added 15 July 2001
The Marzpak Camera Suspension System
by Donna Kuyper
An Olympic Gold medallist once shared his secret. He said he skated from the center, the very core of his whole body. I have found this technique works for most creative endeavors, sometimes more practically than metaphorically. When I dove into digital video, I was seeking a similar way of working. I had a hazy picture in my mind of a way to enable a certain fluidity of movement that was natural to these smaller cameras without the unsettling shakiness of hand-held camerawork. I imagined that somehow it would be an extension of my body and my vision.
One day while reading a digital video email list, I found it. The product, called the Marzpak (available direct from Marztech, appx. $400), is the only body-vest suspension camera support I have discovered at a reasonable price. It looked so strange, could it really work? I decided to examine it to see if it would fit my needs as a digital filmmaker.
The Marzpak came fully assembled. I opened the box and my first impression was that wonderful "new car smell." I was excited already but being an adult, I was able to delay gratification long enough to read the instructions and watch the demonstration video. After that, I removed the protective foam, inserted the pole that curves and extends over the user's head and tugged on the end of the cord to make certain the bottom snap hook was securely attached to the bottom of the rig. I then strapped on the vest like a backpack as memories of scuba diving washed over me. I picked up the accessory, a small Velcro fabric brace/strap, and secured it around the handle of my Sony PD-150. I fastened the D-ring on that to the snap hook at the end of the cord suspended over my head.
I followed the warnings by Marztech to always keep my hand on the camera -- for obvious reasons.
The last step is to reach behind to the bottom of the Marzpak, position the cord to the desired length and then snap it into place in its cleat. At this point, your pets will probably stare at you with a mixture of curiosity and concern. Ignore them. You are ready to shoot.
Practice will naturally improve technique, but the first delight is how quick the learning curve is with the Marzpak. Because there is no assembly, you can go from box to back in minutes. One key to good performance is adjusting the fit of the pak. I found that a tall man could just slip on the shoulder straps and wear it as is. As a 5' 5" woman, I needed to lift the Pak as I closed the waist straps so they fell across the true waist instead of riding low on the hips. The Marzpak comes with various slots so the straps can be re-threaded to suit various sizes as well as different cameras. This standard Pak is suited for cameras 15 lb. and under, which was fine for my 4-5 lb. camera, leaving plenty of leeway for extras like a longer battery, matte box or an anamorphic lens attachment. Marztech Inc., the company that makes the Marzpak, also makes a heavier version for cameras 30 lb. and less.
Marztech is owned by two people who seem to care about their creation as well as their customers. Because it is a small operation and one that is still relatively undiscovered, I found they were willing to work with me in terms of special needs. However, I have a feeling this undiscovered state is soon to be history as more people realize what they have here. Their care is reflected in the solid, durable construction of the pak. Details like a small velcro pouch holding an allen wrench that can be used for adjustments are the result of this kind of consideration. My only criticism -- and it's a small one -- is that the paint on the pole tends to wear at the points of contact. My understanding is that the makers are currently addressing this with nylon-coated thumbscrews.
But let's resume the examination of the Marzpak. Most camera stabilization systems demand a certain walk to smooth out the shots. I found the best results came from bent knees and a glide that can be described as a dancer or a duck, depending on whether you fear insulting the videographer. Is this going to attract attention? Let's just say you won't be shooting any of those hidden camera shows.
On the upside, some clients may be impressed because you will not look like a tourist pressing a prosumer camera to his face. While it's not for detective work, the Marzpak will shine at event shooting. Suspending the camera frees the shooter in ways you cannot imagine. The stretchy cord allows you to pull that camera way down low to the ground or up high above your head. The weight is taken off your narrow wrists and distributed across your back, making it possible to control your shots for hours. And although you are advised to keep your hand on the camera at all times, after some experience the shooter can judge if and when it is safe to briefly free both hands and reach for a new tape or some accessory during the frantic pace of event shooting.
The demonstration video shows the Marzpak at its finest -- during sports. Unbelievable footage takes the viewer racing alongside a daring skier as if you are skiing right with him. The cameraman was able to wear this lightweight pak, ski and shoot a long smooth shot all at the same time. Using the camera's own flip-out monitor, the shooter is able to watch the frame without losing peripheral vision which helps to avoid any embarrassing accidents.
The Pak also lends itself to trekking, camping, nature work and any situation where the terrain will not support a dolly or tripod. At 5.8 lb., it's light enough for a cameraman to wear comfortably hiking through jungle or desert. Marztech also makes optional gear bags as accessories that slip on the back of the Pak.
It's important to understand that the priority of this rig is to support the weight of the camera and do it in a fluid environment. So you cannot expect to get the "floating" walking shots possible with name-brand stabilizer rigs costing thousands of dollars. Those also require training, endurance and a lengthy set up time, all of which are more suitable for studio films.
As I continued to experiment with the Pak, I found the tension created by pulling down slightly on the cord gave me smooth pans, even 360 degree moves. The ease of changing between various camera moves and techniques is what makes this rig so intuitive. When you really get going, it becomes a dance between you and your camera and the Marzpak is the stage wire supporting your partner, allowing her to fly.
Looking at the Marzpak for what it delivers, it's an unbeatable value for the money. The DV shooter who uses this will get smoother shots even under challenging conditions. It lends itself to any situation where you need steadier shots without the rigidity of a tripod and that is particularly useful for low-budget digital filmmaking. The sturdy construction, pre-assembly, flexibility, quick learning curve and especially the low price make it easy for anyone to become a one-man operation and, perhaps, if they shoot from the center, even dance with their camera.
Donna Kuyper is an award-winning screenwriter who sold her directorial debut, the digital short "Iguana Love." She is currently working on a feature with a production company and is a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab 2002. Photos by Donna Kuyper/Desiree Wong/Alessandro Mecuri and modeled by SAG actor Marchele Mallari.
Copyright Donna Kuyper 2001, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.