by Simon Wyndham
An addiction to movement
My name is Simon Wyndham, and I’m addicted to camera movement. There, you have my confession. A number of years ago when I moved up from DV cameras to working with full sized 2/3” jobs there was one element missing from my arsenal of imaging capabilities. Movement.
Unfortunately, while a nice big shoulder mount camera looks great and impresses clients, the accompanying Steadicam® or stabiliser unit becomes correspondingly more expensive than it does for the smaller cameras. An order of magnitude so.
Certainly I used dollies of various types, along with jibs and cranes, but while those types of devices have their place not one single one of them comes even remotely close to the versatility and production value enhancing nature of a Steadicam®.
My schizophrenic purchasing decision process
I have been procrastinating over the decision about purchasing a camera stabiliser for some time now. I eventually came to the conclusion that purchasing a full sized rig which could take anything that could be thrown at it (within reason) would be pointless. Such a rig would require an entirely new business plan and career path, and would be based upon a skill I simply don’t have. Yet.
Originally I wanted to go for a Steadicam® Flyer LE. It had the Steadicam brand name – more important than you might think in the fickle world of production – and the arm was legendary. It is also known to be able to take a fair bit more weight than the official figures suggest. Steadicam® are a bit like the Apple of the stabiliser world. They are wonderful pieces of engineering.
The main competitor that figured into in my decision making was Glidecam. Now Glidecam has been around for a good while now and their Gold system is very well respected. Unfortunately their older lower priced rigs were far from ideal. They went a long way to rectifying this with the V-25, which is now discontinued, although it can be bought in updated form with the new X-45 arm. The V-25 also has a very good reputation and can carry around 30lbs of payload.
The latest addition to the Glidecam lineup is the X-22, a rig that builds on the success of the V-25. The X-22 offers a brand new arm and sled, although it carries a few Pounds less in weight. This appears to be a limitation of the sled rather than the arm, since the latter is rated at 36lbs capacity.
Of course equipment will always be updated, but the current Flyer system doesn’t offer many options for achieving dynamic balance. The Glidecam X-22 on the other hand allows forward and aft adjustment of both the monitor and batteries, so it would be easier to achieve dynamic balance with.
Additionally the X-22 can carry, officially, 6lbs more in weight than the LE. That’s one and a half PMW-350 bodies to you and me. Quite a bit of extra leeway if extra accessories need to be mounted.
Weight capacity alone shouldn’t be the deciding factor when purchasing a rig, but on balance (pardon the pun) the X-22 seemed like the better option for me to go for at this particular point in time.
Build quality and setup
What struck me when I first set eyes on the X-22 at the initial demo that was set up for me at CVP Mitcorp was the build quality. Everything is nicely machined, and is clearly very robust. The camera dovetail plate is beautifully anodised in red, and the no tools trim adjustment allows smooth adjustments of the top stage. It is all a far cry from the rather crude set up of previous Glidecams such as the V-16.
The gimbal has a really nice knurled grip, and the gimbal itself is, from what I can tell, totally friction free with absolutely zero play. An engineer I was with on my first shoot with the rig commented in disbelief at how smooth it was.
The post is a two stage telescopic construction, which is standard for this price of rig. Helpfully Glidecam have provided accurate numbered markings so that it is easy to note down extension settings for various setups. There is also a guide line to ensure that the bottom stage is always perfectly aligned with the top.
Assembly of the sled was a straightforward affair. If I had one gripe about the sled in general it would be that Glidecam only provide a single BNC video cable through the post. It would have been nicer to have had a power cable too. This is something I will need to add myself.
The provided 700nit monitor is fairly basic. It is standard definition, but will accept an HD signal via SDI and doesn’t have frameline capability. The single screw mount for the monitor is a weak spot, especially with a battery mount attached to the back of the monitor, and I will be modifying this with a central pivoting bracket. This mod will also allow the viewing angle to be changed without affecting the rigs balance. Lets face it, I don’t really know of any stabiliser owner who hasn’t modified their rig in some way or another. It is all par for the course.
Overall the build quality of the sled is exceptional, and should last for a good many years with proper care.
The X-22 arm
The arm is the heart of the system. A great sled is no good without an arm that can do the business. As I mentioned earlier the X-22 arm is rated to be able to carry 36lbs of weight. That’s quite a bit of heft, and gives the X-22 some rather interesting mod/extension possibilities for budding home builders.
The arm on the X-22 is a dual section construction, and consists of two titanium springs in each, with a separate tension adjustment for each one. This adjustment is made by using allen screws situated at the ends of each of the sprung sections. This is one of the differences between the X-22 and the Steadicam® Flyer. On the Flyer these adjustments are made using a single tools free knob, and can be made while the camera is being flown.
Because the arm section that is connected to the vest has to take both the weight of the sled and the gimbal arm section, the tension needs to be higher here. I found that the vest arm section needed to be set to around one mark higher in tension than the gimbal section.
The arm action is very smooth, and doesn’t require much force to boom up and down. Operationally the arm movement is pretty much silent. Quite often inexpensive arms can be noisy, but not the X-22. It’s as smooth as butter.
Setup and balancing
Setting up and balancing the rig is fairly straightforward. As I mentioned previously the fact that both the monitor and battery section can be adjusted fore and aft means that there are a lot of options for dynamic balance adjustment.
With regard to the act of actually adjusting the sled, the tools free adjustment of the gimbal placement along the arm, and the lower telescopic section made some adjustments easy. Likewise the worm screw based trim adjustment on the top stage (where the camera attaches to the sled) were also easy to make, and allowed for very fine adjustments.
The design of the rig is such that this is a modification that I may well make in addition to adding a J and D box for better connectivity. The X-22 is a budget rig however, so I would be foolish to expect all these features as standard. One of the things I like about the X-22 is that such modifications are made easy because the various screw points are all conveniently placed and solid enough for such things to be done. Lets face it, who doesn’t modify their rig?
When setting it up for dynamic balance – ensuring that the camera can freely spin 360 degrees without tilting in any direction – I did find that the docking bracket did not allow enough distance from the stand to allow a full spin when the monitor section was moved forward. I could get a pretty good idea of dynamic balance, but needed to wear the rig in order to spin it fully.
The X-22 vest is a fairly simple affair but it is very well constructed, and for my body type (slim) perfectly comfortable. I could perhaps do with slightly more adjustment on the shoulders, but once broken in and with the weight of the rig loaded onto it it performed very well.
Like most budget vests the X-22 uses buckles and pull through strapping to adjust tightness. This means that putting on the vest when tightened properly can require some muscle, especially on the lower back connector. This is in contrast to the direction that pricier models are now taking with ratchets and sprung loaded clips. With those you can put on the vest and attach the connectors, and use the sprung loaded clip to ‘snap’ the vest back to the proper tightness.
It is important to make sure that the vest is properly aligned. When I first started using it I felt fatigued in my lower back muscle as I expected, not being used to the weight of the rig. It takes time to build up endurance. However after a while of use I looked down at the vest and noticed that it wasn’t quite aligned straight with the chest plate directly on my centre.
Once I corrected this I could fly the X-22 for extended periods with a lighter camera such as the EX3 without feeling anything in ‘that’ muscle. Nice. A clear demonstration that, when properly adjusted, the X-22 vest is doing exactly what it should.
Flying the rig
Now before I start commenting on what the X-22 feels like to fly I feel that I must reiterate that I am only just starting out in this field. I have however used, albeit very briefly, the entire Steadicam® range all the way up to the Ultra 2, as well as other makes. So I am able to compare the feel of the X-22 somewhat with those rigs.
One of the first tests I did with the X-22 was to try out the booming action of the arm. As per recommendations on various forums I set the tension so that it hung very slightly downwards in neutral position (no force with the arm hand). Apparently most 3A style arms perform better this way.
As I mentioned previously the arm is silent in movement. With the latest version of the arm (see notes at the end of this article) there is minimal flapping around when moving at high paces. This is a trait that bugs a lot of budget arms, so it is good to see that Glidecam have this under control.
Movement away from and towards the body was also very smooth with absolutely no play or friction apparent in the bearings in the arm connecting sections.
The gimbal on the sled was similarly smooth. By setting the camera into a free spin it would keep on going, even at slow speeds, until I stopped it. I haven’t noticed any play, stiction, or friction at all.
In the ideal position in relation to the body, assuming the operator is walking forward, the monitor can often be obscured by the gimbal handle, especially with a heavier camera where the post may be extended to certain positions. For this reason I believe it to be important to have the monitor on a bracket that can be slid further up the post when required.
This is a minor niggle and it is absolutely by no means specific to the X-22. But as a general observation I think that a height adjustable monitor bracket may well be essential, especially when trying to keep good skeletal form while operating, especially as a newcomer when it is tempting to hunch the head forward to see it.
The gimbal bearings are sealed at the top, but not the bottom, so if you are in a dusty environment it would be advisable to purchase a cover of some kind. This also goes for the arm too, but this is the case for any type of video equipment if you wish it to last!
A lot of people will want to see the sort of footage that can be shot with the Glidecam X-22. However I will not oblige (you think I’m going to post up my wobbly efforts?!) You simply cannot tell a thing about how good a stabiliser is by watching somebody’s footage. A rubbish operator will make even a Pro GPI rig look bad, while an exceptional operator such as Charles Papert or the late, great Ted Churchill could take a brick with a camera mounted on it and make it look good!
Using a camera stabilisation device takes dedication and practice in equal measure. Not only that but it takes correct practice. We have a saying in martial arts, “practice makes permanent”. That is to say incorrect practice will lead to bad pictures, and to habits that will be very hard to unlearn.
Before planning to purchase a rig of any make, especially body mounted rigs, go on a course of some kind that is run by experienced operators. You will get to try out different rigs, and you will also find out if operating such a thing is for you. Some people are naturals, while others discover that they never want to wear one again as long as they live!
Expect it to take a year of constant, daily practice before you are remotely competent. Yes, really, that long! When you purchase and dedicate yourself to a rig you are not only investing in your gear, but also your skill. You need to take it seriously.
Okay, so I have gone off on a tangent, but I felt it important that I mentioned all of that before I gave you my conclusion on the X-22.
As a budget rig the X-22 is a fantastic piece of equipment. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of its main competitor, the Steadicam® Flyer LE, such as the tools free lift adjustment, but as I mentioned it is you who is the most important part of the equation.
The X-22 is exceptionally well built and robust, it looks fantastic, and it can carry more weight than the Flyer. At 25lbs capacity there is playing room there for a Red with a couple of accessories on it. You don’t have to strip it down quite as much as you might have to with the Flyer.
I am predicting that the Flyer will be upgraded at the 2010 NAB event, perhaps with increased capacity and a redesigned bottom stage. But as a perfectly capable budget rig the X-22 is certainly up there and comes very highly recommended by me.
When I first purchased the X-22 the arm initially had a slight problem in that it was far too springy. The arm tended to move far too much, and after halting a movement it kept bobbing up and down a bit. This resonated into the image slightly. A better operator than I would be able to compensate, but I am not yet at that level. The arm also tended to flap around a lot during fast walking and running.
Apparently on the first batch of arms this was the case, and it appears that I had an early one. I was told that Glidecam have now modified and tuned this out of the newer batches. So my arm went back to Glidecam for the mod to be performed free of charge. My hat goes off to David Stevens at Glidecam for dealing with my enquiry about this matter on a Sunday after he had just had a very long trip back from Amsterdam! I can’t fault Glidecams service or dedication to their customers at all!
The mod involved replacing the bushes at the spring pivot points. When I first received the arm back I was a little disappointed because I could hear a lot of noise in the springs. David Stevens at Glidecam helpfully suggested that I adjust the arm sections to full tension and boom it up and down to its limits a few times. This did the trick and the springs became seated nicely.
I could also feel some friction in the arm, so I lubricated the spring pivots with teflon based lubricant. This seemed to work somewhat, although I could still hear and feel a lot of resonance that “sang” through the springs at slow boom speeds. I was told that this was most likely due to the new bushings breaking in.
However I am rather impatient so I took the advice from a few other operators to get hold of some ACF-50, a different kind of lubricant that is often used on motorcycles. This stuff has the added benefit that it protects all metal surfaces from corrosion. Quite an issue apparently as sweat lands on the steel parts of these types of devices. So I received my order of ACF-50 and gave the arm a good spray, and as advised by one operator tried to get it where there was any possibility of something rubbing, such as on the spring plugs where the springs can sometimes resonate.
At first there wasn’t much effect, but I took the rig out for a long practise session, and low and behold at the end of it most of the noise was gone. There was ever such a slight trace left, but not enough to be bothersome. So now my X-22 arm is as smooth as butter again.
That is not all however, with the arm now up to the latest specification the springiness is gone and it is now possible to move very quickly with the rig, even running, without the arm flapping around. As far as I am concerned the arm now performs every bit as well as any competitor in the market.
For those purchasing new rigs, your X-22 arms should be the latest specification. However if you can I would try the rig out at your dealer, or get an assurance that they will replace it at no charge if you happen to receive an earlier version. How will you know what arm you have? Simple. Set up the rig, put it on, and make some large jiggling moves. You’ll look really silly, but if after a few large pelvic thrusts (!) the arm keeps moving a few solid bounces after you have stopped you will know that you have an early arm. Alternatively, as long as you can do it safely, try a short run to see how much the arm flaps around. If it moves a lot you have an early arm.
As I mentioned, most new purchasers shouldn’t have this problem, but be aware none the less.