Who Needs Remote Control? Grizzly Pro and the Videographers Who Use It
At his WEVA Expo seminar on multicamera shooting, Minneapolis videographer Ron Schmidt claimed an unofficial (and possibly uncontested) world record: 45 seconds to deliver a three-camera wedding video. How did he do it? Using remote-controlled cameras and live switching.
Schmidt is a stalwart remote-control, multi-cam man. He has been shooting event videos for over 25 years and has experimented with various remote systems as well as with crews of camera operators. "I will never go back to doing a wedding as a human being again," states Schmidt. "How many times does the officiant say ‘You can't stand there,' even if you don't move your camera?" With his elevated remote cameras, Schmidt says, "I get front views of both the bride and the groom that many times no one else can get, and how many meals do the remote control units eat?"
The system that Schmidt currently uses is called the Grizzly Pro r-Three—an ensemble built by Grizzly Systems LLC upon modified Bescor pan-tilt units, a remote control unit shaped like a videogame controller, and a single, lightweight cable instead of coaxial. Schmidt positions the cameras on Bogen camera brackets, and then mounts them seven feet or higher to beams, door frames, poles, or balcony railings.
Setup time is about three hours, because he runs cables from the three cameras to his Grizzly Pro remote control console. Instead of using the Grizzly Pro's switcher option, Schmidt uses a Focus Enhancements MX Pro video mixer. That lets him occasionally add effects such as picture-in-picture (PIP). The output of the switcher and audio mixer then goes to a master videotape recorder. Meanwhile, he runs tapes in each of the cameras as a backup.
Remote Control with a CAT-5 Cable
The Grizzly Pro is a remote control system that connects to the LANC or Panasonic-type remote port found on most camcorders. The system comes in configurations for controlling one, two, or three cameras, with an optional basic switcher. Unlike other multi-cam systems that use thick camera-control cables, the Grizzly Pro is unique in that a single Ethernet-type CAT-5 cable handles video, power, and remote control. This CAT-5 cable is thinner than coaxial, and it terminates in an RJ-45 plug—the same kind that Ethernet systems use. Other camera remote systems are not only more expensive, but they also use thick cables or require multiple cables. The CAT-5 carries the video signal from the camcorder to a monitor bank, and also sends power to the pan-tilt unit and remote instructions for pan, tilt, zoom, exposure, and focus. Another unique feature of the Grizzly Pro is the ergonomic remote control console—it is patterned after videogame controllers.
In December 2005, Grizzly Pro was was named an EventDV Editors' and Columnists' Pick as one of the best products of the year. Of the Grizzly Pro r-Three, Ed Wardyga (a frequent r-Three user on his stage-event shoots) wrote, "Not only does it allow the control of up to three cameras from a single control, but a new plug-in allows you to switch those three cameras with either a cut or dissolve. All this via one CAT-5 cable to each camera . . . with distances up to 600 feet! For event video, this could be just the thing to up your productions from a single camera to multi-cam and increase your income. You'll start to see a return on your investment in as little as two or three productions."
In the December 2006 issue, Gear and Now columnist Lee Rickwood reported on the Grizzly Pro and other remote control devices available for camcorders. The other professional pan-tilt mounts he wrote about include the Birdy from Innovision Optics, priced at $4,950, and the Glidecam Vista, designed to be mounted on a crane or jib arm and priced at $1,999. Grizzly Pro prices range from $1,200 for a single-camera system to $3,399 for a three-camera system with live-switching.
Shooting from the Altar
The Grizzly Pro got a workout last year when video legend John Goolsby hired a crew to shoot his daughter's wedding. The church would not allow a camera at the altar, but Goolsby knew the necessity of capturing camera angles from there. So he asked videographers Mark and Trisha Von Lanken of Tulsa's Picture This Productions to use a two-camera Grizzly Pro system.
"[Grizzly Pro developer and company president] Phil Jensen shipped the system to us at our hotel room, and we didn't even have a tripod to test it the night before," Mark Von Lanken says. "But once we set it up at the church, it was easy to use. I like to use manual settings and never dreamed the Grizzly Pro would let me get all the shots we got." Using the Grizzly Pro, Mark was able to zoom in tight and tilt up from the bride and groom's hands to their faces. He performed rack-focusing between the bride and a bridesmaid, and between a groomsman and the parents sitting in the congregation.
"I was able to manually operate the camera as if it were in my hands," Mark says, "I was amazed!" Mark reports that he was also able to manually adjust exposure for the white wedding dress. He points out that the Grizzly Pro will not control the iris, but it does allow control of the gain or shutter speed. "I lock the iris wide open and lock the gain. Then, during the ceremony, I darken the picture by increasing the shutter speed." Von Lanken admits that the first shoot was a little "hit and miss" for him, but by the second wedding he was able to perform a smooth tilt up the subjects' bodies at 12x zoom. He says the true test was the accuracy of the pressure-sensitive rocker switch for solid zoom control.
The Von Lankens now use the Grizzly Pro in their intensive two-day Tulsa Training Workshops that include hands-on instruction in a local church. Their 17-year-old son is a master at the controls, according to Mark, because of his extensive experience with Sony's PlayStation.
Mark Von Lanken tells the story about a time he was operating the Grizzly Pro from the side room where the groomsmen and minister await the wedding coordinator's instructions to enter the sanctuary. The minister usually gets his cue via a phone call from the coordinator. This time he was able to look over Mark's shoulder into the monitor to see everything in the sanctuary. "This sold the pastor on our continued use of the Grizzly Pro, and since then three other churches have said they like the quiet, stealth approach with it."
Mounting Camcorders Up High
We tracked down one of the first users of the Grizzly Pro, Nick Xanttopulos of northern California's Signature Videography. Xanttopulos shoots over 100 weddings a year, and half get recorded with at least a single- or dual-camera Grizzly Pro. He mounts Sony Z1 HDV camcorders atop 10' Studio One monopods that he positions in DJ speaker stands. "I wanted to get the camera up high," says Xanttopulos, "and the Grizzly Pro lets us get shots we previously could not get without a crane, such as a shot of the groom from the left side of the altar." Xanttopulos had experimented with his own modified pan-tilt-zoom units, but his systems became cumbersome with cables. He said that Jensen's use of the CAT-5 cable perfected what he was trying to do. He uses a 12 V Bescor battery and a 7" LCD monitor from Markertek. (The image at left shows a high-mounted, Grizzly Pro-controlled camera that captures live concert video at B.B. King's Blues Club in Los Angeles.)
The largest church in town was so pleased that Xanttopulos used unstaffed cameras near the altar that they let him run CAT-5 cable under the carpet when they did a remodel. He sits in a pew near the front, just in case he needs to move the rig. From his seat he operates the game-like control pad, and says that he sometimes gets stares from guests. Xanttopulos has been using the Grizzly Pro for more than three years and says it has worked like a champ every time. It took him 10 minutes to learn how to operate the system and maybe a couple of weddings to get really smooth with it.
Another early Grizzly Pro adopter is Pennsylvania's Brian Klock, who was so excited when he saw a demo at a WEVA Expo that he bought the prototype. Klock says he has used it so much during the past three years that he nearly "wore it out."
"I can put cameras where I can't put people," says Klock. Specializing in corporate event videography, he sometimes mounts his cameras with the pan-tilt heads on a lighting truss over the stage. Almost exclusively shooting live events and big bands, Klock adds, "I don't record anything anymore; I almost never have a tape in a camera." And about 90% of the multi-camera events he shoots by himself. Rather than incorporating the live switch option of the Grizzly Pro, Klock uses a NewTek VT for the switcher. His cameras are Sony PD 170s.
Prior to purchasing the Grizzly Pro, Klock used teleconferencing cameras with integrated pan-tilt heads. He says he still uses them, together with the Grizzly Pro, when he needs to control more than three cameras, such as when he shot a recent fundraising gala with eight cams. The teleconferencing cameras lack the smooth motion of the Grizzly Pro, but they have an advantage: They allow the operator to pre-set movements. Pans, zooms, and exposure can be pre-programmed, but the teleconferencing cameras move into position at a quick, robotic pace. The only cameras he will move when they are live are the ones on Grizzly Pro pan-tilt units.
Phil Jensen built the Grizzly Pro pan-tilt apparatus by modifying a Bescor MP-101 pan-tilt unit—replacing the electronics to provide smoother movement. One of the reasons he chose CAT-5 cable was to enable videographers to run it through doorways and even out a window.
Jensen, a professional wedding and event videographer himself, said he came up with the idea for the Grizzly Pro because he wanted to enable a single videographer to produce a multi-camera production without the overhead of camera operators and postproduction. According to Jensen, "This leads to improved profit margins for the small video operation. Grizzly Pro has also been proven useful in religious productions and in music venues where the availability of competent operators is minimal."
Jensen worked for 25 years at Hewlett Packard, learning system design and marketing of imaging products. He explains that the CAT-5 cable, with its sets of twisted pairs of wires, cancels electromagnetic interference (EMI). Co-ax, he says, can act as a capacitor—dropping high-frequency video. The Grizzly Pro system includes active drivers at camera and receiver ends that are designed to minimize interference.
The game console-like remote control unit contains exposure control, auto/manual focus, power on/off, record start/stop, and time code displays. The system includes status lights to let the shooter know when the cameras are recording. The motion controls of pan, tilt, and zoom are designed to be independently configured to a constant speed, a linear speed, or a customizable ramp. The system sends a composite video signal to the director to monitor the remote cameras.
The r-Three-LS System includes a system controller, an interface box with live-switch circuitry, three PZT (pan/tilt/zoom) heads, 100 feet of cable per PTZ head, and a 12 V power supply. The system uses standard 4-pin XLR power connector, and it may be powered by a 12-24 V battery belt.
The live switching option works in only a composite mode, offering a level of video quality similar to VHS recording. "In order to keep the cable small and low-cost," Jensen says, "it was necessary to send back only composite video. This signal runs at the same resolution (number of horizontal lines) as the camera can send out of the S-video port, so the only signal degradation is from combining the luminance and chrominance. Most people will be hard-pressed to see the difference in the unswitched video. The PTZ head (pan-tilt-zoom) contains an active differential driver to send the video signal up the CAT-5 cable. Since the receiver sees only the difference in the signals, any noise that is introduced on the cable, which affects both wires equally, will be ignored at the receiver. Unlike systems that only use a passive transformer to send the signal (Balun transformers), the r-Three uses an active driver, which results in a significantly better signal."
The r-Three requires 12-16 V DC at three amps. Many battery belts can supply that amount of power. Jensen recommends a battery that supplies around 14 V DC at five amps or 60 WH (watt/hours) for a one-hour shoot. He says that using a Marshall monitor bank will allow you to easily power the system from this same battery source.
The wattage input to the r-Three is approximately 24 W with three heads and two monitors. The r-Three will flash an indicator when your battery is getting low but will only do so reliably if sealed lead-acid batteries are used, according to Jensen. The single-camera r-One doesn't have the support for battery operation and must be run from an AC power source.
Explaining the composite quality of the switcher, Jensen says, "The system includes a low-cost VHS-quality switcher that allows the user to perform cuts and dissolves. It has found a following in the religious television environment, but it probably isn't high enough quality for the event videographer." He says to watch for an improved switcher—one of several improvements of the next-generation system, slated for release at NAB 2007.
Smooth at 20x Zoom
The Grizzly Pro works with cameras that weigh six pounds or less and have LANC- or Panasonic-wired remote ports. Ron Schmidt says the Canon GL2 camcorders are the best choice of camera to use with the Grizzly Pro for two reasons: Their 20x zoom capability gives you a wide zoom range, and the GL2's capacity to send a signal even after the tape runs out. Schmidt says that even at the full magnification ratio, pans and tilts with the Grizzly Pro are smooth and fluid. "I can follow the bride and groom all the way up and down the aisle," says Schmidt.
He rarely uses tripods, but if he can't find a beam or doorway to clamp to, he will mount a camera on a tall light stand with a threaded top for the pan-tilt unit. To stabilize the stand, Schmidt rigs strands of nylon twine from the top of the stand to each of the three legs and pulls them taut. Otherwise the panning and tilting on a light stand would result in wobble.
The powered pan head has a 180-degree capability. Sometimes when panning that wide an area, parallax can result (the room looking tilted at the end of the pan). To avoid this parallax problem, he places a wedge between the camera and the pan-tilt unit.
Schmidt goes to the rehearsals to discuss with the officiant or coordinator where he would like to mount his cameras. Many times the locations are where camera operators would not be allowed. On the day of the wedding, after all the cameras are set up, Schmidt asks the officiant if his camera locations are acceptable; many times they can't locate them. When they learn that there will be no camera operator and no tripod, they rarely object. His goal is for the officiant to tell him after the wedding, "I didn't know you were even there. Come back real soon!" With guests not being distracted by camera operators, they can focus on the wedding rather than the videographer, Schmidt argues. He adds that most guests don't even know the wedding is being videotaped.
Schmidt usually sits in the sanctuary, in back to the right side. He tells the story of a time when he had to set up his gear in the nursery down the hall; his only view was from his monitor bank, and the event still came off without a hitch. Talk about unobtrusive wedding videography!
What is the downside to using the Grizzly Pro? Schmidt admits you can't change tapes when the camcorders are mounted on tall stands. Also the long setup time can be a problem if you are working in a church that schedules back-to-back weddings. When another wedding is scheduled just before his, Schmidt asks if he may videotape the first wedding on spec. "This gives me a chance to practice on their ceremony, before I have to shoot my client's wedding. If they like the video, I offer to sell it to them at a greatly reduced fee."
Schmidt says that three remote-controlled, high-mounted cameras "give the best complete ceremony coverage. With this style there is little chance that the bride and groom will be disappointed."
To work with the Grizzly Pro, a camera must have a LANC or Panasonic-type remote plug (Control L), weigh six pounds or less, and have a composite video output. Supported cameras include the following:
- Sony PD 170, 150; VX 2000, 2100; HVR Z1U, A1U (but no exposure control)
- Panasonic HVX 200, DVX 100, DVX 80, DVC 60 (DVC 30 not supported)
- Canon GL1, GL2 (XL H1, XL1, and XL2 not supported)
- JVC cameras are not supported
Stu Sweetow runs video production company Audio Visual Consultants in Oakland, CA. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Videography, and is a contributing editor to Camcorder & Computer Video magazine.