Steadicam Merlin Vest and Arm Review
by Charles Papert, S.O.C. with photos by Nate Weaver
Last weekend I attended an awards ceremony, and after congratulating my old friend Garrett Brown there on the recently announced Merlin vest and arm, he suggested I come over and sniff out the prototype. Today I headed over to the Tiffen facility in Glendale but as luck would have it, just as I was walking in through the back door, it would seem Garrett was walking out of the front door on his way to the airport. Disappointed, I nevertheless pressed ahead to inspect the goods. I was joined by good ol’ Nate Weaver, who has accompanied me now on a number of my tireless fact-finding missions for DV Info Net. His photos accompany this article.
The Steadicam facility is a mildly cavernous warehouse decorated with fading historical and promotional photos of the Noble Device, and sprinkled throughout with complete and partial rigs of all sizes hanging quietly on stands like dressmaker’s mannequins. The Merlin was set up with some chunky metal blocks representing the weight of a camcorder which perhaps detracted from its simple good looks but got the job done. It’s been years since I have operated a handheld Steadicam (I sold my original generation Steadicam JR a few years ago after it sat sadly moldering on the shelf for a decade) and I warmed up with a refresher on the art of the two-finger touch. It’s immediately noticeable for those who came from the JR just how much more solid and stable the Merlin performs.
On to the main event; the vest and arm. When not on the body, the vest looks virtually two-dimensional… a flat front with a lot of floppy things hanging off it, rather than the wraparound dimensionality of the larger vests. The center spar is metal but the top chestplate appears to be a molded plastic. There are no buckles on the vest; you simply strap the thing on via velcroed webbing and cinch it up to fit. I found it a bit confusing to get used to, in that the waist strap — or is it the chest strap? — hard to say, because the whole thing just came off in my hand, and I’m left wondering which way is up. When Nate tried it, he managed to eliminate the chest strap entirely and left it behind on a chair, assuming it was just a spare part! My immediate thought was that this process would be difficult for certain users such as wedding videographers, who need to be able to get in and out of the thing many times a day at high speed and thus need it as simple as possible. In a follow-up cell phone conversation with Garrett, he assures me that it’s easy to get used to once you get the formula down, so I’ll take the Master’s word on that one.
As can be seen in the above photo, the Merlin arm (top right) is like a two- thirds scale model of the Flyer arm (bottom left) in nearly every way. It includes the ever-critical two-way leveling adjustment at the socket block, and each section has a top-mounted tension adjustment like the Flyer arm. The knobs are a bit on the small side, but I got used to them fairly quickly. It took no time at all to trim the arm to the desired float point, and off I went.
Because I wasn’t flying an actual camera with a monitor, the exercise was a tad surreal… running around the factory floor with this chunky little high-tech appendage floating off my body, kind of like R2D2 working away on an X-wing fighter in mid-battle (sorry for the geeky Star Wars reference, but it seems to work for Tina Fey on “30 Rock”). I still got a pretty good feel for the system though. The Merlin arm works just like the Flyer arm, which is to say head and shoulders above any other manufacturer due to the patented iso-elastic design. It really does, folks, it’s not just marketing. Garrett told me that he was going to adjust the iso-elasticity down a bit, which should help give the arm a bit more sense of vertical center. I didn’t measure it but I sensed I was seeing about two feet of vertical travel with the arm, which resulted in the “lens” positioned just above my eye level at the top, and lower chest level at the bottom. That’s a generous amount of boom, and probably twice as much as the single-arm competitors, which are never able to shoot stretch up to eye-level (a dealbreaker for them as far as I’m concerned).
The 45 degree angle post that the Merlin perches upon seems a bit strange at first, until you realize that this is a much more comfortable position for the “strong” hand to rest than vertically as one might expect. It does require a bit of finagling, as there are certain positions that one can point the rig into that cause a bit of a conflict where the gimbal bumps up against the top of the handle… but I would think that once you get used to it, this would be second nature. The armpost that connects the rig to the arm has the ability to rotate (and in the production model, there may be an adjustable drag control added at this joint), so you can work that to your advantage as well depending on the needs of the shot.
I decided to wake up the legs and try out a running shot. I was all pleased with the speed I was able to muster with this little sucker that weighs about one-sixth of my full-size rig, until Nate pointed out that there seemed to be a lot of extra movement going on about the Merlin. I took a closer look on my next sprint, and indeed, the reduced mass of this system compared to other rigs did seem to result in a tendency for the whole works to bob around a bit on the end of the arm, not just up and down but laterally as well. I’m not sure if this would show up in the image or not… probably not, as fast moving shots are usually pretty forgiving… but my guess is that you might actually see less of this if you were to forego the arm and vest, and just operate handheld. I wouldn’t call this a design issue as much as a function of physics, so anyone with complaints will have to take them to that Sir Isaac Newton geezer.
After while I actually did switch back to handheld, and I have to say that there is something still to that mode. Perhaps it’s the extra work that one has to do in carrying it around that makes it seem more solid and connected to the body than wearing the vest and arm. I’m not sure, but it felt less squirrely. And of course there is the enviable ability to be able to boom the thing down to the ground or over one’s head, which is the real joy with this device. Without a doubt, for a long haul, the benefits of having the weight distributed across the torso instead of down on one hand will be immediately obvious. However, I can see that over the course of a given shoot, there may well be opportunities to use both handheld and body-mounted modes.
For many Merlin users, the question will be: is it going to be worth it to plunk down the bucks for the vest and arm? Let’s put it this way… if you are one of those who think that the Merlin is overpriced, then you’re not a likely customer for the full system. If you do in fact own a Merlin or are considering buying one, and feel that you could do better and shoot longer if you didn’t have to schlep it around on your paw, then start saving up… because you’ll want this package. The arm is first-class, the vest works and can be easily adjusted for different sized operators, and basically, the whole thing is a hoot to play with! Also, if you have a larger camera or you like to use accessories that tip the top end of the nominal weight scale for the Merlin (at five pounds), this setup will likely allow you to push things a few pounds over the limit. Cameras like the Canon XL H1 that would be brutal to carry around on the handheld Merlin will probably be better accomodated with the wearable version, pending some forthcoming upgradeable components and counterweights.
And with that, I (somewhat reluctantly) turn my thoughts to strapping on the full-grown sixtyfive-pound rig for tomorrow’s scenes, chasing Charlize Theron around. I’ll pass on all of your regards… she keeps asking about you guys…
Charles Papert S.O.C. began his operating career with a clunky homebuilt rig in the early 80’s and eventually found his way into the “bigtime” with $120,000 of gear in tow. He currently resides in Los Angeles and works on features and episodic television. Yes, he is well aware of what kind of badass car you can buy for $120,000. He drives to work in a ’97 Honda.
In the interest of impartiality, he notes that he does not happen to own a Tiffen Steadicam nor is he compensated by them to endorse their gear.
Links to large versions of the images in this article:
Image 1: The Fabulous Flying Brick-cam.
Image 2: Boomed Up.
Image 3: Elbow Detail; Tension Adjustment Knob.
Image 4: Side View.
Image 5: The Flyer (foreground) and Merlin arms.
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