If you've ever investigated the unusual world of support systems for video cameras and DSLRs, it doesn't take long to realize that there's a great divide in price between the entry-level offerings and the top-of-the-line stuff. But which manufacturer gives you the best bang for your hard-earned buck? Check out SHAPE, a line from Canada that is tough, versatile and dependable.
If you're unfamiliar with camera support systems, they're basically different combinations of handles, mounts, rods, arms, pads and weights that enable you to more comfortably stabilize DSLRs and video cameras. In fact, "SHAPE" is an acronym for Shoulder, Handle, Adjustable, Portable Equipment. To the unacquainted, a tricked-out camera support system looks crude and industrial, but to film and video production enthusiasts they look like a life saver.
Are all of these parts and components really necessary in order to stabilize a camera? Well, if you're just shooting video for a minute or two, with some practice you could probably do a decent job just with your arms. However, if you're shooting for long stretches of time, a good camera support system will do wonders for the smoothness of your footage, and impart much less fatigue on the camera operator, enabling them to shoot for longer periods of time. Plus, these supports let you to fully accessorize your camera with external monitors, focus systems, matte boxes and audio equipment.
The SHAPE Cameleon pivots to offset the camera, so it's in front of your eyes.
Camera support systems are especially useful for DSLR shooters. As you may know, DSLRs were not designed to be used as video cameras. The ergonomics of the controls, the body shape, the speed of the autofocus, pretty much everything about these cameras was designed for shooting stills, not moving images. It's very difficult to hold a DSLR in your hands and shoot footage that's stable and pleasing to watch. However, if you can stabilize it with two handles and a padded shoulder mount, it becomes much easier to shoot nice-looking video.
The ability to accessorize and customize your camera rig is one of the great strengths of SHAPE's line of products. In addition to the complete systems that they sell, like the Sumo and the Cameleon, SHAPE offers a comprehensive line of accessory parts, enabling users to modify their kits to suit their individual needs. The extent to which you can customize your system is vast. Even the Telescopic Support Arm that comes with a number of models (which is useful for stabilizing the camera by pressing into your midsection) can be modified to act as a boom arm for a light or a microphone.
The SHAPE Support Armenables you to stabilize your rig on your body or other surface, or to use it as a boom.
Using the Support Arm as a boom for lights is a great way to avoid shining the lamp directly in your on-camera subject's face. The boom arm holds the light up high and away, making it easier to bounce off a wall or the ceiling for a softer, more natural look. Using the Support Arm as an on-camera microphone boom will give you more clearance away from the frame than a typical microphone mount would, plus it can support the weight of a larger blimp windscreen.
In order to modify the Telescopic Support Arm for light and microphone use, the "Multifunction Shoe," which is the round plate and rod at the end of the telescoping arm—don't confuse it with a "hot shoe" style shoe—must be unscrewed and removed. Now the end of the telescoping arm will be empty, and you can insert a SHAPE Spigot accessory, which will give you a choice of either a 3/8" or 1/4-20 male or female thread. 3/8" is the standard size thread for boompoles, so most microphone shock mounts and pistol grips will be able to mount to the arm. 1/4-20 is the standard size for tripod threads, so most camera lights should be attachable.
Providing universally adaptable parts is another cornerstone of SHAPE's design approach. Their rails are standard 15mm rods, so you can be certain they'll be compatible with third-party components and accessories. Another nice touch is that tools are not required to assemble and disassemble SHAPE camera supports. Everything can be done by hand, so you won't lose any valuable time on set making adjustments. Because the rigs have two handles up front and a centered shoulder mount in the rear, they're balanced and can be safely rested on the floor or a tabletop.
While shoulder mounting is one of the major functionalities that a SHAPE rig will provide, don't think of these systems as being exclusively for hand-held use. They're designed to be quickly and easily attached and removed from tripods, so they really just become an extension of the camera itself. Users will typically outfit their systems with quick release plates to make it easier to quickly remove the camera. Many of the components of SHAPE's systems are adjustable, so you can move things around to make a prefect fit.
If you take a quick look at the different models that SHAPE offers, it may not be immediately clear what makes one different from another. The most basic system is the Sumo. As with every SHAPE model, if you add an included Telescopic Support Arm, you have a Sumo II. The base plate for the camera on the Sumo is raised and permanently attached to the shoulder mount. The next system up is the Spider, which has an additional adjustment slider at the shoulder mount. The extra adjustment feature coupled with the lower base plate makes the Spider a more versatile choice for medium-sized camcorders. From there we go to the Red Mamouth, which features sturdier construction and a wider base plate for even larger cameras (like the RED ONE). The next system up is the Cameleon, which has the highly functional swiveling ability. From there you get into the Composite system, which is rod based and highly customizable, and breaks down to a very small size (the largest piece is only 8" or 203.2 mm).
As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of great accessories made by SHAPE that enable you to personalize your rig. If you want to add rods, offset your camera, attach a counterweight, or have a dedicated box for your audio recorder or wireless receivers, it can all be easily done. They also make a very nice belt that eases the burden of using the Telescopic Support Arm as a body support. These products were made by people who are passionate about creating moving images themselves. All of the parts are made of incredibly strong machined aluminum, in Canada. All SHAPE products have a lifetime warranty and will be replaced by the manufacturer at no charge in the unlikely event that they encounter a problem. It's professional-quality stuff at a competitive price, and that's what I call maximizing the bang in your buck.