Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Steadicam – A Filmmaker’s Best Friend (Part III)

Welcome to part III of this series, entitled “The Steadicam: a Filmmaker’s Best Friend.” Since we’ve already painstakingly gone through set-up, we can now focus on how to get our shots as professional-looking as possible. This will be a shorter post, given the outline-y, “tips & tricks” nature of this section. Let’s get started!

Suggestion #1:
When handling the steadycam, take the hand that’s not holding the handle and use it to “point,” or “guide” your shot. How do you do this without upsetting our carefully calibrated balancing system? Well, the idea is to use the guiding hand somewhere where it will be able to turn (spin) the camera easily without pushing the camera off center (from it’s upright orientation). Again, using a little bit of folk physics, we can surmise that the best place to do this is just under the gimbal. Why? If we were to consider the gimbal as an axis to a lever (like last time), then we know that it takes increasingly greater force to move the opposite arm as the point of application of force moves closer to the axis. The tradeoff here is distance traveled by your hand, which is the point of application of force in this case. For our purposes, we want as much resistance to extraneous movement as possible, while still having the ability to gyrate the camera about its post – allowing us to point the shot without shifting the entire rig. To achieve this, position your pointer and middle fingers opposite your thumb and lightly grip the rod just below the gimbal. It’s all about finesse with the guiding hand – most of the time, light “touches” with your fingers are enough to point the shot properly. With lighter cameras, it is especially crucial to keep your touch as gentle as possible, for obvious reasons. It’s also important to not touch the gimbal itself, as this is perhaps even worse for balance than positioning your hand too low. For reference, see the picture below:

Check out the finger positioning. Think light!

Check out the finger positioning. Think light!

Suggestion #2: Try to limit sudden movements. Even though your Glidecam should be able to handle quick jerking motions when it’s set up properly, it is rare to have an absolutely perfectly calibrated rig, and high acceleration will almost always exaggerate otherwise tiny flaws unnecessarily. Furthermore, swinging the camera around like a madman rarely improves the quality of the shot. Remember – smoothness is key. Think like a cloud. Think like an ethereal, floating cloud, swimming in the wind. With a camera attached to it. Clouds do not freak out all over the place, and neither should you.

Suggestion #3: PLAN YOUR SHOT. What path are you going to take? Where do you want the shot pointed? Are you going to change the angle partway through the shot? How fast will you be moving? Are you following someone? If so, you’ll need to think of ways to account for unexpected changes in speed and direction. The more comfortable you are with your steadycam rig, the better you will be able to handle these things on the fly. This leads me to my next suggestion, which is…

Suggestion #4: Practice, practice, practice! Getting proficient with the steadycam is like anything else in life – the more hours you spend getting familiar with it, playing around with the settings, trying out techniques, etc., the better off you will be come game time. Practicing a lot will also allow you to develop your own style, which is important if you want to give unique “flavor” to a scene. Remember how I mentioned in the first post that some people make an entire living off of their steadycam rig? I wasn’t lying. If you get good enough with a Glidecam, heck – you could market that skill to an independent film studio, or maybe even – *gasp* – a major film production company. How Hollywood of you!

Suggestion #5: Get a quick release plate. Trust me, you don’t want to reposition the top plate every time you move the camera back from the tripod to the Glidecam. It’s really annoying.

Well, that’s it for my series, folks. I hope you enjoyed this journey as much as I did – who knows, maybe we’ll be seeing your work in a major motion film ten years down the road!

The Steadicam – A Filmmaker’s Best Friend (Part II)

Part II: Getting the Glidecam Ready

The particular steadycam I’ll be talking about in this post is the Glidecam Pro 2000, which retails for about $370, plus or minus $20 depending on where (or who) you buy it from. This is a fairly middle-of-the-line model – not too many bells and whistles, just the counterbalancing system with some basic fine-tuning capability added. Instead of going over the initial setup (which is thoroughly described in the manual), we’re going to go over the science of balancing these bad boys. By the end of this blogpost, you should know enough of the logic behind the actual mechanisms to get your Glidecam set up quickly and efficiently – regardless of the camera you use.

Nota Bene: Before moving on, I must stress that you READ the manual. It can be acquired online through the support site (URL: http://www.glidecam.com/support.php), if you ever lose it (or you bought the Glidecam secondhand from someone else, who didn’t include any documentation *wags finger*). I really can’t stress enough here – there’s lots of important information and juicy tips to help you with the set-up, and later on, actually shooting with the thing.

So, let’s get started!

The camera on the headmount

The camera on the headmount

the circular, or "donut" plates serving as a counterweight

the circular, or "donut" plates serving as a counterweight

As you can see from the pictures here, the camera is mounted on the headplate, and the metal discs on the base platform serve as the counterweight. Remember, for our purposes, the only thing that matters is where these plates are relative to the camera itself. Think about it – all of the adjustable aspects of the Glidecam, including the extendable central pole itself, are really just ways of repositioning and re-orienting the counterweights with respect to the camera. It’s just the best and easiest to think of it this way: you are actually compensating for your camera’s unwieldy response to gravity, so depending on its size and shape, you’re going to want different settings.

WARNING: the fine-tuning process is tedious, no matter what you do – ESPECIALLY if you have a small camera. The tips I have listed below merely serve to a) answer frequently asked questions and b) expedite the troubleshooting process based on the logic highlighted above.

1) How do you know how many circular plates to put on, and where do you put them exactly?

The job of the circular plates is to counterweight whatever is on the opposite side of the gimbal (the axis where the handle connects). Therefore, the most sensible setup is one that results in the greatest inertia (resistance to acceleration), especially with regards to changes in angular momentum. After all, we want our Glidecam to keep the footage stable no matter how quickly and jerkily we move our hands and bodies about.

How do we achieve this? By making sure both sides of the gimbal exercise equal force upon one another, thus canceling out any motion.

Basically, the number of weights you put on should be proportional to the weight of the camera. The bigger the camera, the more weights you should use (on both sides – it helps to keep it even!). Furthermore, I find it best to space the plate stacks as far from the center as possible, like in the picture above. This does a better job of stopping the unwanted gyration at the end of a turn, for the same reason that a figure skater spins much slower when she/he extends their arms and legs out.

However, just doing this won’t get you the perfect calibration needed to annihilate that pesky wobble and lean while you’re moving, especially with lighter cameras. Why is this so? Well, to keep it relatively simple, let’s consider the fact that right now we are only manipulating mass between the two sides of the gimbal. Actually, we’re only changing the weight on the lower arm, since it’s granted we’re only going to attach a camera to the short (upper) end. Remember that the idea is to equalize the inertial force of the two ends. Now, how much would you say each one of the circular plates weighs? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they’re one ounce a piece. If you’re adding them two at a time (one on each screw), then you are essentially approximating the mass of your camera with a unit of two ounces.

Simply put: the circular weights provide discrete, quantized units. Your camera does not! Unless your camera’s weight is an exact multiple of 2 oz., it seems like you’re out of luck. But even if they supplied donut plates of various sizes, it would be inordinately tedious to find the exact combination needed given a constant rod length. So, how do we solve this problem of “gross approximation?”

Fortunately for us, the rod length is anything but constant!

2) How long should I make the extension rod?

Remember what our main objective is here – to perfectly counterbalance the inertial forces on either side of the gimbal, especially with regards to angular momentum. We have already manipulated mass and gotten pretty close – the next step in this quasi-”equation balancing” process is to fiddle with the length of the lower mass’s lever arm.

Think of the circular weights as your approximating tool, and the extension rod as your fine-tuning apparatus. Shortening the rod will slightly decrease the inertial force of the lower arm on the upper, while lengthening the rod will marginally increase this ratio. You can think of extending the rod as “growing” the “power” of the bottom weights, whereas shrinking the rod is the opposite – it literally decreases the multiplier (mass x length).

So, as you can see by this point, there’s a lot of tinkering and fiddling to be done before you get the right “set.” A solid understanding of the mechanisms described above really does help the process along, a fact that became clearer as I struggled along. Check out my initial take with the steadycam:

First steadycam footage

… Versus my latest round of footage:

later steadycam footage

Even though the Glidecam 2000 isn’t designed to be used with cameras under 5 pounds, I was able to jury rig it to work with our Sony HDR-HC1 Handycam by using tape rolls instead of the metal counterweights. It may look kind of strange, but it works!

Where there's a will, there's a way...

Where there's a will, there's a way…

In the final episode of this series, we’ll be looking at tips on how to use the Glidecam to get professional-looking shots. Stay tuned!

A Quick Guide to CAS-ifying Your Drupal Site

For much of the summer I’ve been working on a course portal for Anthropology professor Erik Harms. The site will feature a variety of content related to modern Southeast Asia — both course-specific content for his upcoming class, “Modern Southeast Asia,” and research material for public consumption.

Partly out of curiosity, partly to step outside the box, I opted to use Drupal, rather than WordPress, as the site’s web content management system. Drupal has proven to be a powerful and flexible platform, largely due to its “modules” feature. These modules are effectively easy-to-install plugins that provide you with just about any feature not included out of the box.

While the site aims to make as much useful information as possible publicly available, it seems prudent to restrict certain areas, such as class readings and assignments, to students-only access. Thankfully, there is a Drupal module created specifically for this purpose. Here’s a short tutorial on how to CAS-ify your Drupal site:

1. Download the Drupal CAS module.

2. Download the phpCAS library.

3. Place the CAS module folder on the server at Drupal root > sites > all > modules.

4. Open the cas.module file in a text editor and check the “require_once(…);” line of code. In my case, the snippet says “require_once(‘CAS/CAS.php’);”

5. Rename the phpCAS library folder “CAS” and verify that the CAS.php file is located in accordance with the cas.module code. Place CAS folder inside the “cas” module folder on the server. It would also be possible to change the require_once code to point anywhere, but it may be easier to just rename the phpCAS files and put them in the right place.

6. If your site no longer loads, something went wrong. Delete the CAS module folder and try again!

7. Once everything’s in the right place and the site loads, go into the admin panel, enable the CAS module, and make sure admin has permissions to modify the CAS module.

8. You should now be able to enter the CAS server and port information in User Management > CAS Settings.

9. Enable the CAS login block and configure it to appear only on designated CAS-ified pages. In my case, I opted to CAS-ify the Readings and Assignments pages.

You now have a CAS-ified website! It seems to be hard to get it all working on first try — the problem seems to be with file-renaming and placement on the server. Different builds of the phpCAS library might also be packaged differently, which could complicate the process. Helpful updates to come!

The Steadicam – A Filmmaker’s Best Friend (Part I)

Welcome to the multi-part series, “The Steadicam – A Filmmaker’s Best Friend.” Without getting into too much detail right now, we’re going to turn a daunting piece of professional film-making equipment into your best friend. Let’s get started!

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Part I: What is a steadicam, and why should I use one?

For as long as motion film has been around, the moving (or “tracking”) shot has complicated the lives of professional and amateur cinematographers alike. While a good tracking shot can add a whole new dimension to a particular scene (remember those epic, beautiful fly-over shots of the New Zealand countryside in Lord of the Rings?), adding freedom of motion to the camera’s “eye” automatically introduces an element of instability. This tradeoff becomes especially apparent when the recording device is hand-held. It’s already virtually impossible to eliminate the slight shaking of your hands without budging a single inch – imagine trying to keep the camera steadily focused on a moving target… WHILE you’re following it on foot. Not gonna happen.

Many solutions have been employed to solve this very problem: professional film-makers use dollies, zip-wires, and all varieties of ultra high-tech gear to stabilize their moving shots. Nowadays, aside from occasions where the urgency and “cinema verité” feel of hand-held footage is desired, moving shots are smoothed out to the point where it appears that the camera is magically floating around the person/event/place of interest. This manipulation of perspective has the unique effect on the viewer, whereby he/she experiences something of a “disembodied observer” state.


Check out this sick shot. I think it might be one of the longest single-take fight scenes in a movie, ever - and it's really slick, even with the cameraman climbing up all those stairs and avoiding all those crazy ninja moves. Think you could shoot that freehand?

Even without massive trolley systems and multi-kajillion dollar budgets, however, independent filmmakers are still able to capture ultra-slick moving footage using a device called the steadicam (also spelled steadycam). Since it’s inception as the “Brown Stabilizer” (named after its inventor, Garrett Brown) in 1976, the steadycam has become an indispensable piece of equipment in the filmmaker’s arsenal. Although steadycams vary in architecture and price point (You can pay up to $50,000 for some professional full-body systems, or you could go to this site and learn to build yourself a basic one for only $14!), most of them rely on the same general mechanism: the camera is mounted on a specially flexible armature, which is then counterbalanced so as to isolate the body’s motion from the camera. This clever manipulation of inertia and angular momentum absorbs most of the unintentional moment from the cameraman, thus serving to steady the camera. Pretty self-descriptive, no?

As I mentioned earlier, steadycams come in many shapes, sizes, and designs. The more high-end models are complete body-outfit systems loaded with ultra-complex counterbalancing systems and electronic displays. If you don’t need/can’t afford a pro-rig with everything short of GPS and a talking toilet, however, there are still plenty of decent models out there at a fair price.

Nota Bene: I said fair price, not cheap. Although it is possible to build one to your own standards of quality for about the cost of a DVD movie at Blockbuster, it’s really worth it to stretch your dollar for a high-quality steadycam. Trust me on this one – If you’re interested in cinematography enough to get a steadycam, you should make sure that your investment will consistently yield professional results. There are actually cameramen now that base their careers entirely on their mastery of the steadycam shot… seriously!

To get an idea of what a well executed steadycam shot can do for a film, check out “The Best Steadicam Shots of All Time” (linked to the original Criticker blogpost) and really pay attention to how well each scene flows. Mind you, even the most expensive and finely calibrated systems don’t do all the work for the cameraman – it takes a great amount of energy (literally, physical stamina), patience, and artistic discretion to pull off shots like the ones listed there. Don’t be put off if it suddenly seems a bit overwhelming. Although there is a good bit of information and technique to cover, we’re going through it together, and most importantly – using a steadycam is FUN and REWARDING!

In the next part, we’ll be reviewing/learning how to properly set up the Glidecam 2000. We’ll tinker, we’ll get frustrated, we’ll laugh, we’ll cry, and at the end of the day- we’ll have some pretty smooth footage of it all ;) .

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Link to $14 DIY Steadycam: http://steadycam.org/
Link to “The Best Steadicam Shots of All Time”: http://www.criticker.com/blog/index.php/2008/07/18/the-best-steadicam-shots-of-all-time/