Fluid tripod heads, dollies, shoulder-mounted camera supports, and monopods are all great tools that help free videographers from the world of static video while reducing or eliminating camera shake. But they all have their associated shortcomings.
A good fluid tripod head allows for professional, smooth pans and tilts. But being mounted to a tripod obviously limits the camera to a more stationary location.
A dolly will allow a camera to escape a tripod’s stationary restrictions, yielding long, smooth, and professional tracking shots like the ones we’ve all seen in our favorite Hollywood productions. However, the planning and set-up time required for laying track can make dollies difficult to utilize for many run-and-gun productions in which time is always a limiting factor.
Monopods and shoulder-mounted camera supports, while easy to set up and capable of providing better stability, will still yield footage that contains left-right camera bobbing as well as footstep-bounce transferred from the moving camera operator.
THE PERFECT BLEND
Now if only there were a device that could produce tracking shots comparable to those achieved with a dolly but without the set-up time for each shot. Something that would allow for the immediate responsiveness that run-and-gun shooting demands, the flexibility and freedom of a monopod or shoulder support but without the footage being bombarded with camera bobbing left and right. This device would also have to enable smooth pans and tilts similar to those made possible by a fluid tripod head, without the camera being restricted to a fixed position.
To top this all off, imagine this device costing less than what you’d expect to pay for a decent, solid, tripod and head combo.
ENTER THE STEADICAM MERLIN
The Steadicam Merlin (MSRP $799) is the smallest, lightest, and most affordable sibling in the renowned Steadicam family. It was invented by Garrett Brown, the same man who pioneered the original award-winning Steadicam 35 years ago. One of the all-time classic moments in Hollywood history was achieved during the original Rocky (1976), where Brown, wearing his Steadicam, was able to capture smooth, shake-free footage while running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum chasing Sylvester Stallone.
Thirty-one years after Rocky’s release, Steadicam introduced the Merlin, the company’s latest attempt at providing the professional videographer with a fully functional yet affordable Steadicam, complete with all the bells and whistles, as well as the ease of use these support devices provide.
Like its beefier $60,000 Steadicam big brothers used in Hollywood’s largest television and feature film productions, the Steadicam Merlin is built upon one basic premise: keeping the angular motion coming from the operator’s body disconnected from the camera itself, allowing the camera to remain steady and stable. What makes this possible is the combination of two things. First is the patented gimbal that absorbs the camera operator’s movement, therefore isolating him or her from the camera. At the same time, a set of counterweights underneath the camera and gimbal keep the camera always upright throughout the operator’s moves.
The beauty of the design is the microadjustable platform that the camera mounts to. This allows the operator to quickly fine-tune the unit so that the camera properly balances the counterweights and remains level.
SMALL YET MIGHTY
With its hinge design, the Merlin can be folded in half and put into storage mode. The entire unit weighs less than a pound, and in storage mode, it measures less than a foot long. Despite its compact and feather-light design, the Merlin is strong and versatile enough to balance cameras from 2 to 6 pounds (7 pounds after the recent metal gimbal update) via the help of the included counterbalance weights.
With the rig in operating mode and a 5-pound camcorder attached (our Merlins are mounted to Canon XH-A1s), the overall height of the Merlin now extends about 14" below the camera. Thus, even in operating mode, the space required for the Merlin is significantly less than a dolly or tripod. For my daily use, the overall operating weight of the entire unit (with sufficient counterweights attached) is about 8 pounds. When compared to the operating weight of its closest competitor’s in the handheld stabilizer market, the Merlin is still a good 2–3 pounds, or roughly 25%–33% lighter. For somebody with a smaller stature, this lightweight design can make all the difference.
When shooting with a handheld stabilizer such as the Merlin, the weight of the Steadicam unit is supported entirely by the operator’s body. It’s therefore imperative to keep the overall unit as light as possible to minimize fatigue on the operator’s arms, wrists, and back. Less fatigue also means longer shoot times, an invaluable asset to wedding videographers, for whom 12-hour shooting days are the norm.
QUICK AND EASY
Balancing the Merlin is as fast and easy as it gets for any hand-held stabilizer. The counterweights take only seconds to screw on, and they come in half-pound increments so you can quickly add the exact amount of weight required.
The Merlin is the only handheld stabilizer to have a fore and aft microadjustable platform, allowing for quick and easy balancing. Competing units often have relatively crude adjustments for their platforms, which can take exponentially longer to find that perfect balance point.
Don’t be concerned if this seems intimidating at first; a new operator can become very familiar with the unit in only days of practicing.
Overall, one arm controls the camera’s boom and tracking movements while the other hand gently points the camera into direction, via tilts and pans.
Our studio, StillMotion, has shot approximately 25 weddings with the Steadicam Merlin over the last year. When one of our weddings was transformed into a nationwide (Canadian) television commercial for the Canon Rebel XTI (a DSLR camera), several Merlin shots made it to the final cut. You can see the final cut of the commercial on the StillMotion video blog.
On the corporate side of things, the Merlin played a huge part in IBM’s first international video series on diversification. In this project, the run-and-gun shooting style that the Merlin supports allowed us to tell a corporate story in a dynamic and cinematic fashion while working within the constraints of a busy workplace.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The best advice I can give with regards to operating a Merlin is to understand and apply the basic principles of inertia. A common mistake is to overcontrol the unit, which will introduce unwanted shake from your hands. To get the most out of the rig, you need to constantly work on developing soft hands and a gentle touch, thus learning to work as one with the unit.
My biggest challenge still is to practice running up the stairs chasing our studio dog, Zok, while I hear the theme from Rocky playing in my head.
Michael Y. Wong(michael at still-motion.ca) is an executive cinematographer for StillMotion, an international award-winning, boutique-style photography and cinematography studio located in Mississauga, Ontario.