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The geared head thread


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Hello everyone,

in this thread I hope to find people who are interested in exchanging experiences, ideas and more about geared heads. How do you stay in training and how often do you train? What are your arguments for/against a geared head? Perhaps the more seasoned operators might want to share their stories and experiences and the younger aspiring cinematographer want to know more about the dying art of turning the wheels. In Europe for example barely anyone uses them anymore, even on the biggest sets.

Maybe enough people are interested in this topic so we could collaborate on something, for example make a list of used ones on sale and upload pictures or brochures for others to enjoy.

I have an irrational love for geared heads, even though I never had my hands on, let alone owned one before. They fascinate me, the mechanics, the fluidity of the motion, they have that special aura. I soaked up all the info I could gather from the internet and every now and then, just out of curiosity, I’d look at ebay and other sites, if somebody is selling a geared head. I’d love to hear your stories; when did you get your hands on the wheels, what was your best move on a set, what are you trying to do to “get in the game”, etc. I’ll start with the story about how I actually got mine (I try to keep it short):

 

Ever since I was in film school, I wanted to work with one, but I never got the chance. I told myself that someday I’d buy one! Well, I spent the first years paying back student loans. Additionally, I was mostly doing work where a geared head just wouldn’t make any sense. So it remained a dream.

After I started a family and income became steadier again (unlike me, my wife thankfully has a real job, so as a freelancer I was taking care of the kid until he was ready for kindergarten), I was finally ready to buy one. I knew, that geared heads were becoming a relic of the glory days. If I’d ever buy one, I might not use it on a production, ever. I knew that. And I was OK with it. It was still my dream.

And then, suddenly, I saw a listing at one of the big rental houses: an Arrihead 1 at a criminally low price! After a few minutes of thought and speaking to my wife, I called them, and a few days later I literally drove from one side of the country to the other to pick it up. Finally, I am the proud owner of the seventh Arrihead ever built! I’ve talked to Arri about that head and bought some replacement parts. It’s in a reasonably well condition and for the first two months of owning it, I’ve been practicing for about an hour every night. It really is a dream come true.

That was over half a year ago and it’s still one of the best purchases I’ve ever made, even when I still haven’t brought it to any set. Others buy motorcycles during their midlife crisis. Well, my motorcycle is the Arrihead.

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That’s a very nice little love story! Congratulations on owning an Arrihead.

I have serviced a lot of Arriheads and Panaheads, they can be time-consuming to work on, but I agree they are wonderful machines.

For the last nearly 20 years they have been more or less out of favour on sets, but lately there has been a resurgence of interest (at least here in Australia) and I recently serviced an Arrihead again. As you say, only a few seasoned operators still know how to properly use one, but in their hands they can create very smooth and graceful camera movement. 

I remember seeing an operator practice drawing perfect infinity symbols with a laser pointer, I could barely do a rough circle.

You should try to get yours on a job, maybe put together a little reel showing how it looks. You might find yourself a niche speciality.

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10 hours ago, Dominic Gruenberg said:

Well, my motorcycle is the Arrihead.

Can you post a picture?

Grared heads are a thing of beauty. Here is my Mini-Worrall which I've had for a few years now but never really learned to operate properly. Still, it gives me a warm feeling just looking at it ;_)

IMG_2866.jpg

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I came up in the Boston market and in my mid 20's decided it was time to learn how to operate the mystical geared head. I borrowed a Mini-Worrall from Boston Camera over the winter months when production was quiet and did the laser pointer exercises every day. The next spring I was doing Steadicam on a commercial that was also using a Power Pod on a Giraffe crane and it turned out that no-one on set had experience on the wheels (how did that happen?!) so I bravely jumped in and navigated my first backpan adventure, a full arm swing pointed straight ahead, which was lightly terrifying!

Not long after that I shot my first feature ('95 or so) and requested the shiny Arrihead 2 for that and got some good hours in, seen below. A year later I landed a union operating gig on a network TV series in New Orleans replacing another operator, and my first three shots were Steadicam, handheld and dolly with the geared head. It was almost like an audition and I was very glad to have bothered to learn the skill.

Shortly thereafter I moved to LA and was working consistently as an operator and every set had a Panahead or Arrihead. It became my favorite way to work, to the point where I got rusty on the fluid head in comparison! On "Scrubs" we did a lot of whip pans and it was fun learning how to throw the wheels. Years later I dayplayed on a series and used the Arrihead for that purpose and half of village came trotting in to watch the spectacle, which seemed weird until the AC told me that none of the other operators did it that way so this was a point of intrigue.

When I moved up to DP, I'd put the Arrihead on the rental list but when the inevitable cuts were made it was one of the first things to go. A few years ago on a bigger show I offered it to the operators but they weren't interested. Even when I told them that if you were going to fall asleep in the eyepiece, it was easier to do so on the wheels, less chance of a bump in the shot! Ah well.

Last thing I'll say is that I have seen a disturbing trend with remote head wheel interfaces gaining new popularity for controlling gimbals, where newer DP's and operators start re-assigning the wheels to suit what "makes sense" to them, not only direction but sometimes swapping pan and tilt. This of course means they will be quite discombobulated if they ever encountered a geared head, which feels like a real waste.

Work93_97_LastNightEddies_0027 copy.jpg

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Thanks guys, I love reading your experiences. Keep them coming!

G'day Dom, what do you mean by they can be time-consuming to work on? The maintenance? Thanks for your suggestion for a geared head show reel, I’ll look into that and try to find comparisons between fluid and geared heads in certain situations.

Moin Uli, that’s a beautiful head you have there with shiny, shiny wheels. I totally get what you mean by warm feeling, I’ve got the same every time I look at mine.

Hey Charles, thank you for your stories. Could you describe how you’d “throw the wheels” to do a whip pan? In my mind I’d add a pan bar and put panning in neutral for that shot.

 

Here's my Arrihead:

1926636376_2022_08_05.112736.thumb.jpg.afc00c3bc9db5745a23d91babb6f7c1a.jpg

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8 minutes ago, Dominic Gruenberg said:

 Could you describe how you’d “throw the wheels” to do a whip pan? In my mind I’d add a pan bar and put panning in neutral for that shot.

The hard part about panning in neutral like that is coming to a controlled stop without kickback since there is no resistance. Also if you have to continue on in the shot after the pan with subtle moves, you'd have to shift it into gear on the fly, which is doable but a little challenging. So most of the time I'd have it in 3rd gear, spin up the pan wheel, continue to drive the pan by pushing the tilt wheel, then use the heel of my hand on the pan wheel to gently feather it into the stop. And then you can continue on operating. I did do it in neutral sometimes but never used a pan bar.

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I’m going to have to watch Scrubs again for the whip pans, no idea they used geared heads for that! Thanks for the stories, Charles.
 

5 hours ago, Dominic Gruenberg said:

G'day Dom, what do you mean by they can be time-consuming to work on? The maintenance? 

Yes, I used to spend a lot of time getting rid of backlash or lumpiness. It took me years of experience to be able to tune them properly. 

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I tried to "throw the wheels" und do whip pans. I'm not saying I'm givin up yet, but after a while of doing that, my left hand hurt and putting pan in neutral gave me better results. Obviously I've still got a ton of training ahead of me, but yeah, so much for whip panning for me. 😅

Arri actually sent me a gear adjusting manual to get rid of backlash in panning. They say that sometimes, when you're working outside during winter and then coming into a warm interior set, you might have to adjust. I thought that was interesting.

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Whatever works for you is all that really counts!

Might as well mention one other fun trick which helps with landing perfect headroom when an actor stands up quickly out of a chair. Start with framing them in the standing position. Lock the tilt on the head and slip into neutral. Rotate the wheel so that the pin is in the 12 o'clock upright position. Go back into gear and unlock the head. Now have them sit, and count how many rotations of the wheels it takes to land your seated frame. So now when they stand, it takes all the guesswork out of it, you count the rotations in your head and stop the wheel with the pin at 12, and voila, perfect headroom every time. It doesn't have to be at 12, it could be any orientation you preferred as long as you can stop it there repeatedly at high speed.

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Which accessories? Reduction wheels? not really needed. I think it safe to say that the skill is transferable, although I imagine it would be harder for someone who has only learned it on the remote head side to use a geared head since there is a difference in feel between the gears (more resistance in 3rd vs 1st), plus the if one is used to dialing in a precise ratio as you can do with remote heads, it might be hard to adjust to only 3 gears, especially with a very fast or very slow move.

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55289755_2022_08_07.125820.thumb.jpg.f64aa8ea3081f03c1c3a4207429fc056.jpg

 

After following fishes on YouTube videos of aquariums became pretty boring, I tried something else on the weekend. We live close to an airport, which can be pretty annoying at times. But this time I wished for even more planes coming in, so that I’d have more subjects to follow. At least it showed me, that I still have a lot of training ahead of me. I mean, I'd say that I have no trouble with the direction of the turns and I'm not thinking about turning and let instinct take over (as long as I’m actually not thinking about it 😄 ), but while framing the shot, I've got the feeling, that I'm always ever so lightly off. I guess, that's the part where I just need to train more.
The camera was positioned right beside our house, so when I saw the planes pass our roof, they were already above us, so I had a really hard time getting the planes in frame on the 400 mm. After I took that picture, I mounted a little DSLM camera on top of the handle with a much wider lens to help me with orientation.
I do get, that using a geared head for long lenses can be problematic, but I found that it helped me train to keep a steady motion while following the planes.

Charles, I tried your trick and it works very well, thank you! I haven't tried it with actual subjects yet, but I kept my imaginary subjects in frame. However, it showed me, that I'm having trouble stopping the wheels without them turning back a tiny little bit again. The faster I spin, the harder it gets. Is there a trick or a technique to prevent that from happening?

 

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I can't think of any. specific tip on that regard other than just keep practicing! If you have been following fish and airplanes, they rarely stop on a dime, so you are getting less practice in stopping and starting smoothly. Humans that you can direct help with this! Maybe you can assemble a reel of footage from long uninterrupted takes with people moving in the frame and play back on a large screen TV and follow along?

At a certain point, you just have to get out there on a set and use them with real stakes, that's where the rest of the learning takes place. Trial by fire!

Unfortunately the hardest thing to manage with the wheels is backpanning, which is tough to replicate at home. It's not as common to encounter any more since a lot of remote head work is stabilized now, which helps a lot, but nothing really prepares you for having the chassis rotate and you have to counter-pan  to keep the lens pointed straight ahead. The worst scenario is a small crane or jib which describes a short arc when swung around, so the backpanning is quite fierce. Similarly a dolly in steering mode (vs crab). Again this is becoming less common but it could still come up! I guess a way to replicate this would be to mount your head on a hi hat on top of a turntable or lazy susan and having someone rotate it, come to a stop, reverse direction etc. while you do your practicing following subjects. 

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