While a lot of buzz at this year’s NAB was focused on 5DMkII’s on exotic shoulder mounts, LED lighting and anything to do with 3D, not much buzz was left over for the venerable Steadicam and variations thereof. In the stabilizer world it was a year of incremental change, some new models and configurations but nothing earth-shattering. It’s been a long time since I have made the rounds of all of the manufacturers but since so many questions arise here at DVInfo about the different brands, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see what is out there and share my impressions. I focused on two different configurations for each brand (when offered): rigs that would manage the RED and those appropriate for typical small HD cameras.
Steadicam (The Tiffen Company): Archer 2
One must start at the source, and once again Garrett Brown was holding court in Tiffen’s booth along with various other dignitaries including Peter Abraham, instructor of the popular two-day Pilot / Flyer workshops, as well as Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball, whose “Steadicam Operator’s Handbook” is fast becoming required reading for novice and experienced operators alike.
There are currently some seven models in the Steadicam lineup, from the Merlin to the Ultra 2. This year’s show marks the introduction of the Archer 2, the next model up from the Flyer. This rig has a 26 lb camera capacity, 12v and 24v capability and can fold up like a Leatherman for travel. There was a beautiful looking OLED display which will be available as an option along with an HD-SDI monitor. The G-series of iso-elastic arms continues with the introduction of the G40 (40 pounds of lift) that can be broken down into two pieces for travel.
The Archer 2 lists for around $25K, which will make it one of the more expensive in this weight class, but it is a great design and flies extremely well, as to be expected. This would be an ideal rig for a sensibly configured RED camera.
For smaller cameras, the Pilot continues to represent a great deal and a very nice design (see my review here in the articles section of DV Info Net). If more capacity is needed than the 10 pound maximum of the Pilot, the Flyer is still a solid contender.
Our German friends have been working for years on their designs, which are coming along nicely. I tried out the Artemis EFP HD SE with the RED One onboard (as seen here, with Optimo Rouge and odd inclusion of top-mounted 19mm steel rods). The Sachtler design is simple and clean, easy to understand and nicely machined. All adjustments are tool-less and operate smoothly. There’s not a lot of original touches in the sled, it’s more of a culling of design from various established top-end manufacturers but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The most original concept is probably the carbon-fiber arm, which is light as one might expect and actual performs pretty nicely. The last time I tried a Sachtler arm a few years ago I was not impressed, but this one was much more what I would consider a “useable” arm. Dual-axis socket adjustments allow the operator to dial the “float” of the camera to the body, an absolute must in my mind. For RED users, a dedicated power connector matches the one on the RED body. A top-of-the-line Transvideo monitor rounds off an impressive package, albeit one that will set you back in the upper $30K’s.
For smaller cameras, the DV Pro is another solid contender. The design is certainly simpler and less elegant than the EFP Pro, but all of the components are there. The arm is notably rougher in operation, and the backmount vest is an acquired taste. While I do appreciate some of the design elements of the sled, I’m inclined to prefer the Steadicam Flyer for this weight capacity.
Glidecam: X-22 and others
Quite a few new things going on at Glidecam. The X-22 rig is a welcome upgrade from the V16/20 series. This rig will support up to 25 lbs, once again a range that will accommodate RED One for most uses. The arm is definitely an improvement over the older design in that it requires substantially less force to hold up above the midpoint Unfortunately it has inherited the springiness seen in the X10 in that once you stop moving, the arm continues to bounce a few times, rather like how one tests for bad shocks on a car. Walking with the rig, the linkage in the arm combined with this odd feedback from the springs resulted in a rather unpredictable ride that I found disconcerting (this was a prototype arm and I am told that this will be corrected in the production model). The arm does have a smart quick mount/unmount feature with dual pins, leaving the two-axis angular adjustment on the vest. This means you only have to set your preferred position once and can remove and attach the arm with ease. An HD-SDI cable snakes through the center post but there is no power feed to the top of the sled, so one must provide a battery source for any given camera. An optional J-box is however available.
The top stage is a significant improvement from the V16/20 series in that it has a drop-in dovetail head and more sophisticated fore/aft and side to side trimming capability, which allows for faster balancing and adjustment–the old design requiring one to wield a hex wrench to trim the rig, hardly convenient . One detail that did stick out for me: the monitor mount is retained from the previous models, dual right angle brackets screwed together. When using an LCD with a stabilizer, it is very common to need to adjust the viewing angle for a given shot to maximize the contrast of the image. With this design, one must loosen the screw, adjust the monitor and tighten again—a two handed operation, not easy to manage while wearing the rig. Not to mention that the balance of the rig will shift as the monitor is tilted, which will subsequently require trimming at the top stage. Probably easier to leave the monitor where it is and just suffer, but that’s hardly a solution.
The X-22 comes in at $5900, placing it firmly in the “budget” class.
On to the smaller handheld rigs: the “classic” 2000/4000 series have been replaced by the HD series, 1000, 2000 and 4000. The 1000 is a new version especially designed for today’s really tiny cameras. A general sprucing up of this design means a sleeker black finish vs the older “bare-aluminum” look, plus the base has been finally upgraded—washers are a thing of the past. Now a series of shaped weight blocks perform the same function, and one can telescope out the base of the sled for added inertia and aiding in dynamic balancing.
The top stage. which in the previous versions required one to loosen 4 knobs in each axis and coax the stage fore and aft or side to side, now has a screw assembly that allows one to make the adjustment incrementally which is an improvement. However, you still need to loosen those 4 screws, make your adjustment and then re-tighten the screws in each axis, which could be up to 16 knob turns per tweak (not including the actual adjustment process). Considering that this tweaking may be done multiple times in a shooting day, this is still a lot of work, a tough call because some of the competitors allow you do this by simply turning one knob in each axis, no unlocking or locking required.. The prices are $399, $499 and $599 for the respective models.
L’Aigle: CHD and MDV
I had seen pictures of this manufacturer’s whimsical designs for years but had never tried them. When I first laid eyes on their arms which incorporated multiple rubber bands (as they call them, hyperelastic latex straps) instead of springs, I was naturally dubious. However in operation, the arms were silky smooth, easy to boom up and down throughout their particular long range, and had great isolation. I zoomed one of the cameras in to something like 150mm (in 35 cine format) and walked slowly towards the target; the arm presented virtually no pogo-ing that I would expect from an inexpensive design. That said, the only way to adjust the load is to add or remove straps to taste, which is a much slower procedure than simply dialing a tension screw. For a user who has the same camera on their rig the whole time, this may not prove to be much of an issue. Both systems have 2-axis angular adjustments at the socket block.
I tried the full-size CHD system, which can support up to 33 lbs. It uses a backmount vest with integrated inflatable lumbar support. I continue to be mixed on the inexpensive backmount designs, even though I myself use a high-end one (a Klassen). The industrial design is unlike anything else on the market, all swoops and curves, certainly an acquired taste (not mine personally, but hopefully someone else’s). Regardless, he rig flew quite well, and that arm was something of a revelation to operate. The CHD comes in at $7390 fully loaded.
I then donned the MDV system, with a 9 lb. payload. Again the strap design of the arm was unusual but still worked pretty well—no match for a Pilot arm but certainly better than others. It’s priced between $2500-$4300 depending on options.
Varizoom: Aviator MX
The latest rig from the Varizoom folks is the Aviator MX, which holds up to 18 lbs of payload; not really enough for a RED One in practice, but fine for smaller HD camcorders with 35mm adaptors perhaps. The sled is very simple, no-tools design for adjustments, and the fore/aft and side-to-side controls are simple knobs (one locking knob for fore-aft). The arm is showing improvement from the previous models which were a bit boxy and coarse; the action is on the springy side as one would expect from the basic design, but it has quite an impressive boom range nonetheless. There is an eccentric design at the arm mount for angular adjustment, not as great a range as one would get from a typical two-axis design but should be adequate for most users. The MX will list around $5600.
Camera Motion Research: Blackbird
I’m admittedly not a huge fan of handheld stabilizers. I own a Merlin, but I’ve never gotten used to the delicate process of operating with finger-and-thumb. These folks have created a rig that at first glance seems like an obvious knockoff of the Merlin (centered gimbal handle, curved spar etc) however they have tackled the specific issues that make the Merlin a bit of a, well, handful for many users.
Tuning drop time will be quick and easy by raising or lowering a vertical post at the bottom of the spar. A tidy camera platform incorporates single knobs to trim fore/aft and side to side which are easier to work than the rollers on the Merlin. Built-in bubble levels for both axes are a nice touch. The overall construction is clean and thoughtful. Like the Merlin, the top of the stage removes to mount to the camera and a duplicate of the stage is provided to allow for quick change to tripod, however a layer of rubber on the plate will ensure a nice tight fit , with or without the locating screw. While I find the Merlin to be an impressive machine, it can be a bit fiddly to balance and it is my belief that the average user will have a much easier time with the Blackbird.
When it comes to operation, the gimbal is nicely engineered and smooth, however the pan bearing appears at the bottom of the gimbal which is unusual. This does allow for the application of what the designers call “SmoothTouch”, a dialable control at the bottom of the gimbal that adds friction into the works. This concept is absolute blaspehmy to a Steadicam operator as the isolation of a gimbal works best with the least amount of friction, but I’ll be damned if the the thing didn’t seem to fly just as well but with less of the squirrely tendency that I expect from a little handheld rig. Certainly there are some tradeoffs here vs the Merlin—portability, overall weight of the system etc., but the features of the Blackbird may help novice operators obtain better results and is absolutely worth a look for prospective handheld stabilizer buyers, at $645.
Also of note…
Not officially showing at a booth but stealthily floating around the show was the Hocus Focus, a close-to-market remote focusing device that 35mm adaptor users will be coveting. Many companies and individuals have been trying to make a reliable and robust low-cost unit using RC technology but the HoFo seems to have cracked the nut. A nicely designed transmitter unit with professional-feeling focus knob and trim controls is accompanied by a receiver box that accepts 12v or can be powered by any of the major manufacturer’s camcorder batteries, plus a reasonably compact motor with quick-change gears to accommodate both film and video lenses. Compared to higher end systems, the motor’s rotation is limited to 180 degrees with a modest amount of torque but this should accommodate broadcast and still camera lenses. I had the opportunity to test the range of the transmitter on the show floor and it held up nicely amongst the massive amounts of RF present. The HoFo will be selling for well under $1000.
The Handsfree Transporter with hardmounted Steadicam continues to wow attendees—certainly not an inexpensive tool but obviously a lot of fun with great utility in certain applications.
Actioncam was continuing to show their RED edition, a solid and uniquely styled choice for RED owners who want to repurpose their onboard monitors and bracketry onto a stabilizer, and MK-V has a lightweight rig that allows RED owners to feed the monitor and drive cables down the center post (although not shown at the show).