stabilization game by extending the uses of these systems.
Flyspeed, a company specializing in unique camera movement and support systems, has adapted both the Freefly Systems MōVi 10 and MōVi 15 to work on jib and crane arms as a remote stabilized head to attach to cars, motorcycles and other moving platforms. No doubt more manufacturers will follow suit.
It’s also important to remember that operating with stabilizer units with heavier loads will quickly fatigue even the most ardent patron of Gold’s Gym. As a result, more and more support vests are becoming available in the marketplace to mimic Steadicam operation.
These solutions include the Ready Rig made in Southern California, the L’Aigle Exoskeleton made in France, the Tilta Armor Man out of Texas, the RUNNER from ActionProducts in Switzerland, and the Walter Klassen carbon-fiber SlingShot vest out of Toronto, Canada. Such vests offer the one elusive axis of support that separates the Steadicam from all basic gimbals, namely vertical movement, and with it, unwanted bounce.
The advent of remote operation of gimbal units is also being seen of late. There are currently three different ways to do this—via radio control like an RC car joystick, a remote pan bar (MVi calls it Mimic) and brushless gimbal wheels, working like a traditional gear head.
As such developments continue, so does the opportunity for cinematographers to acquire the ability to perform more artistic camera movements. These manufacturers not only are releasing affordable gear, but high-quality equipment never before seen in this segment of the production industry. Steady as she goes!