When I was in film school in '92, I was working on a project that required a dolly shot around a sofa where the main character was seated. Back in those good ol' days, our film and video department didn't have an actual dolly. We had the "film school" equivalent: a wheelchair. That's right-a wheelchair. While I sat in the chair holding the camera, my buddy (who was the PA/Grip/AD/actor) pushed. Nowadays, I'm paid to make videos. And when a smooth dolly shot is required, I can't use a wheelchair. It just wouldn't be professional.
This year our company has evolved into a new media marketing agency, and the commercial clientele we're going after has a keener eye for quality and production values than clients we've served in the past. We've therefore committed ourselves to raising our game. That means incorporating tools and gear we haven't used before. Whereas in the past I would've been happy with a static shot on sticks, now I want to incorporate movement. But in many of our productions, busting out a full-sized dolly would be unrealistic. Many times we just need a little bit of movement to give the video that polished look. Luckily, there's an alternative to both the wheelchair and the full-blown dolly.
Like so many of you, I am a fan of StillMotion out of Toronto. I caught a glimpse of a video they had put together for fellow Canadian company Cinevate (makers of the Brevis 35mm adapter, as well as a variety of other camera gear). This one starred a new slide-rail system that allowed the shooter to create smooth, dollylike shots. It's called the Pegasus. I have absolutely no idea where or why they named it thus (but it does sound a lot cooler than "slider system"). I recently had the opportunity to test the system, and here's a look at how it performed on a series of shoots that required some smooth dolly-type shots.
Once I got all the pieces, it took a bit of time to figure out where everything went. Cinevate has designed its gear to be versatile and interchangeable. So the Pegasus system comprises two systems.
First, there's the Proteus Rails System (it's obvious that Dennis Wood, Cinevate's CEO, has a thing for Greek mythology). The Proteus is one of the company's "foundational" systems. It's composed of a base plate, adjustable links (kind of like articulated metal extenders on either side), and 50mm carbon fiber rods (Figure 1, below).
The Proteus can be used with a number of Cinevate's other systems (e.g., the Brevis 35mm adapters, the DSLR rigs). Depending on the system, you may want to use longer metal links on the base plate. A nice feature of the Proteus is that you can adjust and tighten the links using toolless fasteners. When necessary, you can also use an Allen wrench for an even tighter fit.
The obvious benefit of all these configurable pieces is the flexibility. The slight downside is that it can intimidate first-time users of the system (like me) when setting up everything. However, never fear, because Cinevate has done a fantastic job of posting "how to" videos on its Video University site (not to be confused with the event videography forum Video University) accessible from its homepage. As of this writing there are more than 25 videos showing how to use Cinevate's various products. The videos aren't that long, and after about 15-20 minutes of watching all the Pegasus-related videos, I was good to go.
The second part of the Pegasus system is the Pegasus kit, which comprises two sets of wheels with bearings (called "trucks") that attach to the Proteus base plate system and two "bear claws" (Figure 2, below).
The bear claws are used to hold the rails in place. They can be attached to any standard tripod, set on a table, or attached to C-stands. For the linear tracking system, you're going to use longer rails than the ones that come with the Proteus kit. I had the 1-meter carbon rails. The rails are flexible but extremely durable.
Once the trucks are attached to the Proteus, you adjust the articulating links at an angle and the truck wheels to allow the rails to run in between the wheels (Figure 3, below).
With the setup I had, I could use cameras weighing up to about 10 lbs. I was using the Canon 5D Mark II. If you're going to use a heavier setup-perhaps a larger camera with a 35mm adapter, a matte box, and the like-you may want to look into the Pegasus "heavy lifter." It uses solid steel rods (versus the carbon ones) and can support up to 30 lbs.
When you combine the Proteus and the Pegasus carbon rail system, you have a very configurable system for a variety of shooting scenarios. You can shoot with the system parallel to the ground, you can lift one side higher than the other for a sort of escalating shot, or you can place it on the ground for a low-tracking shot. If you really want to get a quick "run and gun," take the Proteus system with the trucks off the rails and just roll it on the floor or a table. Cinevate really has created a system that gives your imagination a lot of room to play.
Pegasus in Action
As I mentioned before, there were two shoots for which I planned to use the Pegasus system: a promo video for our client Pictage and a promo video for my wife's newly formed teen portrait photography business, Teen Identity. I know many of you reading this may want to use it for a wedding or other event. That is indeed possible (as the StillMotion promo video for this product suggests). Naturally, if you plan to use a system like this for a live event, you need to do some planning: Have as much of the system set up as possible before the event begins. From an artistic perspective, plan your shots with something in the foreground. If the viewer can see objects in the foreground moving by faster than those in the background, the movement sensation is magnified. Also, if you're using a camera with a nice, shallow depth of field, having the foreground elements out of focus would add nicely to the look. If you're really adventurous, try pulling focus as you dolly-e.g., dolly past shoes (in focus) in the foreground, and rack the focus to the background to reveal the bride putting on her dress.
Naturally, the most difficult part of setting up a shot like this is getting everything set up fast enough to grab the action you want. In the aforementioned promo clip, the StillMotion crew was filming the bride putting on her makeup. That'll definitely give you more time. In my example, you might have to be faster on the draw.
Since both of my shoots were commercial gigs, I had plenty of time to set up the system and the shot. For my first shoot, I was at a Pictage User Group (PUG) meeting. Pictage is a leading online lab and community for wedding and portrait photographers. PUGs are to photographers what PVAs (professional videographer associations) are to videographers. The meetings offer time for photographers to network and get valuable training and education. In this particular meeting, the new Pictage CEO was speaking.
For my first shot, I planned to do a dolly past a set of miniature albums placed on display. For support I used two light stands, and I placed the configured system on top (Figure 4, below). It took about 15 minutes or so to get everything set up the way I wanted. In truth, the hardest part was rearranging the albums (which were all laid flat at first) in such a way to 1) create an interesting dolly shot with foreground and background elements, and 2) allow for an effective display of the products.
An interesting benefit from setting up this particular shot was the look from the photographers who were watching me and gaining a heightened appreciation for what we do to get a shot. Figure 5 (below) is a frame grab from the end of the dolly shot where I racked from an in-focus foreground to the album in the background.
My second slider shot was from behind the audience as they watched a video. For this shot, I had to raise the light stands to their highest level. This is where having an assistant (if possible) is helpful. It's too much of a pain to take the wheels on and off the rails every time you need to adjust height, so I just left them on. However, that meant as I raised one side, the camera would roll down the slider. It's at that point that I started losing the cool points I had earned with my fellow photographers. Watching a guy trying to raise this thing by himself with the camera sliding all around the place can be quite comical.
Finally, I just asked somebody to help me raise both sides of the darn thing at the same time. I liked this shot because there were four planes of foreground and background elements, giving the shot a lot of depth. There was the very back row of people, the two additional rows in front of that, and the screen in the background. (See Figure 6, below, for a screen grab from the Canon 5D.)
The last gig I used the system on was a promo video for my wife's teen portrait business. She was doing a shoot with six teen girls. I used the Pegasus to get a sliding pan of the girls "striking a pose" (Figure 7, below). I also interviewed each girl separately about peer pressure. I seated them in front of the white background. As they spoke, I slowly slid the camera so that their bodies moved from frame left to frame right (or vice versa). In post, I'll do a dissolve from one girl framed right to the next girl framed left, appearing from "out of nowhere." I'll do it on the movement to give it that little something extra.
In Closing ...
In closing, the Pegasus is a terrific system, particularly if you do a lot of corporate or indie film work. By far, the system's biggest advantage is its versatility. There are so many ways to configure it that you'll have a plethora of shooting options. However, depending on how you plan to use it, that could also be a negative. Unless you're going to use the base plate and trucks as a table or floor dolly, it's not the kind of system you can use for fast, run-and-gun-type work. For the smoothest shots, the more time you have to prep, plan, and set up, the better.
Lastly, the entire system is listed at $770 (I'm assuming that's in Canadian dollars). So it's not a small investment. However, if you're using other Cinevate gear (such as the DSLR rigs, the 35mm adapter mounts, etc.), your investment can be allocated over a number of systems.
Ron Dawson (ron at daredreamer.net) is president of Dare Dreamer Media, a new media marketing and video production agency. He and his wife, Tasra, are co-authors of the Peachpit Press book ReFocus: Cutting-Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business. Ron is also a two-time EventDV 25 honoree.