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Sarah Prince

Camera Stability - Questions

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I am a student at Birmingham City University, and I am conducting an investigation on camera control technology for my undergraduate dissertation. I aim to identify in my investigation whether viewing experiences are influenced by camera stability, as well as identify if there is a distinguishable characteristic between footage captured utilising dissimilar camera-control technology. 

It would tremendously benefit my project to collect people's answers on the following questions:

  1. To what extent do you think the stability of movement in camerawork affects the audience’s immersion? 
  2. Do you consider passive (Steadicam) and active (motorised gimbals) stabilisation systems to have a unique quality or a noticeable difference in their stability?
  3. When working on a project do you opt for one stabilisation system over another, if so why?

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You should contact Larry McConkey, he has a lot to say on the subject.  One issue he notices with gimbals like the MoVI/Ronin is that it stabilizes up and down motion, which a Steadicam tends not to do, so you can get this odd vertical motion artifact.

For me, the main issue is that a Steadicam is always a single operator making decisions, whereas many gimbals are a two-person operation, one remote-controlling the head while another person moves it around. That requires a lot more coordination to avoid back panning for example. It's a bit like a Techocrane move except there you have three people controlling the movement & framing, the operator, the crane grip, and the person on the extender.

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I think it's worth differentiating types of motion here, because "up and down motion" could mean tilt up and down, which is stabilised by a gimbal, or translation up and down, which is not.

Steadicam, ideally, stabilises all three axes of translation, and all three axes of rotation. In practice it turns out that translation, other than on very long lenses, is a much less important contributor to the appearance of stability than rotation. The disadvantage a gimbal suffers, of not stabilising in translation, is much less important than it might instinctively seem. Also, a gimbal stabilises in rotation better than any human steadicam operator ever possibly could; nobody is capable of that sort of precision, no matter how expert. Steadicam has an identifiable and inevitable drift, a slow wobble. There are circumstances in which they can do similar jobs, and circumstances where each has significant strengths.

The other thing is that a gimbal can go on a dolly or even any sort of cart, handheld in a wheelchair, on a vehicle, a crane, or whatever (even a Steadicam). Many gimbals are also effectively a stabilised remote head. This is a massive advantage on productions that might not otherwise have those toys.

Personally I think the biggest difference is in the degree of skill required. Gimbal people will want to murder me here, and Mr Mullen's comments on the required teamwork are very valid. Even so, anyone who can read the setup instructions can get a stabilised shot out of a gimbal. You can argue about whether it will be a very pretty or effective stabilised shot, but it will be stabilised, and learning what you can do with it can be a gradual process, done by degrees. You aren't constantly fighting to make the thing stable. It does that. You get to worry about the shot.

Conversely, with Steadicam, you're really either an expert or you're really not that useful. It's no secret that it's a difficult tool, but really, anyone who does the course is still many months and hundreds of hours of practice away from even basic competence, and the stuff people tend to want out of Steadicam is often not basic. Complicated continuous shots is half the point. And bad Steadicam is absolutely horrible, a drunken mess, completely unusable. Bad gimbal work at least has level horizons.

Certain specifics that are easy on conventional camera systems (whip pans, but particularly whip tilts) are extremely taxing on Steadicam. There are a number of other problems, such as the tendency of gung-ho operators to claim they can operate all day without a break, attempt to do so, and become useless after a few hours, and the tendency of gung-ho directors to want a shot preceding someone running down stairs, which is... tricky.

The biggest problem with either of these systems is that they really only work well in very specific circumstances. TV broadcast, sports and so on, is another matter, but stabilisation on single camera drama works best in circumstances where you can point the camera in any direction and see only appropriate, attractive things. It works on big standing sets where you can wander around with a steadicam and blast off page after page of dialogue. It doesn't work very well on low budget independent productions which rely on careful framing in lieu of decent production design, where you can spin around the whole room and see every wall and the ceiling in five seconds flat. 

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I agree though with attachments like the Betz Wave, keeping a level horizon is less of a problem on a Steadicam.

I think the single-operator versus two-person operating is a bigger issue in some types of shots more than others -- an unrehearsed emotional scene with an actor moving around a room, I'd generally feel more comfortable doing that on a Steadicam (with an experienced operator) rather than have an off-camera operator at the wheels trying to whisper corrections over a headset to the gimbal operator. The two-person system tends to be a more technical exercise, like using a Technocrane.

Yes, a gimbal like a MoVI is a great stabilized head for a dolly or crane. As long as you don't need a 10:1 zoom on the camera...

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