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Friction-Free Stabilizing

By Jack Fettman

Audiences can feel they're riding sidecar with the videographer in every scene when special attention is given to camcorder supports and stabilization systems. In keeping pace with the action, a handheld camera stabilizing system integrates the camera's movement with the operator's ergonomics in a graceful transfer of inertia. Camcorder supports and stabilization systems are essential tools that sharpen the visual language between director and camera operator for the audience.

Positioning camcorders at several angles allows audiences to view different aspects of a scene. There is a great assortment of flexible, smooth, friction-free stabilizing camcorder supports available to assist us in accomplishing the portrayal of our vision in our video productions. Giving life to our ideas in dramatic image capture is largely contingent upon camera positioning. In this article, an assortment of different models of camcorder support will be brought to your attention, toward the ultimate goal of creating pleasing footage for audiences to appreciate and enjoy.

First, special attention should be given to a camcorder's overall weight and size, particularly with all its attached accessories such as a matte box, on-camera light, and larger battery, prior to choosing a means of support. Determining the camcorder's overall weight and size, as well as whether the camcorder is front- or back-heavy, makes a difference in choosing the most appropriate type of support, which will affect camera balance.

There are several options for handheld camera stabilizer systems. Steadicam has become the benchmark, an award-winning manufacturer to which other handheld camera stabilizers are compared. Steadicam camera-stabilizer rigs are the most prevalent in the motion-picture industry. The Steadicam Merlincwbccszfrrcx stabilization system supports camcorders between 0.5 to 5 lbs. The Merlin has a unique design to provide you with an ultra-lightweight solution that not only increases stability and shooting options, but can simply go anywhere.

The Steadicam Merlin Camera Stabilizing System

To maintain precise maneuverable control, at the heart of the Merlin is the patented metal Gimbaled design, from the original inventor and designer of the 1st Steadicam, Garrett Brown. He also patented its "Folding-Caliper" hinge that allows for instant fold-up of the Merlin, with quick return to your precise previously-balanced position, ready for the next shot in moments. In the fold-up position, the Merlin can be used as an effective shoulder-mounted support.

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Watch the Merlin in action
The Merlin Arm and Vest Rig

The latest accompaniment for the Merlin is the new Arm and Vest Rig. This stabilizing system rig combination will increase your shooting options for hours. It's outfitted with six gimbaled metal bearings, and can balance camcorders weighing as much as 7 1/2 pounds. The adjustable Merlin Vest will comfortably fit the posture and shape of a small-framed person just as well as a large-framed adult. The vest is lightweight and thin, and can even be worn under a tuxedo jacket, if necessary.

Another highly advanced professional body/vest camera stabilization system is the Glidecam X-10. It is designed specifically to be used with Glidecam's GL-2000 and 4000 Pro handheld stabilizer systems. The X-10 system isolates your body's motion from your camera, while your camera is balanced in a relatively motionless and isolated state. The support arm can be boomed up and down, side-to-side, or pivoted in and out to help you create smooth camera footage. Walk, run, go up and down stairs, shoot from moving vehicles and travel over uneven terrain without any visible camera shake. The support vest is lightweight, comfortable, and can be adjusted to fit a wide range of operators, and the support arm can be set up and configured for either a left-handed or a right-handed operator.

Pro Glidecam X-10 Dual Support Arm Stabilizer Vest System for Glidecam 2000 and 4000 Procwbccszfrrcx

When a fast-moving subject requires you to keep pace, your car may heed the call and bring you up to speed. You can find camera stabilization mounts that will affix securely to a car, truck, boat, and even a bike. The Bogen/Manfrotto 3292 Car Window Pod clamps onto a car window or any other thin, flat material similar to tempered automobile window glass. The Window Pod has a flat base with a 3/8" thread to accept compact Bogen/Manfrotto tripod heads.

Bogen / Manfrotto 3292 Car Window Mount Pod (Clamp) with 701RC2 Video Fluid Head

The Bogen/Manfrotto Car Window Mount combination kit includes the 701RC2 fluid head and the 3292 clamp. The 701RC2 fluid head includes a long pan arm, separate pan and tilt locks, and a fixed counter-balance spring and sliding quick-release video plate to position the camera's uneven load perfectly. It can pan 360 and has -75 to +75 tilt movements. It is important to note that automobile windows vary in their robustness. Automobile side window glass tends to be thinner, comparatively, than windshield glass. Stationary, the 701RC2 fluid head can support a camcorder load up to 9 lbs. Before boosting your camcorder with this combination, observe the strength and vitality of the glass at every level at which it is positioned.

The Varizoom Auto Rig is a comprehensive (relatively inexpensive) professional vehicle-mount kit that can be implemented in your cinematic feature. It supports camcorders up to 25 lbs, and can attach to the edge of a car door or hood. This support is designed to maintain the vehicle's surface integrity, while the system's custom anti-skid rubber cups absorb shock and vibration, and allow you to film at various angles and extreme positions. This system includes a heavy-duty swivel head or can be used with most flat-base tripod heads with a 3/8" 16 thread. Setup is designed to be fast and easy, and no tools are required.

Some examples of the Varizoom Auto Rig Another example of the Varizoom Auto Rig

Another well-designed support to help facilitate a steady, even shot with your compact video camcorder on most uneven surfaces is the innovative, flexible ball-and-socket jointed Gorillapod by Joby. It is a versatile stationary support whose three gooseneck-like legs can be formed to grip almost any protrusion or uneven surface, be it a lamp post, car headrest, tree branch, or handle bars. The SLR-ZOOM wrap-around securing support kit includes the Gorillapod SLR-ZOOM and Slik SBH-120 compact ball head mount, which can lock your camera angles in an unthinkable number of positions on almost any surface. Together they are designed to support small, lightweight camcorders under 4 lbs.

SLR-ZOOM: Compact and Flexible

An additional camcorder stabilizing support to help alleviate the strain and fatigue brought about by holding a camcorder for long sessions is the Varizoom VZ-LSP camera support. It is an ergonomically-designed, adjustable shoulder support that has been refined by Varizoom based on many years of field service and customer feedback. It supports camcorders up to 8 lbs, and provides ten adjustable fittings to meet a variety of body types and camera placement.

The Varizoom VZ-LSP camera support
The Varizoom VZ-LSP camera support

Camcorders today are diminishing in size, and represent amazing advances in image resolution and accuracy. There are excellent high-definition camcorders that literally fit into jacket pockets. Even though these friendly units are compact and very lightweight, supporting them with a "low-key," unobtrusive monopod can really save the day when filming for long durations. While standing in the crowd filming a musician or your child's debut on stage, the handy monopod proves to be a realistic and practical camcorder support that takes up little space. The Bogen/Manfrotto 561B is an integrated video monopod with fluid head that offers graceful, smooth handling control with a minimal footprint. And if you want to film over the heads in a crowd, or from the edge of a bridge or cliff (be careful!), the monopod can serve you well as a very convincing boompole, with your compact camera affixed. Just remember to rotate your camcorder's LCD screen prior to recording so it will be in proper viewing position before lift-off.

Bogen / Manfrotto 561B Fluid Video Monopod Bogen/Manfrotto 561B: Video monopod with fluid head

There are diverse systems available that offer a host of functionality and mounting possibilities with precise fine adjustment for the positioning of your camcorder's shooting angles and perspective.

Traditionally, the tool that holds camcorders level with the horizon and maintains steady unwavering support would be a tripod system. There are differences between the inexpensive consumer aluminum-with-plastic-head tripods, and a professional-quality tripod system. The consumer tripods do serve their purpose as economical camera supports. But if you feel you will be using a tripod more aggressively, you will find consumer tripods to be more prone to vibration, hesitating and sputtering while panning and tilting, and eventually not lasting. It's best to invest in a professional-quality tripod together with a professional-quality fluid head. Both are constructed to hold up to the rigors of the active videographer for many years. A worthy fluid head will have knobs to adjust the tension of your pan (left to right), and tilt (up and down movements) incrementally, so that your results will render very smooth incremental pan and tilt movements in all your shots. The tripod, (a.k.a. "sticks") comes in two styles, either three tubular legs, or three tandem-styled leg sections.

Tubular legs offer the capability of being spread low to the ground (some as low as 3"). Tandem-styled legs offer quicker setup because of their quick-lock mechanisms. They are generally used to support larger camcorder rigs. At the top of these tripods, where the head would sit, generally there will be either a flat base or a 75- or 100mm bowl-base. The tripods with a bowl-base, once extended, offer the videographer quick and easy refined camera leveling without the need for major adjustment to the leg levels. This is crucial for the many events, news, and film groups who need to get a shot fast, for their "run-and-gun" type shooting.

The Bogen/Manfrotto 055XDB503H tripod system consists of the 503HDV fluid head and the 055XDB black aluminum-alloy, tubular-legged tripod. The 055XDB provides quick action, lever-type leg locks, and a minimum 7.3" low-angle spread height from the ground. The variable continuous fluid drag system of the 503HDV fluid head provides -60 to +90 tilt range, and the four-step counter-balance control (0, 2.9, 5.7, 8.6 lbs) delivers the type of fingertip head control normally reserved for much more costly production fluid heads.

Miller SOLO tripod with DV10 headcwbccszfrrcx

To meet any extreme field conditions, the Miller SOLO DV10 tubular tripod system, would be a resilient step-up tripod system. It consists of the SOLO DV 2-stage carbon fiber tube-type construction tripod, with an industry-standard 75mm bowl base and DS-10 fluid head. Compared to aluminum, carbon fiber tripods have superior vibration-damping qualities, greater resistance to nicks and corrosion, and are easier to handle in extremely cold weather. The SOLO DV10 system has a minimum height of 9.2", and a maximum height of 63.5" with selectable leg angle locks that ensure optimal torsion rigidity and stabilization at any height. The DS-10 fluid head has a 2.5 to 10 lb counter-balance range, and +90/-75 tilt range.

Moving into the realm of tandem-styled tripod systems, there are three outstanding and very noteworthy manufacturers to acknowledge. They all support a great range of fully-loaded professional camcorders. All their fluid heads are extra smooth, with variable dial-in fluid drag for jitter-free pan movement and fluid tilt movement adjustments. All these tandem-styled series tripod systems incorporate fast-action stage leg clamps for rapid, secure setup and breakdown, and a 75mm bowl base. Their tripod leg brace options are either a mid-level or a floor-level spreader. A mid-level spreader would be best suited when filming on uneven terrain, such as stairs or rock ledges.

The first of these tripods is the Cartoni HiDV1. It supports up to 11 lbs, and has a +/-90 tilt range. It is a very strong and smooth tripod system that can work with the existing HD pro handheld camcorders: HDV, DVCPRO HD, and XDCAM EX. You can position the head to film straight up or straight down. It has a patented variable counter-balance system and continuous adjustable fluid drag.

The Vinten Protouch PRO-06-HDVM supports up to 13.2 lbs and is a perfect solution for supporting the ever-increasing range of professional handheld camcorders. Its lightweight fluid head provides smooth movement and has a 3-step, plus zero stepped counterbalance. This system enables professionals on a tight budget to use a high-performance tripod system that will maintain a professional look and feel in their work.

Sachtler's FSB-6 tripod support system

Sachtler is a renowned tripod manufacturer with whom most professional videographers in the industry have been reared. Its quality workmanship, precise control, and endurance have earned it great respect in the industry. Its FSB-6 tripod support system has a load capacity between 2.2 - 13.2 lbs and has a dynamic 10-step counter-balance system to ensure extremely fine and fast balancing, and friction-free levels of drag while panning.

Camcorder mounting possibilities are immense, and they offer the additional relief from fatigue brought about through awkward or extended handheld filming.

There is a great risk of camera shake and hand vibration when filming hand-held. You could have great content, but if your footage is unstable, your audience could lose interest and may feel motion sickness. You can establish your shot indoors, and then follow your subject smoothly in sequence outside and down the street with many of these support systems. Often, you'll make a better film if you keep your shots simple, rather than out-of-the-ordinary. There is a diverse array of quality, flexible, and durable support systems to take advantage of that will meet the demands of developing your perfect shot, in all your shooting applications.

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