You’re invited to set…

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Not too unfamiliar words. I’m sure we are all familiar with the PA standing outside of the camera truck waiting to escort you to set. Sometimes you arrive, and production is truly ready for you. Other times you’ve simply been brought on set way too early by an overzealous AD. And if there’s no work to be done, I don’t want to be there. This is not out of laziness. Just the contrary. There are a couple reasons I don’t want to be present.

The first reason is simple. I don’t like to be seen standing around. As a specialty guy, we get paid handsomely for our services. The last thing I want is a producer seeing me standing there doing nothing. Even worse, talking. Never engage in small talk on set.

But the second reason is that I can be doing other more productive things on the truck. This might include servicing equipment, organizing equipment, or my favorite… finding ways to do things faster & better! I remember one show, about 3 or 4 years ago, where I was B-Camera/Steadicam. In fact, there was very little B-Camera. So if I was invited to set, it was because there was a Steadicam shot. That was it. So I spent a lot of time on the truck. This time was spent finding as many efficiencies as possible for setting the rig up fast. I think we had it down to 5 minutes between me and the 2nd assistant. It was sweet. Everything was dialed in. So use your time wisely, and when you don’t have to stand around on set… DON’T. Find something better to do with your time. It will make you a better operator!

Tuning Your Steadicam Arm

Friday, January 14th, 2011

I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was in a Steadicam Operators Association Workshop listening to Peter Abraham talk about tuning the arm. To paraphrase, Peter’s take on tuning the arm consisted of tweaking the lifting force of each section until the two sections bottomed out simultaneously when you boomed from the top of the boom range to the bottom, and vice versus. This is how I’ve done it now for years. Recently, I purchased a U2 rig with a G70 arm. The G70 is a fantasic arm. It has a phenominal boom range of 32″, and it has a rather clever adjustment for iso-elasticity which allows you to change the ride of the arm. There are some cons to this arm. Perhaps the most significant is the friction inherent in the arm. The friction results in the “bobble” in the boom we try to avoid as operators. So I’ve been re-examining my approach to tuning the arm.

When it comes down to it, the arm was designed to function very similarly to the human arm. This is why systems such as the Merlin do not require an arm… you just use your own arm! In fact, the human arm is more than likely much better than any arm on the market. The problem is (of course) that we can only lift a small amount for an extended period. So I started playing with the G70 arm…tuning it down so that it still acted in the way Peter taught me, but with the lifting force just below what was necessary to lift the load. Basically, if I let the arm go it will immediately bottom out.

The goal here is to include the human arm in the equation… so that we aren’t just holding the arm at a particular boom height, but rather lifting slightly. This way, the friction of the arm doesn’t play as important of a roll. When I tried this, I was pleased with the results. Of course it means more work for your right arm. However, I have found that it reminds me to make specific choices with the boom height. I like that!

In addition, if we look at the act of “booming down” we see that causes us to lean forward ever so slightly. We of course can offset this by leaning back ever so slightly. However, if we tune the arm down slightly… booming down is “automatic,” but of course booming up requires more force than previously required. This doesn’t bother me too much. It may, as in booming down, cause me to lean back slightly as I boom up… but I’d much rather be forced to lean back slightly over leaning forward.

Update: “Tiffen is now offering an upgrade to the G70 arm which consists of changing the lower end blocks of each arm segment, replacing components in the ride and lift assemblies along with changing bearings in the ride and lift assemblies to a new style. The upgrade costs $2500.00 and can be completed in two business days.”

Traveling with your Steadicam Package

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

The ability to travel with gear inexpensively can make or break your ability to get a job. Especially when people you typically work for have short out-of-town shoots and are on the fence about bringing you with. So here are some quick tips to getting your gear there safely and inexpensively.

The fastest, least expensive way to get your gear there is by traveling it on the plane with you as excess baggage. Its not necessarily the most convenient since you have to travel with several cases, sometime alone (cue SkyCaps). But it requires almost no paperwork, doesn’t require you to lose a day with the gear before and after the job, and gets the gear there the minute you arrive (hopefully).

When flying with gear, your best bet is to book a direct flight (if possible). This will improve your chances of seeing the gear on the baggage carousel when you arrive. In some cases (especially with Southwest) its almost impossible to get anywhere on a direct flight. However, Southwest does allow you to select flights that stop, but don’t change planes. Pick those if available!

The next important factor is the choice of airline. This is critical if your goal is to save some dough. A few airlines offer something called a “Media Rate.” They all have their own definitions for this, but basically it means that you are traveling on behalf of some media related company for work in TV, News, Film, Commercials, etc. In order to prove this you’ll need to show some sort of identifications that verifies this to the airline. This can be a company ID, credential, or even a memo on letterhead. Show this at the counter when you arrive at the airport. Be sure to go to the airlines website ahead of time and print out their media rate policy… not all ticketing agents are created equal, and some have no experience with such things. You might even plan to get there a little earlier than usual since their lack of familiarity might turn into some lost time!

So what does this “Media Rate” get you? Basically, they charge $50 for every excess item. Plus they increase the limits from 50lbs/bag to 100lbs/bag, and the size from 62″ (length+width+height) to 100″. Sometimes they limit the number of excess bags, but i think its something like 20 bags. You will need to check on that!

Finally, you need to know which airlines offer this service. You’ll go crazy trying to research the subject. So here’s what I know. American Airlines, Southwest, & Delta offer media rates. If you go to their website you should be able to find the details fairly easy. If you are curious about any other airlines, go to their webpage and do some quick searching. If the answer doesn’t pop out quickly… give up. Don’t call them either… if its not on the site they probably don’t offer it and you’ll waste hours on the phone.

Good luck and safe travels!

Sweden Brings Back Memories

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

I’m on a plane back from Sweden after picking up my new (used) Ultra 2 from the guys at Camera Center in Gothenburg (shout out to Paul Blomgren, Hans Johansson, Michael Petersen, Richard, Michelle & Christian). Since I was already going there to evaluate the gear I figured I should make a trip out of it… so my wife and I found sitters for the kids and off we went. After a couple days in Stockholm we headed off to a resort in the mountains. Unfortunately it was off season, so the cool stuff we really wanted to do (like Dog Sledding, Snow Mobiling, etc) wasn’t in full swing yet.

It did however remind me of my experience with Steadicam and Snow Mobiles while working on an H&R Block commercial in Whistler, Vancouver. Working on a ski slope is challenging enough, but moving the camera is a who other ball of wax.

The most important factor to keep in mind while working on a ski slope is the “slope.” This has a huge impact on the orientation of your socket block, and whether the arm & rig are working with you or against you. If you trim the block for driving downhill, the rig is going to be unruly while driving back uphill for your reset. Especially when everyone wants a fast reset, and your not only trying to hold onto the rig, but holding onto the snow mobile for dear life.

Of course, its terribly difficult to adjust the socket block quickly with gloves on, the rig on the arm, and in the few seconds available. In retrospect, a rig that would quickly allow for gross adjustment to the orientation of the Garfield mount would have been a lifesaver.

The next challenge is the snow. This is where rain gear, or my favorite choice in water protection, stretch wrap, comes into play. This is a great, inexpensive solution. Skip the stuff sold for food… that stuff is often more expensive (since its made for working with food) and doesn’t offer a convenient applicator for use in the field. I prefer the stuff sold for packing. You can get it a Home Depot or Lowes (in the moving section). It comes with a great applicator, and its easy to fit in a case or bag. It goes on fast and cuts off quickly.

Finally, the last tip (which really applies to all vehicle scenarios), is communication. Make sure you have some open line off communication with the driver. A walkie-talkie is NO GOOD. That requires you to push a button. This is difficult when both of your hands are on the rig. You need a duplex solution that lets you communicate live with, at the very least, the driver. A cell-phone with an ear-bud is a cheap solution… but there are others out there if you have some money to spend!

So, with that, back to watching “Blades of Glory” on my 8 hour flight and keeping my fingers crossed that all the gear makes it onto the baggage carousel when I land. Good luck with all of you vehicle work… Keep Safe!

Walk the Line – Lesson One

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Anyone familiar with Steadicam knows what I mean when I say “Walk The Line.” We’ve all danced back and forth along that 1″ strip of gaffers tape too many times to count. There are some basic rules to walking the line that we’ve probably all been taught. Keep the post over the line! Hit your marks! The operator starts the Steadicam in motion before he takes his first step!

Well, in an attempt to take my operating to the next level, I decided to revisit all of those things we were taught, but just accepted at face value. Step one… find a nice open space to drop a gaff tape line and some marks. Step two… get in the rig and place the post over the line at your number 1. Step three… the operator starts the Steadicam in motion before he takes his first step.

Wait… that doesn’t feel right. OK, maybe I’m over thinking this… try again. Weight’s on one foot to start… now push the rig forward before you take your first step! Nope, not right at all.

I’m breaking it down into its elements and it just isn’t working for me. When I push the rig forward, it doesn’t move straight away from me, but rather in an arc due to the geometry of the arm. Then my left hand (I operate regular) is forced to counter the lateral movement of the rig and I get a wonky start. What’s going on?

I know I’m not crazy… I’ve never seen this issue in my operating. So what am I doing differently in the lab, that I don’t do in the field? Perhaps when I push the rig forward I correct by swiveling the Gimbal on the arm post… lets try that… NOPE, that’s even worse. Ok, Ok, Ok. Lets just try this without thinking about it.

Sure enough, when I don’t think about it… the camera moves forward along the line exactly as expected. So what am I doing differently. Turns out, that I shift my weight forward at the moment I start the sled moving. In fact, the sled, arm & I all shift forward before I take my first step. When I do this, the arms orientation doesn’t change! The rig moves forward perfectly along the line and I don’t have to correct at all.

So, new rule:

“The operator & rig move forward before the operator takes his first step.”

Used Tiffen Ultra Cine Steadicam Package

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

In lieu of a traditional blog entry I wanted to announce that I’m selling my Ultra Cine Package and upgrading to an Ultra2. For anyone interested, here are the details:

Ultra (1) Cine Sled (great condition – recently serviced):
- motorized stage
- 2x remotes for stage (one for gimbal / one for grip or assistant)
- UPGRADED tilt head (modified with kipp adjustable handles instead of original clamps – works much better)
- UPGRADED gimbal clamp (upgraded with Ultra2 clamp – much better, especially for whip pans, etc)
- UPGRADED voltmeter
- 24-12v DC-DC converter
- Widdoes Monitor (has some damage to chassis, but screen is pristine and working)
- UPGRADED custom IDX mount
- 72″ telescoping post
- Anvil style hard case

Ultra Arm:
- Ultra Arm (great condition, regularly lubricated with ACF-50)
- 3x Arm posts (4″, 12″, 18″)
- Arm Bag

Batteries: Not included, but am willing to discuss.

Cables: Tell me what you need and we can discuss and negotiate included cables. I also make cables, so I can make you whatever you need.

Vest: Not included, but am willing to discuss. I don’t have a vest currently to sell with the sled (I use a Klassen harness), but might be buying a vest with my new sled and can negotiate a price for a vest contingent on my purchase of one.

I’m located outside Philadelphia, PA and can ship anywhere. Pictures coming soon!

Payment can be made in the form of check or credit card (3% service fee for Visa, MC, or Amex – through my site SteadicamParts.com)

Asking price $30,000 OBO – please contact me with questions.

Tips for a Great Steadicam Operator Reel

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Spend a little time online and you can find hundreds of Steadicam Operator reels. Regardless of the quality of the work there are a few tips for a great reel. The hardest part for most Steadicam Operators is to disconnect themselves from their work in order to make logical, objective decisions on what to include in a reel.

The first consideration is to decide who will edit the reel. In many cases your first instinct will be to cut the reel yourself. However, you need to remember that you are a Steadicam Operator, not an editor… And although you might know how to use final cut… you might not be the best editor (consider an editor coming on set to operate Steadicam). There is, however, still a good bit of work that you’ll need to do yourself. Handing over 20hrs of Steadicam footage to an editor is not a great idea. So you’ll need to take some time to pick out the shots that you want representing your work as a Steadicam Operator.

Next, you need to know what the different types of reels are. The sizzler reel is quite brief, and should be jam packed with your work. Its not great for showing off your operating, but great at showing the viewer the range of work you’ve been involved with. Typical runtime of a sizzler reel is between 30s and 1min.

The highlight reel is a little bit longer. It allows for you to show off your operating a little more, but you’ll still want to keep shots brief. Remember, start the shot late and end early. This reel might run between 1-2mins.

Finally, you have the long form reel. This is more of a compilation of scenes that demonstrator how your Steadicam Operating plays in a finished scene. You still want to keep things tight. Scenes don’t have to play from beginning to end. Find a good point to get into the scene and a good point to exit, and save your audiences attention for what’s important.

Now lets talk about your target audience. Its important to know who they are and what they are looking for in a Steadicam Operator. For the most part you will be targeting DP’s (Directors of Photography). In almost all cases people have very little attention spans when it comes to watching reels. If your viewer isn’t hooked or impressed in the first 20 – 30 seconds they probably won’t last until the end. So knowing what they are looking for and giving it to they quickly is important. This isn’t to say that you should use your most impressive material first up (that might work better at the climax of your reel), but you don’t want to hold back. So, what are DPs looking for? Composition, horizon, production value, and star power. If you have to ask what any one of these items are…you might want to hold off on cutting that reel for a bit!

Finally, test your reel! This is an important part of the process. Remember, you’re emotionally connected to the footage in the reel…you need objective opinions. And stay away from getting feedback from parents, family in general, or your girlfriend/boyfriend. All you will get will be positive reinforcement (which will encourage you, but not help your reel). Instead, show it to DPs. They are your target so why not get some feedback from your audience. They know what they are looking for in a Steadicam Operator, and their critique will reflect it. Show it to DPs you’ve worked with, but remember that if the work you’ve done for them ISN’T in the reel they might be insulted… and if the work you’ve done for them IS in the reel then you probably won’t get an entirely objective critique. You might even consider showing it to DPs you haven’t worked with as a way to introduce yourself. Let them know you respect their work and would value their opinion.

My reel begins with a tight, 30s sizzler, followed up by a brief highlight reel, and ends with three excerpts from scenes that include my work as a Steadicam Operator. I don’t know if its “great,” but I think it can help you make your reel even better! Good luck.

I’d Rather Ride!

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I’ve always taken the approach with Steadicam that the best work is achieved when you (as an operator) are doing as little as possible. For instance, when you are in the zone… flying the rig with your body and not manhandling it with your hands… that’s where your best work comes from! In this particular example you did as little as possible… you primarily used your body to position the camera, and used your hands ever so slightly to finesse the frame. In the contrary example (manhandling the rig) you were using your body to position the rig AND over-using your hands to force the frame.

This same rule applies across the board… especially as shots become more and more complex. The perfect example is when our talent is running. Producers, Directors and even DP’s make the assumption that running with the Steadicam is a good application of the tool. Not really! There certainly are times when running is the ONLY way to approach a shot. For instance, running down a flight of stairs. There’s aren’t many other ways to approach that than on foot (although the approach might be to suggest they cut and avoid killing the operator). However, when possible avoid running with the Steadicam at all costs. There are better ways to approach to problem.

Again, the best work comes from doing as little as possible. There are a myriad of alternatives to running with the Steadicam. Steadicam works well when combined with an ATV, Insert Car, Rickshaws, and most recently the hands free Segway. I’ve had an opportunity to work with the Segway and I think its by far the best, simplest, most versatile choice for chasing after or preceding talent that is running. Its compact nature allows it to go most places that an ATV or Insert Truck can’t go, it only really takes one person to operate (although you still need quite a few people to make it safe), and it has a top speed of about 12mph (men at gyms typically set the treadmill to 7-9 miles per hour).

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There are two options for combining Steadicam with the Segway. The first is to wear the rig, and the second is to hard mount it. Again… the best work comes from doing as little as possible. So I’d suggest hard mounting it when possible. I did find that hard mounting wasn’t always an option based on geography. This might have been a limitation of the Segway I was using since I only had the option to hard mount on one side. So if you are buying or renting, look for units that are setup for hard mounting on either side of the Segway.

Soft mounting isn’t terrible. Its still better than running with the rig. It also affords you the opportunity to dismount (as seen in some spectacular YouTube examples). I personally haven’t tried this trick in any practical application but have tried it on the practice field and its a bit hairy. On the flip side, soft mounting adds a variable that you probably haven’t considered… standing in one place (flat footed) for an extended period of time with the rig on. Blood does start to pool in your feet and its not very comfortable.

All in all, the hands free Segway opens up lots of new opportunities with the Steadicam. Be sure to stay safe and protect yourself. A helmet is a good idea to start, but you might also consider elbow pads & knee pads. It’s a lot of fun to rid and you’ll be surprised at how much control you have… even for slow, dramatic moves!

Is the AR leading a Revolution… or just too Alien?

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

The AR from MK-V (AKA the Alien Revolution or the Auto-Leveling Revolution) has now been on the market for several years. Has it set fire to the industry? Unfortunately no.

The AR is an accessory designed primarily for MK-Vs sled that actively maintains the camera’s horizon (roll axis) AND it also allows the sled to be flipped upside down mid shot while keeping the camera upright and level. Basically you get low mode and high mode (and evening in between) in one setup.

There are some negatives though. First is that you flip the rig along the roll axis instead of the tilt axis. This ends up consuming a lot of real estate… So don’t expect to flip while moving down a hallway or in a stairwell. You need some space! Next, because of the way you have to flip the rig… You end up flying the rig much further away from your body than you normally operate. So it takes a lot more out of you.

Once you get past those two factors… It really is a cool rig! But why am I bringing this up now? Two reasons…

First would be to look at the success of the technology over the last few years. Although I don’t own an AR, I did train quite extensively with the system when it first came out. It really seemed like it was a game changer. But over time I found that it was a bit novel and most shots really didn’t call for the increased boom range. Then when you asked for additional rental for the extra gear… Producers just usually balked.

The second reason to bring this up for discussion is that Garrett Brown and Tiffen have a new product about to be released that offers similar functionality, but with a completely different approach. It’s called the Tango. Although I’m not a huge fan of the name… I am becoming more and more intrigued by the concept.

Instead of increasing the boom range of the Steadicam by flipping the entire rig upside down, Garrett has achieved this by combining a Steadicam with a Jib. It doesn’t actively maintain your horizon like the AR, but it does offer a huge boom range (which is even more than the AR offers).

At first I was turned off a bit by the weight limitation of the Tango which is only a 6 lb. camera payload. My first thought was that it was a toy designed for the prosumer world. However, I recently worked on a feature where the 5D and 7D played a large roll. And companies like RED are coming out with image sensor blocks like the Epic that will certainly meet the weight limits of the Tango.

Whats amazing about the Tango is that the trick is executed entirely mechanically. No electronics are required. Tilt, pan and boom the camera the same way you always have. Its really amazing to watch. And without all those motors and electronics you eliminate the noise factor of servos and the crash factor of processors.

But once again I return to the case study of the AR… Will the Tango be different or will producers avoid the extra expense. I think it will come down to pricing. The Tango doesn’t have a release date or a price tag yet… But Tiffen isn’t know for being the economy solution. The AR cost over $60K and due to the limited supply, operators were encouraged to charge $1000 extra per day plus a premium rate for labor. I think that’s a recipe for disaster. Even Garrett notes that the current range of the Steadicam is good for 80% of shots. So if pricing is prohibitive it will take a lot of convincing for production to justify the expense for 20% of the days Steadicam shots that, on the majority of productions, will amount to 1% of the total shots. Plus in addition to the expense of the rental is the time to configure the rig… Especially if production plans on using a 5D or similar camera with the Tango… It might mean having to rip of an A or B body camera from the Steadicam rig in order to build the Tango with a C body camera.

So I think the key factors will be affordability and compatibility. Keep the Tango affordable so I don’t have to increase my package rental rate. Then make it easy to use with as many rigs as possible. Garrett already used the term “Tango Compatible Rig” in one video I saw which most likely means it won’t work with my $66k Ultra 1 rig. Bummer!

Regardless I have high hopes for the Tango and can’t wait to see were it goes. Hopefully this rig isn’t too “alien!”

DIY Steadicam… Y not?

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

I often find myself on set with my $120,000 Steadicam package when a PA, Camera Intern or Extra asks me how much it all costs. After telling them, like clockwork, they usually tell me how they or a friend of theirs is building their own steadicam. I try to explain that there is a world of difference from a DIY steadicam and a pro rig, but most of the time it’s like talking to the wall. It’s a bit insulting… You share with someone the cost of an investment and they basically imply that you could have saved all of that money if you had just been as smart as them or their friend. It would be like asking someone how much their Ferrari was, only to tell them that you built one for $9.99 at home. Not cool.

So how do you avoid this experience? One approach might be to ignore these questions. But thats rude.

You could offer vague responses such as “it costs a lot!” However, that can come across as snide.

I don’t like giving anyone attitude or ignoring questions. So I suggest that you share the information. There are people out there that will appreciate your candor. If you run into the kind of person described above I suggest you simply wish them or their friend the best of luck and end the conversation! Never be rude… One story about a rude Steadicam Op gives us all a bad name.