To Buy, or Not to Buy?

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

That is the question! It’s very easy to get yourself in way over your head with loans. Salesmen will tell you “all you need to get is one job a month to pay for the rig.” Of course this isn’t exactly true. They aren’t taking into account the additional cost for accessories, maintenance, and of course the fact that you (as a new or upcoming operator) aren’t getting full rate on your rentals yet.

The problem is if you don’t have access to a rig you can’t practice. No practice, and you don’t improve. No improvement means you can’t raise rates. If you can’t raise rates you cant afford to buy a that top-of-the-line rig.

So what do you do?

The way I started was by purchasing a $4000 rig to start (a CP Steadicam SK). As I improved, I invested in upgrades that would allow me to do more and more with this rig (second articulating section, stiffened the arm, LCD monitor, etc). I of course practiced like crazy with this rig. By the time I was done I had probably invested another $6000 into the rig. Fortunately, when I was ready to upgrade (or at least when I thought I was ready) I found a buyer for the rig and actualy made a profit.

My next rig was a Tiffen Steadicam Ultra… And the price tag was big. Fortunately I bought it used, in great shape, for a great price (which took some of the sting out of the purchase). However, in retrospect, I don’t think i was quite ready for it. Today I certainly operate at a level justifying the rig and the rental rates I get are consistent with the value of my package, but when I bought the rig this wasn’t the case.

So when should you buy?

I think it’s important to have something to practice with… Anything! But it doesn’t require a small fortune. Perhaps a used flyer or similar. It should be something you think you can actually get a reasonable rate with. More importantly, find local, established operators and get to know them. You might click with one that is willing to mentor you, and perhaps even lend you his rig from time-to-time.

Pre-Produce, Pre-Produce, Pre-Produce!

Monday, July 12th, 2010

One of my earliest experiences as an young aspiring operator came when I was asked to operate steadicam on an NYU thesis film. They were shooting on 35mm, and that really excited me. Up to this point I had only operated with video cameras, and outside of the Steadicam Operators Association Workshop, I had never professionally operated any other rig than my Cinema Products Steadicam SK. For this job I would need more power! Fortunately I knew of a young Steadi Op that had taken the plunge and bought a Master Series rig. Since we had trained together at the SOA workshop he was kind enough to lend me the rig.

I picked the rig up on the way to my gig. That was my first mistake. When I got to the location I laid out the gear and began setting up. Aside from a quick once over I had no experience with this piece of equipment. So here I am, rig built, camera mounted, and no power. The batteries were charged… Why no power. Well it turns out that my personal Steadicam did NOT have a power switch… And guess what… This one did. I had no experience with the rig and more importantly did not Pre-Produce. After a quick, embarrassing call to the owner I was able to power on the rig.

Pre-Producing is the process of setting up and testing your equipment ahead of time… And most importantly producing the result you’d like to achieve in a controlled environment. And when it comes to Steadicam there’s nothing too small or too simple to test ahead of time. Those often are the very things that bite you in the ass on the day. More importantly… Pre-produce everything at once. This means if you plan on using a wireless video transmitter and wireless follow focus systems… You should set them up along with a camera and lens all at then same time. The best scenario (If you have the luxury) is to attend the camera checkout with the rig and build there. In the field, on the day, you will be under too much pressure.

So why am I sharing this embarrassing story? (which occurred 10 years ago I might add) Because its an awfully common mistake of young operators. The assumption is that it all just works… And it doesn’t. Too often I hear stories or get calls from operators in the field that just realized they didn’t have the correct part or cable on hand. Its embarrassing and can easily be avoided. Furthermore if you get a call for a job that would require that you put yourself in the uncomfortable position of arriving on set without pre-producing… I would suggest turning it down. It’s akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

So remember… Pre-Produce, Pre-Produce, Pre-Produce!

What’s your rate?

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The question is inevitable. And the fact is that most of us are not qualified to negotiate our rate. This is why there are agents. But for the majority of steadicam ops…representation is not in the cards. So what is your rate?

I can’t claim to be an expert on this subject, but I have learned a few things along the way. Here are some tips for broaching this subject:

1) Confidence is key! If you don’t really beleive you are worth what you are asking for or you are desperate for work… It will come through in a quiver in your voice or other tell tale sign. So Be Decisive. When asked, you should answer immediately without hesitation. This tells the other party that you are 100% certain of what you are worth.

2) Know your ABC’s… By that I mean you need to know your A-rate, B-rate and C-rate. I define them as such. Your A-rate is what you can make a comfortable living earning. It’s what your peers are charging, not what your mentors are charging. Your B-rate is what you can discount your rate to and STILL make money, It might not be a ton but its positive cash flow. And finally your C-rate is your break even rate. This is bottom floor and only acceptable if you get an offer to shoot an indie starring Al Pacino or some other A-lister that will look great on your reel. Or perhaps there’s a DP you really want to form a relationship with… That’s where your C rate comes into play,

3) Don’t give it away until they ask! So often I hear people say “my rate is X, but I’m flexible.” I suggest never saying such a thing until they’ve expressed that they don’t have the budget for you…and even then there needs to be an incentive for you to negotiate. Is this a great job? Will it provide good reel footage? The best position to negotiate from is one where you can just walk away from the table… So if you are desperate for work you are going to be at a major disadvantage.

4) Or course if a production is asking for a significant discount then you should know what they are spending before accepting a discount rate. If they are offering you $500/day and spending $5mil on the movie, something tells me you aren’t being valued.

5) Finally, learn the common objections that Producers and PMs will have for your rate and have techniques for addressing them. My favorite is when they tell me that there are other operators out there asking for “a lot less” then my quote. I kindly inform them that there is most likely a good reason for the economy rates and explain what their ROI will be with me. I could also point them in the direction of my blog entry entitled “Apples & Oranges: Insights on Steadicam Produce.”

The Healthy Steadicam Operator

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Health and physical conditioning is a critical part of our job, but frequently taken for granted. I minimized it’s value for years. I made excuses like “I’m a Steadicam op… I get my exercise at work,” or (as I visited craft services) “I burn so many calories working… I need the extra energy.”

Well guess what… That’s just not true!

Fact is, if you are staying trim without the gym it’s most likely a combination of healthy diet and high metabolism. If you’re not staying trim there are a bunch of reasons to make a change.

First up is common sense… You lift every pound you carry with every step you take. So simple math says that if you are 20lbs overweight (doesn’t seem like much) and you are executing a shot that involves climbing stairs (let’s say 10 steps for ease of calculation) then you lift an extra 200 pounds per take that you otherwise could have avoided. Now multiply that by 10 takes… And you’ve literally just lifted an extra ton of weight to get that shot… And your day is just starting! So every pound you loose means less energy expended with every step and will instantly boost your endurance… Period.

So if we agree on the logic above them we can agree that the more unnecessary weight you carry the more likely you are to be injured working. That’s not to say you are more clumsy… It’s just simple logic. Less endurance means more fatigue (relatively speaking), and more fatigue means you are more likely to stumble. Since we earn our livings on our feet its important not to get hurt.

Now let’s look at stress on the body. Let’s face it… Most of us aren’t doing any kind of warm up before we start shooting. And we are most likely not stretching properly on the job. So we are already making it hard on ourselves, but being in good physical condition will give you more limber muscles, more strength and make you less prone to injury. It will also prepare our heart better for those brief but intense demands we place on it. Being overweight just adds stress to an already stressed muscle.

Finally, last but definitely not least is how we look doing our job. Fact is when we operate Steadicam there are a lot of eyes on us. It’s one of those professions that just draws attention. Even today after 30+ years people are fascinated by Garrett Browns invention. So with all those eyes on you the last thing you want is those extra 20 pounds hanging over your straps on your vest or harness… Especially if you make it to the behind the scenes video.

So how do you go about this revolution? My best suggestion is to reinvest some of your earnings into professional help. Hire a trainer and/or nutritionist. This introduces accountability into the equation which is as valuable as the professional guidance itself. I can tell you first hand that there’s no magic bullet. I tried portion control only, diet only and exercise only… Nothing works by itself. You have to do it all. In general I recommend:

Three square meals… No snacking!
Reduce or Eliminate Wheat & Dairy intake.
Eat small, early dinners.
Exercise at least three days a week.

Let me know what worked for you. Leave your comments here! Steadicam

Wireless Lens Systems: Is this Still the Steadicam Op’s Responsibility?

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

There’s no doubt that Steadicam was the driving force for the development of wireless lens and camera control systems. At that time there were no remote heads. Operators and assistants rode giant cranes… So there was no need for remote follow focus in that application. Handheld focus pulling could be done with a whip. So it was primarily the Steadicam operator that needed the wireless control. For this reason, Steadicam Ops became the responsible party in providing productions with remote focus systems. Nowadays, these systems are so prevelant (Preston, Scorpio, Bartech, C-Motion just to name a few) that it bears the question… Should Steadicam operators still shoulder the burden of providing a system?

With rental rates as competitive as they are, you surely won’t see the payoff of owning a system if production already has several units rented for other applications. It’s almost assumed you will have it in your kit, and you’ll get the same package rate if you have two or three Bartech Systems (approx 8-10k investment) as if you have a full Preston system (25-30k investment).

Now that these devices are used in many different facets of production (handheld, remote head, Steadicam, vehicle mounts), perhaps the burden of ownership should be with the camera house. These systems are of course available at the rental house, and camera manufacturers even offer their own proprietary systems (e.g. Arri). So why do Steadicam Ops still insist in owning the equipment themselves?

There is the convenience of having your system wired and mounted to the sled. But then if camera is pulled off for other shots, it’s typically a big hassle to remove your focus system so it can travel with camera.

So what I do is the following… I provide my system (Preston FI+Z H2) with my rig at industry standard rates, I’ve modified my receiver mount do it can come off the rug quickly, and I charge a rental on my system if it’s used on anything other than my Steadicam.

What do you do? Share your comments here!

Why I Love My Back Mounted Harness

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Let me count the ways!

First, I’d have to go back to my initial experience with the rear mounted or back mounted harness. I was a young operator… Maybe 2 or 3 years in, and I was hired for a feature film. Like most low budget features, they opted to save money by using ancient equipment. Save money…not your operators back. So I was charged with flying a BL4… A very heavy camera. In preparation for this I weighted my sled up to the 75lbs I expected to be carrying, and began to build endurance. My goal was to be able to roll out a 400′ mag from head to tail in one take. But I was barely making it to 4mins. In a panic I called Walter Klassen, who I had met a few times before, and asked if I could demo a harness. It arrived the next day and my endurance instantly went from 4 mins to 14 mins. This sealed the deal. I called Walter up and gave them my credit card info. As for the job, I rolled out several mags head to tail without a second thought!

Second, Let’s now jump forward to August 2009. I had just lost a ton of weight… Probably about 30lbs over 6 weeks. I’m now on a feature and the harness is not fitting me at all. I was in pain. Since I was in LA and had heard that Jerry Holway had made huge improvements to the traditional front-mount vest, I called up for a demo. Let me first say that YES, the vest was a huge improvement over earlier models. However, even with the discomfort I was experiencing with my harness… my endurance and operating were still better than when I suited up in the front mount vest. Perhaps a few weeks with the front mount vest would have allowed me to build up some endurance… But I’ve never had to really “build” my endurance with the rear-mount harness!

Now let’s jump to the last and perhaps most important reason I love my Walter Klassen Harness! After wrapping the feature with the oversize harness I drove up to Toronto to visit Walter and get the harness resized. He offered to do this for a small sum of money. When I arrived he measured me and the harness and said there was no way to make it fit. My heart sank… Here I am with an $8500 paper weight!

Then Walter shocked me… He pulled out a new harness whose measurements matched mine exactly. Then custom cut foam so the harness hugged my body (something I would highly recommend to any backmount harness owner.)  Finally he traded my harness for this new custom fit rearmount harness for the same amount of money he was going to charge me to mod my 5 yr old harness. That’s customer service!

So if you haven’t already… I suggest you give Walter Klassen a call and test drive a harness… You won’t be disapointed!

Shirts & Pants Required!

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

When it comes to dress code, the film industry is one of the most lenient. On set you’ll see a huge range of clothing styles. This can be very liberating. Steadicam operators have a uniform of sorts… One that I used to subscribe to but have since deviated from. It basically includes cargo style shorts / pants and a t-shirt. But how does this uniform function both practically and aesthetically?

From the practical standpoint I find Cargo style pants to be the exact opposite of what a Steadicam Op would want. In fact, the best style pants would be tights… But I don’t think your gonna find many ops coming to work in tights. So I would suggest something in between. Straight cut pants allow for enough freedom of movement while keeping frabic from catching on your sled. Pants made from the new anti-wrinkle stretchy fabric are even better!

As for a shirt, breath ability is key! Cotton t-shirts aren’t great in that department. They tend to hold moisture too. Quick drying is an important factor… Especially if you plan on perspiring! Today we have a ton of companies making shirts out of breathable quick dry fabrics. The most popular is probably Under Armor… But there are a lot out there.

What about aesthetic choices in clothing? For me, the Steadicam uniform didn’t project the level of professionalism I was looking for. As an operator you need to interface with the DP and Director… And command the respect of the Assistants in the camera department. Perhaps cargos and t-shirt aren’t exactly the best choice for achieving this. Of course everyone has a style they are trying to make their own… But what works for me are Khaki flat-front, straight-cut pants and Under Armor style polo shirts. I also try to avoid wearing a hat… Although sometimes on exteriors in especially hot and/or sunny days I resort to the baseball cap. Dressing more professionally makes me feel like I’m going to work, and that I’m telling the people I work for that I’m serious about my job. Plus it keeps me cool and dry, and doesn’t get in the way of my operating.

Look Ma’… No Hands!

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Back in the very early days of Steadicam, Garrett had conceived the device as a stunt rig to be used for fast paced action shots.  Early films like “The Shining” changed this forever.  The collaboration between Kubrick and Brown realized the potential of Steadicam as a precise tool, that could be use for even the most dramatic & deliberate movements.

The original operating form conceived by Garrett was a one-handed technique.  In this technique the left had (if wearing the rig in “regular mode”) would be used for panning, tilting, controlling roll & booming the camera.  As the equipment was pushed toward the other extreme – that of control & precision – the two handed form was adopted.  Here the left hand would not only be used for panning, tilting & controlling roll… and the right hand would be introduced on the gimbal to boom the camera.

But does “Two-Handed” form completely replace the old “One-Handed” form?

The “Zen” of Steadicam is one in which we (the operator) can fly the rig with No Hands!  This is a rather crude method of positioning the camera since it doesn’t allow us to pan, tilt, etc.  But ultimately, we should always be flying the right with our body.  The hands are there only to impart that subtle force required to position camera.  So what are the benefits of using one hand or two hands to achieve this?

I started to experiment with the one-handed form for running/action shots.  This indeed proves useful.  Here, your other arm can hang by your side, or even slightly behind you to counteract the significantly higher amounts of momentum you’ll be experiencing.  It’s also useful for moving extra’s out of your way in a pinch.

Next thing I knew, I found myself using this one-handed operating more & more.  It wasn’t only on running shots anymore… was I getting lazy?  When I look back at the operating its as good, if not better than it has ever been!

So when should I use two hands instead of one?

  • Its always better to boom when operating with two hands.  Applying a large force to the post is not a great idea… its much better to do that at the gimbal.
  • Slow and Dramatic really requires two hands.  Your operating hand (the hand on the post) should be applying as little force as possible to that post.  So you really need that booming hand to be on the gimbal controlling lens height.
  • Stairs & Curbs are a must… anytime your height is changing (or your subjects height is changing) you need to have your hand on that gimbal to adjust your boom height.
  • Lock-offs require two-handed form as well.

When can I try one-handed operating for myself?

  • Running definitely works well one-handed.  Just try running a short distance full speed in both one-handed and two-handed form and see which is easier to stop in?
  • Fast action, especially when walking backwards over large distances at a faster pace.  Just make sure you don’t have to boom and that you can maintain a complimentary lens height on the subject without applying significant forces on the post.

It takes a little practice… and certainly a full-grip on the post.  But once you get used to it (and the initial guilt of breaking the two-handed form) you’ll find it a useful technique to include in your bag of tricks.

Apples & Oranges: Insights on Steadicam Produce

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

I began my Steadicam career under the assumption that operating Steadicam was as easy as strapping on a Steadicam and shooting. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, and thank God I hadn’t obligated myself to any work using a Steadicam or I would have seriously embarrassed myself. I bought my first Steadicam years ago with the expectation of using it in the production of a corporate video. I was in the process of starting my own business and thought that a prosumer grade Steadicam was a sound investment. It was, but not without a significant commitment to learning how to operate it.

My assumption that Steadicam was “automatic” is not unique. In fact, it’s the assumption of most people both inside and outside of the industry that Steadicam just works. Today, with the increased availability of equipment and information more and more people claim themselves to be “Steadicam Operators.” However, this has resulted in more and more Directors, Producers and DP’s being left with a sour taste in their mouths after a self-proclaimed Steadicam Operator has provided them with a costly demonstration that Steadicam requires not only strength, but skill, endurance and a flare for the aesthetic.

Young Steadicam Operators are faced with the classic Catch 22. How do you get a job without experience, but how do you get experience without getting a job. First, it’s important to get proper training. It’s like learning to play golf… create good habits and techniques now. Take a good Steadicam Workshop such as the one offered by the Steadicam Operators Association. Then practice, practice, practice. Once you feel ready to take on your first job… start small. Know what you’re getting into ahead of time, and ask for advice from other Steadicam Ops. Don’t get in over your head… there’s nothing worse than holding up a production due to inexperience, or even worse, not delivering on your promise.

Those that are hiring Steadicam Ops need to realize that all operators and equipment are NOT created equal. So know who you are hiring and the equipment they are bringing to the table. Work with operators that have been recommended by people you trust. Look at their credits, and if theirs time take a look at their reel. As for equipment, it’s unrealistic to expect those hiring Steadicam Ops to keep up with the quickly advancing technology. So be clear with your expectations. Make sure the operator knows the camera you are working with, and the lenses you will be using for the shots you have planned. If possible, coordinate a conversation between the DP and Steadicam Operator as early as possible so that they can discuss your needs and how to best achieve them. And unless you’re feeling really generous, I’d avoid putting your faith into the camera operator that says “why don’t we rent a Steadicam, I can operate.’ This will seldom save you or the production time or money.

Don’t Act Like a Hero… Be the Hero.

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

I received my first formal Steadicam instruction at a Steadicam Operators Association Workshop in 2002 lead by Garrett Brown, Steadicam Inventor. One of Garrett’s lectures focused on a discussion about “The Look.” The Look is the composure that a Steadicam Operator should maintain while working. Initially, I didn’t understand why this was so important… but I’ve come to learn that this is paramount to being a good operator.

I was finally able to understood the importance of this concept after an experience I had with someone in our office. I am one of the owners of a film & video production house in Philadelphia called Top Hat Productions LLC. One day I came across one of our employees struggling with a computer. It was misbehaving and causing him delays and occasional losses in work. These types of problems are understandable when it comes to computers… we’ve all had those days. However, this employee was getting visibly agitated. I honestly thought he was going to suffer a stroke right in front of me. This is when I finally understood why Garrett was so passionate about “The Look.” Watching this employee struggle made me feel bad for him. As his employer, it made me feel like I was torturing him by making him do his job. It didn’t really matter how good he was technically at doing his job. That went out the window. At that moment, his inability to keep his cool made me feel like a bad person.

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After this experience, I understood that it was critical that I did my job while maintaining my composure. As a Steadicam Operator, our job is not only technical and creative… its physical. This is what we signed up for. So after a long take, when you’re hanging your rig back up… avoid making those grimacing faces. When they want to go for another take… never sigh. Instead, wear a smile on your face… and no matter how heavy that rig feels maintain “The Look.”