In the 30 years since its invention, Steadicam has become both a noun and a verb. Like the Q-tip, it is both a trademarked product and a generic phrase—if only it were as easy to use.
The first time I used a Steadicam on a video shoot we hired a specifically trained operator who was a former pro football lineman. It seems extreme, but the process is that demanding, and the equipment that heavy—not to mention pricey.
A full Steadicam Ultra system is priced around $66,000 today. Even the Glidecam Smooth Shooter Gold, positioned as a less expensive but similarly functioning system, costs about $25,000. Luckily, camera stabilization systems do come in a variety of shapes, sizes, capabilities, and prices. There's even a make-it-yourself version, costing about $14.
A new and much more professional system comes from Garrett Brown, the Oscar-winning Steadicam inventor, and Tiffen, Steadicam's parent company. Called Merlin, it looks somewhat like a metallic half-moon. The unit is not worn, but handheld. It weighs less than 15 ounces by itself and features a folding caliper hinge and counterweights to help balance cameras weighing up to 5 pounds. A universal dovetail plate takes cameras from ultra-compact DV to larger HDV models.
Under the plate, a pistol-like handgrip can be used with one or both hands for added stability. With a little practice, control over low-angle, tracking, and motion shots, as well as physical movement up stairs or along uneven surfaces while shooting, is smooth and easy.
The Merlin (a replacement for the Steadicam JR) is priced around $850. By the way, Steadicam has discontinued its ProVid2 Plus, replacing it with the new Archer (priced around $20,000), a complete Steadicam stabilizer and harness system for cameras up to 22 lbs.
As Tiffen has shown, it doesn't hurt to have a famous industry figure standing behind (wrapped up in) a new product or invention. Gruppo Manfrotto is taking the cue; its FigRig is named for feature film director Mike Figgis (Cold Creek Manor, Leaving Las Vegas), who helped develop the new handheld DV support system.
It's not worn as much as driven; the unit looks like a steering wheel. A DV camera sits in the middle, while all around are mounted camera accessories like zoom controllers, mics, mixers, lights, monitors, and more. The unit features crossbar thread-mounts and a quick-release plate, and cable clamps keep wires out of the way. The unit can sit by itself on a flat surface or be mounted on a tripod, but it's made for handheld shooting. There are no straps or harnesses; hand pads are used to grip the device. Using both hands and body motion, sweeping shots from ground level to overhead can be made in one long, smooth motion.
The price for the unit itself (the circular frame/cross bar with attached sliding plate) is $299.95; accessories are also now shipping, and priced separately.
Other DV Rigs
Another camera stabilization system, the Törtlerig, has been updated for DV camcorders up to about 9 pounds (another system, the EasyRig, is built to support heavier cameras, up to 55 lbs.).
Built around a back support bar and hip belt, the unit uses an overhead support arm to suspend the camera (the camera needs its own carry handle on top) and reduce shake or unwanted motion. It's designed for hands-free operation and to take the operating weight of a camera stabilizer off the arms and shoulders and put it on the more robust muscles of the back and hip area.
The Törtlerig for DV camcorders is priced around $1,200; systems include support arm, suspension line/shock absorber, camera hook-adjusting/ring tube, hip belt, carrying bag, and setup tool.
Sachtler's Artemis DV (around $800) is an aluminum (weighs about 2 pounds without camera) support system, somewhat similar in configuration to the Merlin. Its half moon-shaped frame can be held in one hand, and self-tightening spindles are used for side-to-side balancing. The plate is compatible with other Sachtler heads, for easy switching back and forth from stabilizer to tripod. A monitor mount is available; the unit is rated for cameras up to about 6 lbs.
ProMax SteadyTracker Xtreme is a bit heavier (4 lbs.) and supports heavier cameras (up to 8 lbs.). Designed for handheld, body-supported use, the SteadyTracker Xtreme will stand on its own and can be used as tripod. It's easily set up, using sliding balance adjustments (no individual weights). Priced around $300, the SteadyTracker depends a bit more on body position and movement; it can be held at arm's length for fluid shooting, but benefits from resting against the operator for added stability when focusing, zooming, or panning.
DvRigPro from Israel's Dvtec is a camera stabilizer with a shoulder mount and spring-loaded body pod, which acts much like the original Steadicam in terms of absorbing camera shake and movement. The system weighs about 10 lbs. without camera, but that is spread across the shoulders and support pod using balance weights. A flexible support joint allows for extreme-angle shooting without having to bend or lean to one side. The system can also be locked down and used as a standalone support. The newly designed DvRigPro (with on-camera light battery) is priced around $700.
Anton/Bauer's Stasis support system wraps over a user's shoulder, using the included battery pack as a counterweight (the Stasis package includes an on-camera light and power converter, as well). The lightweight system (less than 2 pounds without camera) comes in several configurations, each tailored to the requirements of specific camera types, like the Sony PD 150 or Panasonic DVX100. Priced around $500, the unit folds up for easy transportation.
ABC Handyman's new Clip & Go adds to its line of camera stabilizers a lightweight unit for cameras up to about 4 lbs. A pistol grip is used to hold and maneuver the unit, and a mount for an LCD monitor is available. The $950 unit folds down and fits in the palm of your hand.
Flowpod and Other Monopods
Somewhere in between a camera stabilization system and a monopod is the VariZoom FlowPod. The main barrel of the unit is a telescoping pod with a handle that locks into place for monopod use, but unlocks to become a free-floating handle in stabilizer mode. Priced around $450, the FlowPod handheld stabilizer and monopod features an x/y balance plate for cameras up to about 9 pounds.
Like the unique FlowPod, other monopods have recently sprouted additional features and functions recently—they're not just straight sticks anymore. There are several interesting models populating the one-legged landscape today.
Sachtler's carbon-fiber monopod (priced between $600 and $700) supports cameras up to 33 lbs. on its double extension center post. The company's distinctive Touch & Go system allows for very fast setup and re-configuration.
Opteka's four-section aluminum monopod comes with a quick-action lever lock system that makes leveling the unit quick and easy. It has a 45-degree flip camera/head platform, and is priced around $70.
Bogen's self-standing monopod also features a "quick-action" lever lock system with 45-degree flip, on a three-section monopod with three retractable legs. It supports cameras up to 26 pounds on its 2-pound frame. It's priced around $130.
Davis & Sanford's Trailblazer monopod supports gear up to about 7 pounds on its 1-pound frame. Its quick locks, retractable spike foot, and foam handle are nice touches for a product priced below $30.
Switronix has also thrown its hat into the camera support ring, adding the new DV Bracket to its lineup of pro video products. The DV Bracket defies easy categorization, but it falls somewhere between a monopod and a camera stabilizer. The aluminum shoulder brace provides basic camera support, with adjustable grip handle and quick-release plate.
That's fairly standard stuff, of course, but this unit adds unique horizontal and vertical controls to balance and accommodate the larger-sized viewfinders found on new HDV and widescreen cameras by adjusting from side to side as well as up and down. The DV Bracket will be available with V-mount and NP battery adapters, such as the GP-S/7.2 and NP-L168/7.2, providing 12 V and 7.2 V power sources when using Switronix batteries. The adapters mount on the backside of the shoulder pad; the bracket separates for storage and transportation. List price on the DV Bracket is $195, with street pricing expected around $150. Models with battery mounts will carry an MSRP of $395, with expected street pricing around $325.
Angel Dog Entertainment (DV Camera Rigs)
Johnny Lee ($14 Steadycam)
VariZoom Lens Control