For a couple of months now, I’ve wanted to purchase a steadicam. I own a fig-rig, and it’s great for handheld work. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it, since I purchased it over a year ago. But, it isn’t a steadicam. It’s more of a stabilizer. Plenty of fig-rig shots in this music video I shot. Basically everything that isn’t stationary was shot with it.
Here’s a bit of an embarrassing revelation. I’ve been using the damned thing wrong for a year.
Not WRONG, wrong, in the classic sense, like I was using it upside down or anything. No.
See, the fig-rig works with a release plate. A Manfrotto one, since it’s a Manfrotto product. On the bottom of said plate is a stamp that says LENS, and an arrow. For some insane reason, I’ve been putting that plate all the way at the beginning of my camera, instead of at the end, where it should have been. Particularly for use with the fig-rig.
So, whenever I would put the camera on the rig, I would have to spin the camera to lock the plate in place. Spinning it allowed me to turn a knob that tightened the plate. So, basically, if I could turn the camera, it was not tightly on the fig-rig, which means, it was loose, which means I was getting shakes, which defeats the purpose of the thing.
I’m not sure where the inspiration came from to try placing the plate on the camera the opposite way I was doing it. I think it was when I was looking at footage of the web series I’m working on, The Thing, and saw that I was getting shakes when I shouldn’t have been getting them.
So, I tried it. And lo-and-behold… I’d been putting that plate on wrong for a goddamned year.
Imagine my surprise and embarrassment.
Now, aside from getting a handheld look, what I also needed in my repertoire of shot making abilities was a steadicam shot. Plenty of examples of steadicam shots out there, but here’s one of my favorites.
There’s a crane shot in there, too, but I’ll start with steadicam shots for now.
I did a lot of research, boy. A lot. For the amount of money that I wanted to spend, which was under $800, there are a lot of options. Tons of companies out there making them. Steadicam, which is an actual brand name by Tiffen, makes some serious products, many of them high end. More hand held products, like the Merlin Steadicam, for smaller cameras, are at about that price point. They’re a very well respected name in steadicams.
The other name that kept popping up was Glidecam.
Plenty of other names in the ring when it comes to steadicams, and it all depends on how much you want to spend. If you’re at all interested, I’d like to point you to this thread on Reddit that I poured over a few times, amongst other articles I read over and over before I decided on the one I purchased.
One of the issues I saw while researching was that the Merlin, and similar steadicams like it, cannot tilt. At least, not easily. One has to have one hand on the handle, and then fingers on the base just above the handle. So, let’s say you’re walking up stairs, or a hill, or down either… from what I read, it’s not an easy shot to get with the Merlin. The other issue with the Merlin was exactly how much weight it can hold, which is a 5lb camera set-up.
Now, Merlins come with an optional vest and arm attachment, which makes one look like one of those Marines from Aliens. With that vest, you can get up to a 7.5lb set up.
I don’t plan on using a DSLR forever. I didn’t think shelling out $500-$800 (depending on which Merlin you get) for something I might outlast was a good investment.
The Glidecam HD 4000, which is the unit I ended up purchasing, is designed to accept camera set-ups from 4lbs to 10lbs. It also comes with the optional vest and arm set-up. You can also create an adapter to fit the glidecam to the Merlin arm/vest rig… the Merlin rig is supposed to be better than Glidecam’s.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I sweated over it for a long time. We’ll see if I made the right choice.
I should get it by Thursday. I’ll do an unpacking and balancing blog when I do receive it. Should be fun.
Basically, from what I’ve read, any steadicam will get you the shot you need. It’s all about the operator. You can say that about many pieces of equipment, from the camera itself, to the sound equipment… it’s all about practice. Balancing is key… and everything I’ve read about balancing makes it seem like even the slightest jar or touch or adjustment will throw off the rig you’re using… especially the lower end, or DIY rigs.
Again, practice makes perfect. I’ve read that the learning curve on steadicams can take weeks of constant use. One of the things my friend Marcin said to me the other night was that if one can specialize in steadicam operating, one can make money doing it. So, let’s hope that’s true, and that I get the hang of it.
If I had to give any specific advice, I would say read up on all of the tons of steadicams out there for sale, figure out what your max budget is on the unit, and then figure out a value system on the rig itself. How many times will you use it? How important is the shot that you need to get, to justify spending the money, and is there a cheaper DIY way to get the shot? Do you have the potential (and not far-fetched potential, but real potential) for making money to pay for the unit?
Most people who are willing to pay you for your work are only interested in the end result, not the name brand of your products. So, if you can’t afford the one you want, but think it’ll help to own one, get one you can afford and learn the shit out of it.
Remember, Sam Raimi and company built their own steadicams to shoot The Evil Dead. That was 31 years ago. Holy fuck. 31 years ago. You’ve got access to a lot more than they had… so act accordingly.
I’ll leave you with this awesome note from producer Jan Harlan who wrote to Stanley Kubrick about a brand new invention. In 1976.