Video / Buying Guide

The Application and Aesthetics of Motorized Gimbal Shots

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Over the past few years, motorized gimbals have enjoyed a noticeable rise in popularity, becoming a viable and affordable camera-stabilization platform. In fact, these mechanisms took the world by storm, starting with the announcement of the FREEFLY MōVI, in 2013. Like most technologies, it has taken some time for motorized gimbals to break into the mainstream. As demand and revenue increased over time, the electronics used in the manufacture of the motors and control boards have been improved, miniaturized, and made more affordable. It seems that now, regardless of your camera type, size, or setup, there’s a motorized gimbal appropriate for it.

Some history  Why are these contraptions so desirable, you might ask? A few years back, before the announcement of the MōVI, professional stabilization systems enabling filmmakers to incorporate smooth tracking shots, such as the venerable Steadicam (which is still available in many iterations), were prohibitively expensive, relatively bulky, and difficult to use, as well as time-consuming to set up. They also required lots of practice to achieve the proficiency required on professional projects. Before that, the only option for smooth tracking was a dolly or a crane, along with all the work associated with heavy grip equipment. With stabilizers, a well-trained operator could facilitate some of the most creative camera work. To cite a famous example, the film Goodfellas commissioned the use of the Steadicam shortly after it was introduced. The production used the Steadicam to shoot the legendary Copacabana scene where the camera follows the lead actor from across the street and through a bustling kitchen into a restaurant. The smooth camera movement and the seamless nature of the long take contributed to cementing that scene in cinema lore.

Inherent advantages to motorized gimbals  So how do motorized gimbals fit in? Motorized gimbals offer many of the upsides of older stabilizations systems along with some inherent advantages. Because motorized gimbals are electronic, they only require basic calibration. Setup and assembly time is usually much faster, and while they do require practice, the learning curve is far less intense. Once you package all of that at an attractive price, it’s easy to see how motorized gimbal stabilizers have become so popular. While one can wax poetic about the wonders of these systems, they do also have their quirks and disadvantages, but we’ll get to those later on when we compare the system types in greater detail.

Aesthetics  When it comes down to comparing the two most popular types of handheld stabilizers, one doesn’t necessarily stabilize better than the other. However, because mechanical stabilizers and motorized gimbal stabilizers operate on different principals, the results will have subtle differences. Mechanical stabilizers (e.g. Steadicam, Glidecam, etc.) stabilize by isolating themselves from the operator’s movement, usually through a system of springs and gimbals (the non-motorized variety). This isolation gives shots a very ethereal and graceful feel, nearly free of residual vibration or undulation caused by walking or running. Panning and tilting the camera is done by physically manipulating the unit with the balancing weights, smoothing any movement. All motions are carried out by the operator of the stabilizer.

Motorized gimbal stabilizers, on the other hand, stabilize the camera through inertia supplied by specially calibrated brushless motors. On a properly calibrated motorized gimbal, any motion made by the camera operator will be compensated for by moving the camera in precise opposite increments to the operator’s motions. This compensation method operates on the three directional axes: yaw, pitch, and roll (also known as pan, tilt, and horizon) but does not decouple the stabilizer from the camera operator’s movements completely. Stabilization along three axes of rotation cannot compensate for the up-down movements inherent in walking or running, imparting a gentle handheld look as opposed to the smoothness of most mechanical spring-isolated stabilizers. This look isn’t undesirable; it’s just different and has to be taken into account when considering the aesthetic of your shots. As for camera control on motorized gimbals, since the camera sits suspended by motors, the only way to manipulate the camera is through the motors themselves. Most three-axis motorized gimbals offer a way for the operator to control the camera’s direction, but it’s more indirect and the fluidity of the movement depends on the resolution of the motors themselves, as well as the operator’s steady hand.

Applications  Perhaps the greatest merit of the motorized gimbal is its inherent versatility. The MōVI itself was brought about as a miniaturized aerial stabilization system with handles that a conventional camera operator could grab. But, the possibilities do not end there. Motorized gimbal manufacturers have conjured up different mounts to hold motorized gimbals, depending on the situation. Two prevalent situations where motorized gimbals excel are motor-vehicle mounting and drone mounting. Simple mechanical attachments allow many motorized gimbals to be easily swapped, from handheld to vehicle to drone, in not even a matter of minutes.

Mounting a motorized gimbal on a drone or a motor vehicle doesn’t just provide stability; many motorized gimbals also have wireless functionality, allowing an operator to change camera angles on the fly, without resorting to physical contact with the camera. This functionality is especially helpful in cramped car interiors or when the camera is mounted outside the vehicle. Drone-mounting options also benefit from these options, aside from ensuring stable imaging while mounted on a buzzing Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), camera control is still maintained, allowing for the execution of complex camera movements. Many UAS intended for filmmaking will have miniature three-axis motorized gimbals built into their chassis. Mechanical stabilizers are limited in regard to applications. Since they rely on the presence of a human operator, they can’t be functionally mounted on a drone or a vehicle.

Raise your production value  The many creative possibilities facilitated by motorized gimbals are enough to excite almost any filmmaker. More and more filmmakers are finding innovative ways to implement motorized gimbals to tell their stories, and these innovations will continue into the future. The ability for motorized gimbals to be used in almost any handheld situation by almost anyone that has a little practice is very appealing, especially to fledgling filmmakers. As if all these factors were not sufficient, motorized gimbals of all sizes are becoming more affordable by the month. If you want to get in on the stabilization game and up your video production value, check out the many stabilization options offered on the B&H website.

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