Gear & Now: Remote Camera Controls and Systems
Posted Dec 13, 2006

It seems to me like the next remote control device that comes along should do a lot more than control a camera. As producer, director, DP, editor, small-business owner, marketer, and sales rep all rolled into one, professional event videographers who run their own independent studios need some sort of remote device for their entire business operations!
     Most new remote control systems are aimed at the camera itself. They provide zoom and focus control, pan and tilt, or a combination of both. As high-definition video cameras infiltrate the industry—especially those with removable lenses or prime lens compatibility—the demands and the price of such tools are increasing.

One Person, Two Cameras, Three to Go
Remote camera systems can offer user control over both the camera and the camera support on which it rests, usually a motorized tripod head of some sort. Compatible with a wide range of cameras, these systems are differentiated not by their functions, necessarily, but by the smoothness and ease with which those functions are accessed.

For example, a wireless control system from Video Direct offers control over functions like zoom and start/stop recording via RF. Wireless is also used to control the motorized tripod head itself, powered by a 6 V battery. It also uses a 2.4GHz wireless A/V transmitter, so return video from the camera can be monitored at a distance. The system is described as "perfect for wedding videographers" because of its inconspicuous operation.

Most of us shoot multicamera in at least some of our events. Hiring talented freelance camera operators is always an option, but when you can't afford to pay qualified day labor, operating a camera or two via remote control may be the answer. For $359, the motorized remote control camera system seen at Video Direct is economical, but it may not offer the same smooth feel as other, more expensive systems do.

Preston Cinema Systems: Videographers willing to pay a little more should check out the zoom, focus, and iris control from Preston Cinema Systems. Its new F/X wireless system, for example, provides a number of speed ramps (in which zoom speed is gradually increased and/or decreased for a smooth, natural feel, unlike the hard start and stop of lesser systems).

Preston remote controls can be matched to HD cameras or specific lenses for maximum control, even over shutter/iris combinations and depth of field with auto exposure control. Preston systems can incorporate wireless technologies, underwater housings, digital motors and lens drives, hand control units, and LED displays. Depending on system configuration, therefore, Preston price points can exceed $10,000!

VariZoom: VariZoom's CS1LK remote camera control system is often referred to as "a robotic cameraman." It combines a pan/tilt head, zoom/focus/record control, a handy 16:9, 7" LCD viewing monitor, power supply and carrying case—and a more modest price point around $4,000.

The pan/tilt head, which can mount to jib or tripod, does smooth, variable-speed 360-degree pan and tilt moves. From slow, creeping pans to "swish" pans and fast movements, this unit handles well. It weighs almost 9 lbs., and comes with a 20' pan and tilt motor cord.

Camplex: Saying it can "eliminate the need for camera operators" may or may not be a great pitch to make to a pro videographer, but nevertheless, the new remote camera system from Camplex is worth mentioning.

Using just a single CAT-5 cable, the ProX-HD system was slated to begin shipping in November. Its dockable camera adapter sends a camcorder's HD analog component video to a production control center, along with SD composite video, operator intercom, and camera program audio. Over the same CAT-5 cable the Pro-XHD also sends operating power, intercom, and camera tally signals (camera functions, such as zoom or focus, are not addressed by this system, although other data signals can be multiplexed into it).

Glidecam: Glidecam's Vista Head is a full-range motorized pan-tilt head, priced under $2,000, that supports cameras up to about 20 lbs. It uses high-torque motors with joystick control over movements. A standard power cable and a 12 V AC transformer and power converter come with the system, which can be mounted on crane and jib arms.


figure 1Grizzly Pro: Grizzly Pro, manufacturers of the award-winning pan/tilt/zoom Grizzly Pro r-THREE camera control system (left), have added to their lineup, with a single-camera solution and a multi-camera live switch system.

Camera controls and video feeds for up to three remote cameras are included in this portable and compact solution. One videographer can control up to three cameras and motion heads simultaneously. It also uses standard CAT-5 cabling. The systems can be powered from any clean 12 V source, be it wall socket or light belt with a 4-pin XLR. The r-THREE-LS adds live switching capability (pricing around $3,340). A two-camera system is also available for $2,775, and there is an r-ONE single camera system available as well.

 

Innovision Optics: The remote-controlled pan and tilt head from Innovision Optics, known as the Birdy, does offer camera control, while mounting to tripods, jib arms, or its own portable support column, which extends to some 15 feet in operating height.

It's a fairly hefty unit (weighing just under 50 lbs., it's made of galvanized steel), but its operation via joystick controller has a light, delicate feel.

Hi-Pod: Somewhat similar to the Birdy, and designed for extreme high-angle videography and control over camera functions, is the Hi-Pod camera monopod. It uses LANC connections to control a compatible camera's pan, tilt, and zoom. The tilting head supports a wide number of cameras. Harnesses, tilt wheels, power supplies, and other accessories are also available.

Speed Dials and Other New Features
LANC control over zoom, focus, and record stop/start for those video cameras so equipped (Sony and Canon, especially, are LANC-enabled) has been around for a while.

New to some remote control models are speed dials, for ramped or gradated control over zoom speeds. These so-called "stepless" zoom controls make for smooth take-offs, zoom ranges, and easy motion stop.


figure 1VariZoom: The VariZoom VZ-Rock-DVXzoom control (left)for Panasonic DVX100 and 100A cameras, for example, uses a variable-speed Rocker Zoom thumb control over the slowest crawls or fastest zap-zooms. The VariZoom VZ-Rock PZFI for the HVX200 has a zoom focus and iris controls, and a dual mode for auto or manual control. VariZoom has an optional focus wheel for HVX and DVX-type cameras, so that repeat focus pulls and other in-camera visual effects are more easily controlled and accomplished.

Interestingly, independent focus/iris knobs on the VariZoom allow two people to operate the device together. On critical focus shots with motion or crane movement, this can be a big boon—unless you're flying solo.

 

Manfrotto: Manfrotto recently introduced zoom remote controls that feature a zoom wheel that can be reconfigured for lefties and righties—that is, the wheel direction can be inverted according to user preferences. Designed for control over specific ENG-type lenses, priced around $350, these dedicated units also have stop/start buttons, long operator cables, adjustable pan bars, and waterproof covers.


figure 1JVC: For its ProHD cameras, JVC is offering a dedicated handle-mounted rocker-type zoom control (left), and a more capable zoom control as part of the cinematographic accessories for the cameras. The latter device is priced around $750; the former less than $300.


figure 1Bebob: Zoe III, the latest version of the zoom grip from Bebob, features a speed wheel and three-position rocker switch to accommodate a user's preferred style of operation. The zoom-switch housing is made of fiberglass reinforced polycarbonate, a nearly unbreakable but rather light material, and is protected during outdoor operations by a plastic protective layer. Zoe zoomgrips are priced around $225.

Foxi (left), also from Bebob, is a new remote device for focus and iris control on the DVX100B and HVX200 cameras. It has manual-auto switches, a rotating focus knob, and even markable scales for repeating iris and focus settings (just don't use permanent markers). Extension cables, lens adapters, and other accessories are available for the device, priced around $640.

Bebob also has a universal zoom controller for MiniDV camcorders, the Zoe-dvxl, again priced around $225.


Vocas
: Vocas offers zoom controllers, too, but of a whole different order. The ZiF digital lens controller, priced at $3,450, is for demanding applications—sports is a good example—where fast and precise control over control zoom/focus or zoom/iris is required.

Standard functions such as VTR start/stop, return video, zoom/focus direction, and speed adjustment are all built into the controller. Rack or pull focus settings, zoom-position memory points, focus shift, and servo focus control for Canon, Fujinon, and Angenieux broadcast lenses are supported.

Lee Rickwood (lrickwood@goodmedia.com) is a media consultant and freelance writer.