I love a well-made product, be it camera, grip stand, dolly, or what have you. Working with a product where form, function, and finish come together as a cohesive whole is such a joy. I also must admit that I love poring over a piece of gear, looking for ways to improve it, and I’m willing to bet that more than a few of you are the same. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the evolution of the Zacuto VCT Pro from the original VCT Universal plate with its designers and I found it interesting to see how balancing business requirements, design philosophy, and creative problem solving affected the final design.
Top image: (left), VCT Pro Prototype #1; (right), VCT Pro Final Version
The design team at Zacuto comprises four main people: Steve Weiss and Jens Bogehegn (both Product Designers and Co-Owners of Zacuto); Rob Vose, Product Designer and Project Manager; and Jon Maloney, Director of Research and Development.
The VCT Pro itself began in a brainstorming session, early in 2014, between Weiss and Bogehegn, who were thinking about improving the shoulder pad and wanted to respond to requests from customers for a shoulder mount to tripod adapter that was compatible with ENG VCT plates. The thinking at Zacuto went something like this:
“. . . our balance philosophy of the camera needing to be practically behind the head and not in front of it, to be balanced and with camera controls in your hands, so you didn’t need to let go of the grips.”
The goal of the VCT Pro was to have an adjustable/sliding baseplate with 15mm LWS rods, a built-in shoulder pad, and interface with the very popular Sony VCT-14 tripod adapter. This would be an improvement over the VCT Universal plate, which had limited adjustability.
Seems like a shoe-in, of course, but don’t forget that all companies have limited resources. To pursue one product means that some other product will not get made.
“We first ask ourselves if there is a need for such a thing, does it fit into our overall system (the Recoil system) and what we think people will pay for it. We then discuss with many of our friends and colleagues who are daily working professionals. The pro would add a huge level of tool-less adjustability. As long as the weight, bulk and above all, price was right.”
Once they developed a suitable prototype, it was time to start sharing with the filmmaking community. But Zacuto has standards to meet, the company isn’t just a couple of guys in a garage somewhere, so the prototype had to look the part.
“The original version of the VCT PRO in 2014 required the shoulder pad to be hand-tooled hours before the NAB show. We had to cut down the back half of the shoulder pad while stuffing rubber pads in the front to get the height just right. I remember the assembly staff being at Zacuto all night making these changes. After that, we had to drive the finished parts down to a few of the sales staff so they can add the baseplates to their carry-on luggage. Everyone at Zacuto was very nervous because without these baseplates we would not have any way to mount our rigs at the show…”
For we drama junkies, that is cool. Zacuto decides to bet its NAB 2014 presence on having these prototype base plates ready to show. Most companies are extremely secretive with their prototypes, showing them only to a select few behind locked doors at trade shows. I was at NAB 2014 and Zacuto had these prototypes in use on the display floor for all to see. I think Zacuto felt it was close to being ready for the market at that point; however, the feedback, though positive, showed the plates were far from where Zacuto wanted them to be.
NAB is in April, and by the beginning of 2015 most of the feedback from NAB 2014 had been incorporated as NAB 2015 was rolling around.
“While trying to improve the design in 2015, like making the rod mount in the back quick release, or trying to reduce the overall weight, other issues in the prototypes crept up. Again, days before NAB, we were cutting screws to length and hand-filing mating parts to fit together properly. We also added other features like laser etching and ¼"-20 holes to this new design. Since everything was rushed, the anodizing did not come out that great. We had to hand-marker in the ¼"-20 holes with black.”
Sounds just like that scene in the movie Tucker, where they are struggling to get the car ready for its big reveal, even if the car didn’t have reverse. In the end, it wasn’t the lack of reverse that was the big problem plaguing the VCT Pro, but rather one of weight.
“From the beginning, we felt it was just too heavy for what you expect it to be when you see it. Then, of course, we compared it to the closest competitive product, as people might be holding both and notice ours being significantly heavier and then not buy it, even though the features are superior—like the gel pad, rod positioning, and adjustment range. So, based on those things, we came up with 1,000 grams and redesigned to meet that.”
Companies tend to develop a visual style and, once established, it becomes a huge undertaking to change. Those of you who have worked with a corporate client will understand just how exacting companies are about their image; the typeface is a very specific one, the color for the logo must be exactly the right value, and there is no such thing as “close enough.” These things are fought over long and hard, so making changes is a big deal. The same can be said about Zacuto and its design aesthetic. The materials and manufacturing process are well established and specific. It is all part of the Zacuto brand identity, and deviating from that would be a major upheaval. So, in the end, Zacuto was faced with a radical choice in trying to deal with the weight.
“We experimented with making the body out of magnesium to lighten the unit. We were very close to deciding that magnesium was the way to go, but because magnesium could not be anodized, it would have drastically changed the appearance of our brand.”
Just how big a decision was this? With most products, Zacuto claims it takes one cycle of trade shows to get the product right. Creating the VCT Pro took several cycles just to get to this point, so there was some pressure to get the VCT Pro finished. Going with powder-coated magnesium, as opposed to anodized aluminum, would get the VCT Pro to market quicker and there were already customers waiting for it. However, cast magnesium is a completely different production process than that to which Zacuto was accustomed, and changing the brand identity for this one item could make it seem more like an unwanted child and not the prized item it is. For the VCT Pro, its success could very well hinge on this decision. After a lot of back and forth among the design team as to whether to make it from aluminum or magnesium without redesigning or taking a huge deviation from the Zacuto aesthetic and brand, Zacuto decided to invest in a redesign and go with machined aluminum, despite the attendant delay.
The resulting VCT Pro was released on October 3, 2016, after more than two and a half years of work and a total of ten metal prototypes. In the end, sticking with the machined aluminum approach resulted in significant changes and improvements in the final design, proving the old filmmaking adage that “limitation breeds creativity.”
Check out the carousel below to follow the development of the VCT Pro.