20k films – Steadicam Blew Our Minds! Let us Repeat…

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Steadicam Blew Our Minds! Let us Repeat…

20K Films’ Photographer/Director, Logan M Futej and I (Owner/Director, Laura Zinger) recently took a Steadicam training with Steve O., the Central Regional Manager for Steadicam at Calumet Photographic Chicago and it blew our minds. Let me say that again, Steadicam BLEW our minds!

And it specifically blew our minds because recently we were sitting around the 20K Films office doing a little creative brainstorming about how we can still keep our low/affordable mindset and still have our film projects look incredible. We all decided that one of the major things that would take our films up a notch and help us add dramatic tension would be to have some kind of super steady support system. We foolishly thought, however, that any kind of worthwhile support system for our HDSLR only productions would be out of our price range. Without doing any research, just going by what some of heard in film school, we thought we were looking at a $30,000 investment which is $10,000 over the budget of our highest budget film to date, which is, of course, $20,000. So justifying our gear costs for an HDSLR support system per our cost of production was a complete and utter “uhhhh, no.”

Rewind to a few weeks earlier when Laura (20K Films Owner) met Steve O, the Central Regional Manager for Steadicam at the Calumet Photographic Oak Brook Store where he was showing the staff Steadicam’s newest support system, the Smoothee (made specifically for the GoPro, GoPro Hero, Flip cam, iPod Touch, and iPhone 3GS and 4) Laura immediately knew that she wanted to incorporate the Smoothee into 20K Lab’s Cell Phone Cinema Labs and asked Steve how to get one. Steve’s position at Steadicam depends on customers buying Steadicam products locally and not through online retailers like amazon.com, so therefore, anytime a customer orders a Steadicam product locally from Calumet Photographic Oak Brook or Calumet Photographic Chicago, that makes Steve happy, and you can email Steve for a free training. (His contact info is at the end of the blog post.) Be forewarned: he will want to see a copy of your receipt to see that you bought local. Sidenote: You should buy local anyway, because Calumet Photographic is the best camera store with the best customer service you will get anywhere in the city of Chicago. Also Amazon.com is of no help whatsoever in telling you if the Smoothee iPhone 3GS will work for your iPhone 4. For the record, it won’t, because the clip mount for the 3GS is weighted specifically for the 3GS and since the 4 is a different weight, you’ll have a heck of a time trying to get your Smoothee balanced out of the box. And how did I find this out? Not from amazon.com, not from any online research (I tried and found nothing conclusive), but from Steve, a live human being who is an expert on Steadicam’s products. Humans: 1. Internet: 0.

For the training, we met Steve at Calumet Photographic Chicago early in the morning, and after he figured out that our balancing issues with the Smoothee Laura had bought for 20K Lab’s Cell Phone Cinema Labs was due to my using the Smoothee iPhone 3GS clip mount with my iPhone 4, he gave us a quick tutorial on how to actually use the Smoothee in the correct fashion.

Steve told us two key things to know when using the Smoothee: (1) you MUST use a light touch and (2) don’t ever walk sideways while using it. These may seem like cryptic pieces of advice, but let me explain below:

(1) USING A LIGHT TOUCH (This is harder than it sounds.)
There is a little circular knob right above the Smoothee handle called the gimbal. This little part is meant to help you direct the Smoothee where you want it to point your camera. If you do not use this gimbal to help direct the Smoothee, your Smoothee will just free fly wherever it feels like it, and believe me, you do not have enough power nor magic in either one of your wrists alone in order to control the Smoothee’s direction. So your only option is to take the thumb and first finger of the hand you are not currently using to hold the handle on the Smoothee and you must ever so lightly, LIGHTLY, place them on the front and back of the gimbal. (That means that your first finger is on the front of the gimbal and your thumb is on the back of the gimbal.) Then as you walk (do not walk sideways! See (2) below), you will very very LIGHTLY guide/direct the Smoothee to point your camera in the direction of whatever you want to shoot. This takes practice, but even after just working with the Smoothee the first hour under Steve’s direction, I feel that I got significantly better at using it.

Walking sideways will interfere greatly with your smooth imagery (this tip applies when using the Merlin and the Pilot too). Even if you need to move sideways because you are shooting, let’s say a tracking shot, you still do not want to actually walk sideways. You need to walk forward, but pivot the Smoothee (or Merlin) toward your subject. Your feet and torso should be facing forward, but the Steadicam is pointed toward the subject. In effect, you are shooting with the camera pointed sideways.

(2) DON’T WALK SIDEWAYS (Huh? Really?)This actually was pretty challenging to remember and to actually do, because it goes against everything you’ve probably ever done when doing a handheld tracking shot, but Steve is right, your shot will be much more smooth with the Smoothee (and Merlin) when putting one foot in front of the other while shooting with these support systems.

Here are some great short online reviews of the Smoothee I found that I thought nicely summed up the Smoothee:

“If you shoot video with an iphone and you want to actually move and have the end result be watchable? Buy this.”

“This gizmo makes the iPhone into a real tool. iPhone 4 + Smoothee = Wow.”

Like I mentioned before, we are incorporating the Smoothee into the 20K Labs’ Cell Phone Cinema Courses with the iPhone 4. This tool is too affordable and too fantastic to not tell students about it.

And look, I actually got the hang of how to use it in just one hour.

Here’s Steve demonstrating the Smoothee. He’s obviously a lot better at this than I am. (Sidenote: Steve did not walk sideways at any point while walking around Logan and shooting him with the Smoothee. He walked with the bottom part of his body forward and his torso twisted toward Logan with the Smoothee and iPhone.)

This is a bizarre tip I found online for using the Smoothee. I’ve never tried it and have no idea if it actually works yet or not (I plan to try it), but I just wanted to throw it out there: You’re supposed to “guide” the camera by using your thumb to keep it positioned the way you want. This contact added shake to the camera but is needed to keep the camera from drifting while you move with it. A cotton ball affixed to the thumb area with some 2 sided tape provided enough cushion against the thumb contact but still gave the needed control for shooting.

The Merlin is brilliant for independent filmmakers, and for shooting any kind of events from sports to real estate to weddings. These steadicam shots add dramatic impact and emotion to any scene. Not convinced? Check out this video on one of the most well known Steadicam shots of all time in the film, Goodfellas.

Or this famous Steadicam shot from Kubrick’s The Shining operated by the incredible Inventor of Steadicam, Garrett Brown.

Well, for those of you who are not Garret Brown, but want to include Steadicam shots in your own video projects, all you have to do is buy a Merlin (LOCALLY, OK! Buy local please) and contact Steve O for a free training on it. Here is Steve’s most important tip for getting the Merlin balanced correctly: GET YOUR DROP TIME RIGHT! Steve told us that any time anyone has approached him at an event or contacted him and told him that they could not get the Merlin balanced, it’s because they did not understand what “drop time” was. Included in the Merlin is a handy little video that will instruct you on what drop time is, but really, talking to Steve in person got that point across a lot more quickly and solidly.

Watch this video below to see what Steve means by drop time (this is Garrett Brown demonstrating “dynamic balance” which Steve also shows below. Sorry, I didn’t take a video of Steve demonstrating “drop time” which involves holding the camera back towards you so that the tail weight of the Merlin is level with the camera and then letting go to see how fast the camera pulls forward due to the weight. If it’s too fast or too slow, you’ll need to readjust your tail weight. Drop Time is discussed on the video that comes with the Merlin, and also, again, Steve O is going to be your best resource ever for your Merlin.

And watch this to begin to get a grasp about what Steve calls “dynamic balance.”

Other things helpful to know:

1) A DVD and manual comes in the box with the Merlin (watch the video and read the manual)

2) Put gaff tape on the bottom of your camera to prevent the Merlin plate from slipping around too much when screwed onto the bottom of your DSLR camera

3) You can’t use a follow focus with your HDSLR when using the Merlin or Pilot. You’ll have to plan out your shots ahead of time to make sure you stay in focus.

4) Beware of arm fatigue when you’re using the Merlin! (if you will be using the Merlin for long periods of time more often than not, just go ahead and get the Merlin Vest and Arm for an additional $1500 so you can keep shooting on those long days. Really, that is an incredible price for an amazing support system!)

5) Check out the Merlin Cookbook online to find out the correct settings for the weight of your camera.

6) You must have a LIGHT touch on the gimbal (it’s a little ball type mechanism right above the handle which helps isolate your body from the Merlin) when guiding the direction of the Merlin (or the Smoothee for that matter) if you want to have truly smooth video. This takes practice. As far as I can tell, the two things that you will really improve on when working with the Merlin Smoothee are learning how to correctly balance your cameras and how to have a light touch. Once you figure these two things out, you’ll have a great time with either one, and your projects will get that fantastic professional feel for not much of a monetary investment.

7) Do not bend your knees when walking with the Merlin! You have to let the Merlin do the work for you and not try to use your body to control the Merlin.

8)Don’t walk sideways! This is really hard to not do especially if you are used to shooting with camcorders.

Here is a photo slideshow of Steve O suiting Logan up with the Merlin Arm and Vest.

Here is a video of Steve O demonstrating to Logan how to use the Merlin with the Merlin Arm and Vest.

PILOT (you only want to use this with the Merlin Arm and Vest. It’s too heavy to use as a handheld steadicam.)

Here is a video of Steve O demonstrating how to use the Pilot with the Merlin Arm and Vest.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, hell, this is crazy! How can I figure all of this out!” But you can! During the training, Steve makes all of the Steadicams so accessible and easy to understand how to set up and maneuver. Also, at the beginning of the workshop, Steve knowingly told us: “Whatever you shoot on your first day on the Merlin will be better than anything you’ve ever shot handheld.”

And he is soooo right. Even after only spending a few hours with Steve, the footage Logan and I were shooting during the training noticeably improved. If you are shooting low/affordable budgeted films, and you want to make them look significantly better for significantly less, you need to invest in a Steadicam. With an amazing price range of $170 (Smoothee) to $799 (Merlin) to $1500 (Merlin Vest and Arm) to a complete Pilot setup for $4,000, you can afford to do this for your films. You should do this for your independent filmmaking and low budget projects. 20K Films is going to, and we’ll keep posting up updates about working with Steadicam gear.

But really, the best part of investing in any kind of Steadicam support system, is that if you buy locally, you can do a free training with Steve. He’s really the best kept secret in video production training and Steadicam support system training that I’ve ever personally met, and I’ve met a lot of filmmaking and video production instructors. Take my word, Steve is one of the best.

The great thing about how Steve trains is that he a wonderful mix of strong engineering know-how, easy going personality, and full-on cheerleader. He approaches each Steadicam support system and each person he trains as someone who is only an hour or so away from understanding how each device works. Every time you use your Steadicam, you will get better, and the level of dramatic storytelling you will add to any and all of your video productions will drastically improve as well.

I also noticed that Steve spends a lot of time giving individualized attention to every person he trains as well. At one point he flat out told us that he was more than willing to stay as long as it took until we all felt comfortable with the Steadicams that we had bought. Where else would you get this kind of individualized attention these days? Steve spent more time with us than a doctor will.

The best thing about this training too, was that it was absolutely FREE. Steve comes with every Steadicam support system you purchase provided that you buy your Steadicam from a LOCAL dealer like our favorite, Calumet Photographic in Chicago. (There’s also a Calumet Photographic in Oak Brook with an amazing staff that will gladly help you as well.) If you buy online at a retailer like B&H Photo Video, Steve will tell you to go B&H for help in learning your Steadicam device. I completely agree with Steve, because I bought my Smoothee online and accidentally bought the Smoothee iPhone 3GS, because I thought it was a universal iPhone clip mount, and I couldn’t get the dang thing balanced to my iPhone 4 until we went to Steve’s training. Buy your Steadicam device LOCAL, and you can email Steve and ask to be added to the next training session he holds. I HIGHLY recommend emailing Steve as soon as you buy your Steadicam locally too. You will learn more than you can from any video, and he will watch you as you use the device and let you know what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong and how to change it. Really, Steve is really vocal about how to use the Steadicam correctly which is incredibly helpful.

I, like many people I’m sure, was holding the gimbal too tightly which was leading to shaky video while using the Smoothee and Steve kept watching me walk with the Smoothee and kept telling me that I had too much pressure on the gimlet and that I needed a lighter touch. After the 10th time he told me, I got it. Would I have tried that hard if Steve hadn’t been there taking the time to tell me how to use the Smoothee correctly? Probably not .

Steve is awesome. Steadicam is awesome. We hope to buy the Pilot in the near future. Being able to pay $4,000 for a major support system for an DSLR camera is incredible considering that these kind of support systems used to go for $60,000.

Steve’s contact email: [email protected]

Buy Local at Calumet Photographic Chicago and get a free training with Steve from Steadicam. Email him to sign up for a FREE steadicam training or ask him any questions you have about Steadicam devices. You’ll need to bring a receipt to the training to show that you bought your device locally, but other than that, all you need to do is bring yourself and your new device. You won’t regret it.

Also, I was not paid in any way to write this blog post. I just was so impressed with Steve, his knowledge, his training, and with the Steadicam products themselves, and so I wanted to write a full review of my thoughts on all of the above.

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