Video / Hands-on Review

Freefly Systems MōVI Motorized Gimbal: An Overview

At the 2013 NAB trade show, Freefly Systems introduced the world to a new concept in camera stabilization—the motorized gimbal. A device giving operators the ability to capture dolly-smooth shots while enjoying something close to the freedom of handheld shooting has been around since 1976; of course, I’m referring to the “arm-and-vest” stabilizer. Amazingly, it took 37 years for a serious competitor to this classic-design stabilizer to emerge. This competitor is the MōVI.

Arguably, the arm-and-vest design works so well there was little reason to look for something different. However, it has its limitations. One is restricted mobility. Although you can walk pretty much normally—a fit operator can even run—“craning” the camera up and down is restricted to the range of motion in the arm. This can range from 18 to 36" or so, maybe a bit more on high-end systems. With lighter cameras, the vest can be done away with, but even a 10-pound camera becomes quite heavy on a stabilizer; not only do you have the weight of the camera itself, but the associated counterweights, too. And tilting isn’t really possible, unless the camera is balanced so that it rides “pre-tilted.”

An arm-and-vest stabilizer uses some kind of universal joint that, in effect, allows what’s holding the camera to move while inertia keeps the camera-and-sled assembly in place, except for very deliberate movements on the part of the operator. A motorized gimbal, on the other hand, employs accelerometers and other sensors, including GPS, to detect motion. This data gets fed through a bespoke computer, which in turn drives two or three servo motors. The MōVI is a three-axis system, meaning they have three brushless motors: One for tilt, one for horizon (roll), and one for pan.

The three-axis design means the gimbal can compensate for unwanted movement in any direction—up to 360 degrees panning and 180 degrees for tilt and roll. That’s 180 total, +90/-90 degrees. Not only does this system counteract shake: the camera operator really doesn’t have to try very hard to keep the camera angle locked on the subject. Ultimately this means that with software control over the motors, they are not limited to compensating for unwanted motion, they become what Freefly calls a full "camera movement system," enabling specific types of directed motion, as well as compensation, to create the type of movement and control that the operator chooses.

A single operator can use the system. In this case, you’ll want to use what Freefly calls its “Majestic Mode.” In this mode, the computer makes an educated guess about where you want the camera pointed, giving you a fair degree of control over the camera angle—once you get the hang of it—while counteracting what it deems “unwanted” movement.

For full automations, there’s also “Stabilized Mode,” which assumes no operator. Ideal for vehicle mounting, this mode keeps the camera hard-locked in the same direction, no matter what. Any attempt to pan or tilt will be counteracted, no matter how deliberate.

If you have a team however, you will likely want to use the Dual Operator Mode. This takes advantage of an operator for the MōVI itself and an operator using a controller (available separately for all but one package: 950-00012). This way, the operator holding the gimbal just has to maintain the desired distance from the subject and keep the camera at the desired heights. All camera movement is facilitated by the operator holding the controller and framing the shot.

It’s worth mentioning which controller you need. It turns out that a regular RC transmitter can be used. It just has to support Spektrum DSMX or Futaba SBUS protocols and have 6+ channels. If you already have a transmitter, from a UAV, perhaps, you’re good to go. Another option, for those who prefer a joystick-style control à la CCTV remote or motion-control system, Freefly offers its own, the MōVI Controller.

Most of the time, sensors are enough for the MōVI’s computer to work with, but for certain shots this may not be enough. For these, the MōVI has GPS. The biggest benefit of this feature is a “drift-free horizon” when filming long (landscape-style) shots from a vehicle or aircraft moving at relatively high speed and acceleration compared to a human on foot.

Another drawback to counterweight-stabilized systems is the effort required to balance them. You make one tweak here and it throws something else off over there. Many potential users just give up in frustration. Well, like a non-motorized stabilizer, balancing is still required. But the good news is: there’s an app for that! Available for mobile devices as well as Mac and Windows computers, through the so-called Configurator app, you’ll be up and running in a few minutes. In addition to balancing, the app also lets you update the firmware, as well as access features you might not normally use. One of these is the counterintuitive “Shaky Cam” mode.

You might wonder why, after investing so much in a stabilizer, you would intentionally want footage to look shaky. Freefly argues this mode gives you the visual aesthetic of a handheld shot but with enough stabilization that viewers won’t get motion sickness. Whether this is something you want is up to you. Whether you use it or not, I suppose it’s good to know it’s there.

One area where motorized gimbals struggle is in “translation.” Translation, in this context, is the up-and-down bobbing effect created by walking, or especially running. One solution is just to throw the gimbal on an arm-and-vest stabilizer and get the best of both worlds. However, the MōVI offers another solution: translation compensation. This feature works by tilting the camera up or down very slightly—at frequent intervals if needed—to keep the camera angle consistent even if the camera rig’s distance from the ground fluctuates. Arguably, this isn't a perfect fix, but it may be effective enough to make the effect of translation imperceptible.

If you thought a Toad in the Hole was just a type of Yorkshire pudding, as I did, you would be wrong. It’s also a connector used by the MōVI. Combined with the separately available Toad Male Adapter, it enables you to mount the MōVI on a variety of camera carriers including jibs, vehicles mounts, and more. A quick-release clamp means you can remove the gimbal without detaching the Toad Male Adapter for quick transitions. The MōVI becomes more than "handheld"… it’s "mobile" through many different means.

Even though there are no counterweights, the combination of camera, lens, and battery on a MōVI rig can still get heavy. For extended shooting I recommend using an Easyrig Camera Support System. This device acts like a backpack, transferring the weight of the rig to your shoulders, which helps cut down translation, too. There are a number of models, so be sure to select one with enough payload capacity for your entire MōVI/camera rig.

At the moment, the MōVI line breaks into three models: the M5, with a 5-pound capacity, the M10, with a 10-pound capacity, the MR (“Multi-Rotor”), essentially an M10 but with a half-cage and mounting hardware for UAV applications, and the big-boy M15, with a 15-pound capacity. The feature set is pretty much the same across the line. Which model to get depends principally on the size and weight of your camera, including lens and any other attachments required during shooting. It’s worth noting that the M5 features an integrated cage that surrounds the camera, making it ideal for standard-body DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. In addition to the à la carte options, the 950-00012 bundle pairs the M5 with a Spektrum transmitter.

If you are looking for near-dolly-grade image stabilization but with the enhanced mobility of a handheld system, a three-axis gimbal is the way to go. In this regard, my money is on the MōVI line. With three models to choose from, the right one comes down to the weight of your camera. UAV pilots will want to look at the MR model. In essence, Freefly’s MōVI products have transformed the way to get beautiful shots with nearly unlimited camera placement and movement options, freeing filmmakers of all kinds to create results that were previously more difficult, expensive, or just not possible.