I listen to lots of director commentaries on DVDs. Most of the time they are interesting and insightful. Sometimes they are revealing and thought-provoking. I’ve heard several great, prominent film directors express their lack of love for the Steadicam. For example, in the commentary on American Beauty, Sam Mendes says something like, “Generally I don’t like using Steadicam because it makes me feel seasick. I don’t like that ‘Steadicam wobble’. But I ended up using it in this shot.”
I’m surprised at this attitude toward any production tool, let alone such a powerful and versatile one. Properly set up and used, the Steadicam (or similar devices from other brands) delivers perfectly smooth and steady shots not possible with any other camera support system. So where does this anti-Steadicam sentiment come from? My theory is that these directors are drawing on their own early experiences with stabilization rigs on low budget movies, where inexperienced operators used them improperly and delivered poor results.
These days, lite versions of camera stabilization rigs are becoming more readily available to indie filmmakers of all ranks. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clear understanding of how these rigs need to be set up. Sure, you look cool with your Glidecam V-8 (and a palmcorder mounted on it) in your Facebook “Production Pics” album, but like the message boards say…
So let’s take a look at some common mistakes with Steadicam setups. I’m going to use a generic rig as an example. And even though I’m saying “Steadicam”, I’m referring to any rig of this kind.
1. Bottom-heavy sled
Newbies always make the bottom of the sled too heavy, causing the rig to wobble during lateral movements and the wrist to strain when tilting the camera. This is easy to get wrong because there is a common misconception that the weight on top and bottom must be equal. WRONG. This would only be true if the collar (the pivot point) was midway through the shaft. But the collar is closer to the top (we want it to be as close to the camera lens as possible, so tilting looks natural), and the further up the collar is set, the heavier the top of the rig has to be to stay balanced. There’s a simple mathematical formula behind this, but I’m too lazy to figure out what it is.
Just make that camera as heavy as needed and strip the bottom plate of anything unnecessary. The goal is to have the top and bottom of the sled balanced perfectly, so that when you tilt the shaft on its pivot point, the whole rig rotates effortlessly, like a gyroscope, with only friction bringing it to a stop. If you can’t make the whole rig tip over horizontally using nothing but the push of your finger, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
TEST: Wearing the rig, shift the sled side-to-side rapidly. If the shaft remains horizontal, and doesn’t wobble, then all is good.
2. Uneven distribution of weight on the bottom plate
This is a subtle defect, but it can have a noticeable effect on the overall stability of the rig. When you pan the camera on the sled, it is smoothed out by the resistance of the weight on the bottom plate which is also being panned. But if the weight on the bottom plate is out of whack - for example, the monitor out in front is much heavier than the battery or ballast on the rear, the resistance will be uneven and this can cause the shaft to tip out of vertical position. It can also cause the sled to pan when you don’t want it to, just from lateral movement. The distribution of weight on the bottom plate should be even, or be a “mirror image” of the weight distribution of the camera on the top plate.
TEST: Same as before, wearing the rig, move the sled side to side. If it doesn’t start to pan randomly on its own and force the shaft to wobble, then all is good.
3. Overly high spring tension
I think this happens because most indie filmmakers who get their hands on a stabilization rig mount it with camera gear that is too light. The springs in the arm end up being too tense and “overreact” to movements, adding up/down bounce instead of eliminating it. The tension of the springs must be just right. Luckily, pretty much every kind of spring arm comes adjustable. But if the loosest setting on the spring is still too tense, then you may have to add extra weight to the sled.
TEST: Wearing the rig, let the sled go. The spring arm should be perfectly horizontal. (If there are two spring arm sections then the whole arm should be lowered midway through its range of vertical movement.) Now run in place and have someone else who is standing still tell you whether the slate is staying in place and not bouncing.
4. Ass-backwards-sideways-bent-over walking
The Steadicam won’t work if your back is not perpendicular to the ground. Remember this: Stand up straight. Also, the Steadicam is designed in an ingenious way that allows you to place the camera anywhere in a 180-degree range in front of your body and point it in any direction. Position it in such a way that you can walk straight in the direction you need to go. Don’t sidestep, don’t walk backwards. There is no need to!
The only reason you might be doing it is because you’ve caught glimpses of veteran steadicam shooters in concerts and on sets walking in a weird way. But they’re doing it as part of a more complicated move, where direction and point of interest changes several times. Get the basics down and then you will know when non-straightforward walking is required.
TEST: Are you walking weird? Don’t.