added 25 November 2006
Take a walk around the floor at NAB and it seems like every third booth there's some kind of camera stabilizer in evidence. Whereas not that long there was literally only one manufacturer of Steadicams, these days there's a virtual cornucopia of choices. Most of these are variations on a pretty consistent theme as the basic form factor and operating technique carries over from one to the next. For those shopping for a stabilizer, the first hurdle is to determine whether a handheld rig like the Tiffen Merlin and the Glidecam 2000/4000 will do the job, or if a larger, bodymount system is required. Luckily this is a fairly cut-and-dry decision, as 6 lbs seems to be the cutoff in camera weight for most people to be able to manage on a handheld stabilizer (and only for shorter shooting spurts at that weight, unless one is wielding Popeye-sized forearms).
So let's say your camera is over 6lbs; you know that you aren't going to get into a stabilizer for under $1000, or maybe even $2000. And what about the possibility of adding on to your camera with a 35mm adaptor, or if you might have access to a larger camera down the road (hello, RED reservees!) The Tiffen Flyer is arguably the cream of the crop of the entry-level bodymount rigs, with a support arm that performs as well as its full-size brethren, but these niceties come with a $7000 price tag that place it out of the reach of many shooters.
Out of Taiwan comes a new competitor from a company with the curious name of Fishbone, which makes me want to dig out the old ska/punk albums and give them a spin. Their top of the line product is the XTR 700 which is designed to handle cameras from 7 to 27 lbs and costs $3000. I visited the Fishbone headquarters in Glendale, CA (coincidentally, about a mile from Tiffen's Steadicam factory) and put the XTR 700 through its paces.
The rig is a single-section arm system, similar to the Glidecam Smooth Shooter. This type of design inherently limits the functional boom range. Two styles of spring are delivered with the rig: the lightweight spring will handle camera weights from 7 to 17 lbs, and the heavy spring will carry 17 to 27lbs. Bear in mind that this is the camera weight only, this does not factor in the weight of the sled. For the purposes of the demo I used a Sony XDCAM 350 setup (courtesy of Nate Weaver) which weighed approximately 18.5 lbs.
The most notable thing about the sled is the length of the center post. Most stabilizers that can accommodate cameras in the heavier end of this range tend to have beefier lower sections acting as the counterweights, and/or telescoping center posts. In general, it is better to operate with the shortest possible center post; a long post will give the rig a sluggish feel in tilt which requires substantially more operator influence. Where this becomes problematic is when a diagonal move is required, i.e. pan and tilt together. The added inertia of the long post will make this a bit trickier.
The supplied camera dovetail is a fairly standard design, with multiples holes for both 1/4-20 and 3/8-16 standard camera screws (both supplied). I was able to sink two screws into the Sony baseplate, which was convenient. However some slotted threads in the dovetail would have been nice to accommodate the oddball spacing found in some cameras that have two threaded sockets available.
Sliding the dovetail into the rig revealed the first major issue. The camera mounting platform uses the "classic" Steadicam protocol of two knurled knobs for fore/aft and side/side balance, a fore/aft lock and a safety latch on the other side. However the fore/aft knob was not held in place properly, so it had a tendency to flop around in the platform. When the dovetail was slid into position, one would think that this would secure the gear against the rack but the excessive play caused a grinding, sluggish operation. This is especially noteable because the fore and aft balance of the rig is something that an experienced operator will tweak for nearly every shot to optimize the framing and operation. Another sled that was present at Fishbone exhibited the same issue, so it is most certainly a design flaw.
The side-to-side adjustment utilizes a worm-gear type mechanism that was in use with the production Steadicams in early 80's to mid 90's. However, then as now this is a dicey design because if the gear has enough play to be able to rotate freely, then it will likely also allow for play in the top stage. If that weren't enough, the fore/aft mechanism also presented play, even with the lock tightly fastened. There are some adjustment screws in the top stage which may help with the side/side slop, but as noted eliminating this play may make the knurled knob too stiff to turn easily. The result of this dual-axis wiggle room will directly affect the stability of the rig. Footsteps and vibrations can make their way into the sled and cause shimmy in the photography. I zoomed the camera all the way in and performed the "stomp" test (in which I stomp my left leg like a petulant child) and observed several seconds of wiggle in the frame. At wider focal lengths and slow moves, this may not be an issue, but running shots, vehicle shots and traversing rough terrain will likely affect the stability of the footage.
The top stage has the fairly standard BNC connector and DC output, using a push-on style connector. The wiring between the base of the sled and the top stage was fairly thin gauge, which could potentially cause a voltage drop making power-hungry cameras like the F900 tough to power consistently from the rig. One can always carry an onboard battery as we were in this test, but of course then you are adding dead weight to the sled. The top stage is connected to the center post via a collar that can be easily removed with two beefy screws. This is a much better design than a welded or pinned arrangement.
The gimbal is a pretty good performer overall. The mechanical design is clean, the bearings are not exposed, the handle has a comfortable curve to it and it has a standard allen screw for adjustment. I noticed a bit of friction in the tilt bearing in the handle when it was not under load, which may have possibly contributed to the sluggishness I felt when tilting, but it is the pan bearing which is the most critical and this one felt pretty solid.
Moving on down to the base of the rig, the monitor is a 16:9 Necvox (there's a household name for you) with the standard menus and supplied remote. It is housed in a solid metal enclosure which substantially increases its weight (and durability). This is a good idea as it gives the rig better weight distribution than just a plastic chassis monitor. The monitor is mounted on a heavy-duty arm which pivots in the middle; an issue with this is if one wants to adjust the monitor for the optimal viewing angle when the rig is held at one extreme of height or the other, it will require a rebalance as the mass will swing through space.
The monitor is countered by a dual V-mount battery section at the rear, which has a knurled knob at the base that drives the batteries in and out. Since the assembly is fixed at an approximate 45 degrees, this means that the weight is telescoping down and away, which will affect two axis of balance at once (fore/aft and top/bottom).
It takes many turns to move the batteries through the approximately 4 inches of adjustment, but at least it is precise and can be done while wearing the rig if necessary. A minor quibble is that the battery mounts are attached in such a way that the battery meters will face opposite directions, making it hard to read both.
Like all other rigs, the 700 is supplied with a docking bracket to allow the user to rest the rig and balance it off the body. However, this particular dock does not slip onto a standard baby pin for use on a beefy lighting stand or c-stand; instead it has a post of the same diameter that projects downwards. This would fit into the gobo head of a c-stand, or a light stand that has a removeable baby. However this precludes the use of many common types of stands. The smallest of the three provided hex wrenches slides into the dock as a safety to keep the rig from sliding out, a pretty clever use of resources.
The vest is a pretty standard front-mounted design; the nylon in used seemed of good quality and featured the usual plastic buckles. It was pretty easy to adjust the straps with their Velcro fasteners. Even the shoulder straps can be cinched, which is helpful to keep the vest from pulling too far forward at the top, a common issue with lightweight systems. The aluminum used in the superstructure was a tad thin; I suspect with a camera in the upper weight ranges it might flex considerably as the camera is moved away from the operator, or from side to side across the body. The arm attaches to the vest via two vertical pins that drop in from above. One nice feature is the inclusion of a dual-axis adjustment of the socket block, which is critical for the rig to fly comfortably on the body without the operator having to lean to compensate. The actual mechanism is a bit primitive looking, with a swiveling center plate held in place with two bolts for left/right adjustment, and two more bolts on the front of the plate that hold the plate against a semi-circular pivot at the back for up/down adjustment. Given that there is about 15 degrees of left/right and perhaps 5 degrees of up/down adjustment, most operators should be able to find their sweet spot.
More now on the arm. As previously mentioned, it comes with two springs that can be changed out to accommodate the wide range of camera weights. However, opening up the arm to change springs requires a specific tool that doesn't come with the rig. Although the camera I was using should have been able to fly on the heavy springs that were fitted to the arm, even with the adjustment screw backed all the way out it still rode high on the arm. In fact, there was a concern that the screw could possibly be backed completely out of the block potentially causing the spring to dislocate, which could easily happen if adjusting while wearing the rig with potentially disasterous results! And an unexpected change in the shot listů"how about we shoot this one handheld?"
Since I couldn't dial the arm down to proper flying position, it was hard to evaluate its performance, but since the design is similar to most arms in its class, it is probable that it performs similarly. Which is to say that it will absorb most shocks, but will be prone to a certain amount of rise and fall if heavy steps are taken. Also, it will take a certain amount of force to boom the arm down to its bottom position, and a certain amount of weight of the rig will be assumed by the operator when booming all the way up. Again, this is par for nearly every arm out there except the Tiffen Flyer, which uses an entirely different mechanism with radically different results in isolation, performance and range.
The non-articulating section of the arm is made up of three separate sections, one long and two short, with beefy elbows in between. This is a bit of a puzzler design-wise, as under load the elbows don't fold around each other smoothly, but can still be pushed into position. Presumably this is to allow the arm to mount ambidextrously for those who like to fly the rig on their right side, but it still seems like there is one section too many.
When mounting the rig, the first thing I discovered was a bushing inside the gimbal handle that was pressure-fit, but not well enough; it popped out the first time the arm was removed from the gimbal. It would be easy to loose the piece and then the rig wouldn't mount properly. It really should be held captive with a setscrew, or the gimbal milled to the exact diameter of the arm post. As it turns out this was fortuitous, since the bushing-free gimbal now had the proper diameter to mount on my personal docking bracket (since we couldn't use the supplied one with my stand as mentioned earlier)! This is the dock seen in the full-sled image above, with the extended balance arm. The 700 dock does have a balancing pin but it does not extend out from the stand as pictured there.
All of these points are important, but of course stabilizers are for flying, not dissecting. And I can report that the 700 flew pretty well. There was quite a bit of inertia due to the good-sized camera and counterweight as well as the long post, so it was possible to perform solid, smooth moves. I was able to dynamically balance the rig so that it spun reasonably flat, which allowed me to make some decent whip pans. The gimbal did not seem to exhibit any untoward pitching or hanging up. I did feel that the vest was not rigid enough even with a middle-weight camera onboard, which created a bit of an insecure feeling to the system. Probably a beefier center spar and more rigid hip structure would help this.
The monitor was a high point of the rig; it exhibited very good viewing in the shade, acceptable viewing in direct and reflected sunlight and excellent off-axis viewing in the critical vertical direction (LCD's tend to "reverse out" the image when tipped too far away from the viewer). Bright, sharp and generously sized at 7", it was a pleasure to use. And so friendly to boot!
In conclusion: while overall the fit and finish of the rig is decent for this price point, there are a number of issues that will affect everyday use, with the top stage at the top of this list. Many of these problems could and should be addressed by the manufacturer as they are not all that complicated to resolve. For novice to lightly-experienced users who want to be able to fly a wide range of cameras for the least amount of money, the Fishbone XT700 may still be worth looking at. Out of the box, it will indeed fly a camera in a smooth fashion (well, if the correct spring happens to be in the arm at the time and/or you happen to own the appropriate tool to swap them out if it isn't!), and for some that may be the most important thing. For the tinkerers out there, it also would be possible to fix many of the issues I have detailed if so inclined. Your best bet is to get to one of the larger DV/broadcast conventions out there and visit as many manufacturers as possible, try on their rigs and see what "speaks" to you. Happy flying to all!
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. 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 complete Fishbone XTR 700 sled.
Image 2: Detail of top stage shows "dislocated" fore/aft gear.
Image 3: The gimbal is clean and works well.
Image 4: The beefy monitor bracket and wraparound weight plate.
Image 5: Dual V-mount battery rack, with telescoping control at bottom.
Image 6: Vest socket block demonstrating maximum side to side adjustment.
Image 7: Heavy weight spring in place.
Image 8: The arm takes a well-deserved break.
Image 9: Detail of articulating fixed sections of arm.
Image 10: Chas with the XTR 700 rig in flying mode.
Image 11: The monitor shows some sass.
Written by Charles Papert, S.O.C.
Photographs by Nate Weaver.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.