This elaborate article goes into detail on the large selection of new electronic camera stabilisers that have been coming out recently. What has caused this revolution in stabilisation technology? Why is it so darn expensive? Why is this the future of cinema? Click to read more.
What is it?
If you’re a follower of any blog that covers camera technology (like for example NoFilmSchool, or if you’ve been to NAB this year, you’ll have undoubtedly seen the flurry of new stabiliser platforms for cameras that almost magically seem to lock the lens orientation relative to the world.
This video will explain what it is, and how it helps us make better movies.
This video captures both the technology and the advantages pretty well. Using this technology allows filmmakers to go through several shot concepts in a really short amount of time. No longer does a tracking shot require steel rails, carts, a truck and sometimes several hours for a single shot setup. If you’ve ever been on a film set and you look at the above video, you’ll quickly start to realise the implications to the way we tell stories dynamically. This technology is in it’s infancy now, but mark my words: it will quickly grow up and become the next revolution in cinema technology.
The last time we’ve had any kind of major technological revolution when it comes to accessible filmmaking was in 2008, when Nikon released the first DSLR camera capable of filming HD video. To us filmmakers, for the first time ever, this meant access to cheap large-sensor camera technology, allowing us to capture shallow depth of field images for that greatly coveted cinema look.
Of course it was only the first tiny step in what has become a long road filled with obstacles. We’ve had to fight for tiny luxuries like frame rate choices and exposure control, features considered basics for any other professional video camera.
But it’s been worth our time, cinema quality filmmaking is finally in the hands of everybody capable of buying or renting these cameras. If you have enough motivation and dedication to get a team together to make a short film with, chances are you’ll be able to get your hands on a 5D mark III or BMCC and tell your story.
I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed this, what I consider a major revolution in filmmaking. I was one of the first in the Netherlands to own a 7D, getting it just in-time for a film project. And that’s only a few years ago now.
Let’s talk about camera stabilisers.
Traditionally, the best way to do complex moving shots has always been to use a Steadicam system. That’s not spelled wrong by the way, Steadicam is a brand name.
This works amazingly well for heavy cinema cameras with large 35mm magazines, even broadcast cameras. But it requires skill derived only from years of practice as well as a very strong back. It also requires teamwork, a long sequence has to be planned out well in advance. Sometimes sets are built around the Steadicam operator, creating moving walls and furniture to allow the whole rig to fit through.
There are alternatives available, using actual high speed gyroscopes (heavy rotating discs) for example. But then you have to deal with a power source (large battery) and spin-up times. They’re perfect for cars and helicopters, but way more difficult to get your hands on.
For a few years now we’ve had the sensor technology necessary to accurately get electronic orientation information. We call them digital gyroscopes and accelerometer sensors. It’s the technology that powers your Wii remote, it’s how you can shake your phone and it knows to change the song playing, it’s how iOS 7 creates a parallax effect on your home screen.
Sidenote. Theoretically, coupling this sensor with a compass and GPS allows you to accurately pinpoint your location, speed and direction. That might not sound so difficult in our digital age, so you might be surprised to find out that it has been for many years.
With this relatively new technology, smart people quickly realise potential applications. Imagine if you use those sensors, process the information on a chip, then send commands to motors to counter that movement instantaneously. Voilá, you have a platform whose orientation will not change relative to the world. Perfect for cameras. Add a radio remote and you have the MŌVI.
But the MŌVI is going to cost $ 15,000.
To be honest, it surprises me that it’s taken this long for the technology to be developed into a usable product. The sensors have been commonly available for some time now and are getting cheaper every day. The motors have been a problem in the past, but I know far too little about brushless motors to understand the details. The control boards and software are also becoming a commodity, there is already some open source software available for a DIY stabiliser. It can not take more than a year or two for stabilisers exactly like the MŌVI to become commonly available. My prediction is we’ll be able to get them for less than $ 1,000 within two years.
I can’t say I haven’t been tempted to start a DIY project myself. If I do, I’ll make sure to extensively document every step on this blog.
Alternatives to the MŌVI
There are already tons of in-development alternatives to the MŌVI all promising similar features. Here are some options already shipping today.
Defy G2 / G5, $ 2300 and $ 3200 respectively
The Defy G2 will not fit a 5D, but it will fit a Blackmagic Pocket Camera. The Defy G5 starts shipping this September.
DJI Zenmuse Z15, +/- $ 3500
This one is mostly aimed at aerial video, and has been made for a Sony Nex. Whilst you might be able to modify it to fit a DSLR, it hasn’t been made for this purpose and might not fit the weight. Nevertheless, it works, it’s available today, and it’s roughly $ 11,500 cheaper than a MŌVI.
In a maximum of two years, electronic gimbal camera stabilisers will be a commodity at every self-respecting rental house. Even more so, they will be available for prices competing with inertial systems like the Steadicam Merlin and Glidecam HD 2000.
Cameras are becoming smaller and better. Finally, the technology to move our cameras in cinematic ways is starting to catch up. Let’s not play this down, this is an important moment, and we were here to witness it.