This is the ultimate run-and-gun situation. We have to be ready for anything that happens on one of the most important days in a couple’s life. Stopping to change or adjust our gear for even a minute can mean missing a precious moment.
In wedding videography, the stability of a shot isn’t as important as the versatility and utility of it. In order to keep things interesting, we want to shoot from different angles quickly and efficiently since we don’t have the luxury of second, third, or fourth takes.
In my search for something that would give me this kind of versatility in my shooting, I’ve tried many tools and approaches: using tripods (the ultimate in stability), using monopods (providing some stability while also providing the ability to be much more mobile), and going hand-held (providing the most mobility but the least stability—think Blair Witch Project, or worse yet, Uncle Charlie walking around with his Handycam). They all have their uses throughout the day, but none has proven as versatile as or has vastly improved the quality of my shots like a camera stabilizer. With a stabilizer, I can have it all: smooth, steady footage while remaining mobile and having a vast variety of shots at my disposal.
Typically, when the topic of camera stabilizers comes up, two particular brands (and factions) come up: Steadicam and Glidecam. As with Mac versus Windows or Canon versus Sony, there are heated debates about which stabilizer is the best. Working quietly alongside these two companies is a small company attempting to bridge the gap for low-budget, indie filmmaker types: Indicam.
The Indicam Pilot (not to be confused with the Steadicam Pilot) is a low-cost camera stabilizer that gives you what you need in a camera stabilization system without all the bells and whistles associated with the other two models, which makes its offering more affordable and appealing to the aspiring filmmaker.
Let’s talk first about the sled. The sled of any camera stabilizer is the main component that stabilizes the camera. The sled is what isolates the roll, tilt, and pan of the camera from the body.
At first glance, the Indicam Pilot’s sled looks very similar to the Glidecam 4000, with its weights on the bottom. But that’s about where the similarities end and the features of the Indicam shine through.
The Camera Stage
Let’s start at the top and talk about the camera stage. The camera stage is where your camcorder is attached to the sled. The main principle of the camera stabilizer is to move the center of gravity of the system from within the camera body itself to a point below it to easily manipulate the camera and smooth out its movements.
The center of gravity is moved lower by using counterweights to balance the weight of the camera connected together by a post (see Figure 1, below). In order to manipulate the system at its center of gravity, we must move the center of gravity to a point along the post. This is done through an adjustable camera plate that can be moved forward and backward and side to side to get the center of gravity of the camera just above the post with all of its accessories and attachments.
The Indicam Pilot makes this adjustment very easy through the use of two wing nuts that allow forward and backward and side-to-side adjustments simultaneously (see Figure 2, below). The trade off with this ease of adjustment is that you will have to make sure the camera is squared up and in line with the camera stage when making the adjustment. For me, this trad eoff is trivial compared to the ease and quickness of making the adjustment as I am putting on and taking off attachments (like wide-angle lenses and on-camera lights) throughout the day; I can quickly and easily readjust the center of balance in a matter of seconds.
The Adjustable 3-Axis Gimbal
The next important component of the Indicam Pilot is its adjustable 3-axis gimbal. This is where the magic of stabilization happens. The gimbal is what isolates your camera from your body in three axes: tilt, pan, and roll. With a properly balanced rig, you can move the sled and twist the handle and your camera will remain relatively unshaken.
If you look at the Indicam’s gimbal and compare it to other designs, you will notice that it is solidly built. The gimbal, in particular, is CNC-milled, which means that it was cut from a block of aluminum by a Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machine, which allows for a very high-precision cut with no variances in the symmetry of the gimbal (see Figure 3, below). Symmetry of the gimbal is important as the whole concept of stabilization is based on balance.
Some other gimbals are formed by bending a flat piece of metal. Obviously, there is a higher margin for error and asymmetry by bending metal, which results in a nonlinear gimbal that has caused many users frustration. The rig will come into balance, but as soon as the camera is panned and facing another direction, the rig noticeably goes out of balance. This is attributable to the gimbal being nonlinear. It’s a very frustrating problem to have. Without a linear gimbal, the whole point of having a stabilizer is moot.
At the end of the Indicam Pilot’s gimbal is a handle. This handle allows the sled to be used hand-held or mounted on an arm and vest support, which we will talk about later in this article. Using the sled hand-held is convenient when you are in tight spaces or when you want to be less conspicuous. In hand-held mode, your arm acts as the “dampener.” Actually, the arm and vest were designed to act like your arms by taking the load off of your arms and transferring it to your waist and shoulders. Be forewarned, though, that when you’re shooting with the sled hand-held, you will have to carefully plan your shots—the rig can get pretty heavy pretty fast, causing your arms to shake after a few minutes of flying. Plan on taking frequent rests between shots, and forget about shooting toasts hand-held.
When taking longer shots or when more stamina is needed, you can mount the sled on the arm and vest support for extended periods of shooting. I shot our St. Patrick’s Day parade for 6 hours straight comfortably with the arm and vest support.
The feature that makes the Indicam Pilot’s gimbal like the high-end Steadicam’s is the adjustable placement of the gimbal. Unlike the Glidecam, where the gimbal is fixed to a spot on the post, the Indicam’s gimbal can be adjusted anywhere along the post’s length. This makes balancing your rig and getting the perfect drop-time so much easier than having to put on and take off weights to get your rig to feel right.
So when your shooting conditions change—say, when going from indoors to windy conditions outside—you can adjust the gimbal to make it more bottom-heavy in a pinch, and the wind won’t affect your rig as much. Another advantage is that when adding and removing accessories from your camera throughout the day, you can adjust the balance of the rig simply by sliding the gimbal up or down.
Because you are able to slide the gimbal, you can just as easily put your rig in low-mode. By sliding the gimbal down, you can make the sled top-heavy, with your camera at the bottom of the sled and the counterweights on top. This adds to your arsenal of possible shots you can take with your camera! Of course, you will have to rotate the image in post, but you will have instant low-mode without having to modify the camera with a low-mode cage or having to remove counterweights to make the sled top-heavy; you just slide the gimbal down.
The best part of the adjustable gimbal is that it requires no tools to make the adjustment. There is a wing-nut-style knob that makes the gimbal very easy to adjust, and the process soon becomes second nature.
The adjustable gimbal is what allows the Indicam Pilot to be able to handle such a large range of cameras, anywhere from 0.5 lbs to 15 lbs!
One feature of the Indicam gimbal that I haven’t seen anywhere else is the foam handle under the gimbal for controlling the direction of your camera. Most posts are very thin (including the Indicam’s). The small diameter of the post makes the rig much more sensitive. The makers of the Indicam have attached a thick foam handle that goes around the post. This foam effectively increases the diameter of the post, which gives you finer control over the rig, making it easier to feather your pans. It’s a simple enhancement that makes controlling the rig much easier and much more ergonomic.
At the bottom of the sled is the counterweight plate. This is where the counterweights go, which allow you to move the center of gravity of the system from within your camera to a point along the post. This way, you can easily manipulate the camera and make your footage steady.
Adding the counterweights is pretty straightforward. Remember to keep it as symmetrical as possible. I suggest adding as many weights as you can handle and putting them as far away from the post as possible to increase pan inertia.
If you are near the weight limit of the sled and still need to bring the center of gravity lower, or if you want to make the sled lighter by using less weight, you can telescope the bottom of the sled down, which will bring the center of gravity to a point lower on the post.
The counterweight plates of the Indicam and Glidecam sleds are flat, which makes it easy to put the sled down to rest it on the floor or other flat surface when not in use. Most higher-end sleds have LCDs at the bottom with a battery pack that acts as the counterweight. These higher-end sleds are usually not able to rest on a flat surface, so you have to dock them on a support stand when not in use.
Arm and Vest Support
This brings us to the Indicam’s arm and vest support. Imagine holding a 10 lb. weight at the end of a stick for even 2 minutes straight. By the end of those 2 minutes, your arms will be quivering and you will probably have to use your other hand to support your arm. When using the sled hand-held, that’s basically what you’re doing. Because the center of gravity of the system is along the post and the handle of the sled is at the end, the weight is out in front of you. That puts a lot of torque on your wrist and forearm, causing you to fatigue rather quickly. Having a designed-to-be-hand-held stabilizer like the Steadicam Merlin helps alleviate that torque by allowing you to handle the rig with your hand directly under the center of gravity. You are still carrying around a weight, however, and it gets tiring, especially for extended events like weddings.
The solution to your arm fatiguing is to move the strain from your arms to your waist and shoulders, hence, the arm and vest support. This will allow you much longer shooting times and less fatigue, as long as you are using proper posture and form in operating your stabilizer (Figure 4, below).
What makes the Indicam Pilot so attractive is that it has high-end features at an affordable price for the low-budget filmmaker. The Indicam Pilot has a dual-articulated spring arm with a 35" boom range in a nice, compact package that fits inside a backpack! I can get set up and be ready to shoot in just a few minutes, right out of the box! (The Indicam Pilot was in production a few years before Steadicam announced its product with the same name, Steadicam Pilot. Not only do they share a name, but Steadicam has also incorporated a backpack for convenient storage and transport of the rig.)
The dual-articulated arm allows more isolation of the sled from your body as compared to the single-articulated arm of the Glidecam SmoothShooter; it also allows more than double the boom range. Comparably, the cost to buy Indicam’s dual-articulated arm is actually less than the cost of the Glidecam SmoothShooter. Glidecam has a dual-articulated arm and vest support (Glidecam X-10) for $2,399, but that does not include the stabilizer sled, which will cost you an additional $499. For the same price as the X-10 alone, you could purchase Indicam’s highest weight capacity arm and vest with stabilizer sled included and have some change left over.
If, however, you need more high-end features and the security of a well-known company with a great reputation, go with Steadicam. The company is the industry standard; it created this industry of camera stabilizers. You will pay more, but you will also get more. Its most affordable arm and vest system with sled is the Steadicam Co-Pilot, but you might as well get the Steadicam Pilot for its larger LCD screen and 16:9 aspect ratio. The company offers higher-end features like vernier adjustment of the camera stage, an adjustable gimbal (which requires the use of the included hex wrench), an LCD screen mounted at the bottom of the sled, professional battery mounts, an iso-elastic dual-articulated arm, a socket block adjustment, and the Steadicam name to back it all up.
While I really wanted to purchase a Steadicam brand stabilizer when I first started, my budget would not allow it. In my research, I found the Indicam Pilot, took the plunge, and have put it to great use. In the time that I have used the Indicam Pilot, it has greatly increased the quality of my productions and has brought me more business by differentiating my work from that of my colleagues.
I have owned and used the Indicam Pilot for more than 2 years now, and I have made some customizations of my own to my rig (as is very common among Steadicam operators). Here are some accessories that I consider integral in making my shoots go more smoothly.
- Quick-Release Adapter: I have Bogen/Manfrotto tripods that come with a quick-release adapter and adapter plate to attach to my camera. The quick-release system allows you to easily move your camera from your different supports without having to mess with a mounting screw. I use the same quick-release adapter on my Indicam Pilot sled, tripod, and monopod. This makes your equipment universal and allows you to change quickly from one to the other. The other advantage to using my particular quick-release adapter (Bogen/Manfrotto 577) is that the plate can slide forward and backward and can be tightened into position. Adjustments can be done quickly when adding on wide-angle lenses and other accessories that are centered around the lens—the side-to-side balance is already set; all I have to do is slide the camera forward or backward to rebalance the sled.
- Bubble Level: Another tool I use to quickly check that my sled is level is the bubble level. This lets me know at a glance if my rig is balanced and what adjustments I need to make to balance it properly. Quick tip: Move your camera toward the bubble to get it balanced. For example, if your sled is front-heavy, the bubble-level indicator will be toward the back of the sled. Moving your camera toward the bubble would mean moving it back. When you’ve moved the camera back enough, the bubble will be centered and so will your camera!
- LANC Controller: When flying with a stabilizer, any external forces on the camera or sled itself will cause the rig to go out of balance. Let the sled do its job by leaving it alone and control the sled only by holding it at the handle and directing it with a light touch beneath the gimbal. With a LANC controller, you can start/stop recording and adjust zoom levels on your camcorder without having to physically touch your camcorder. The LANC controller also allows you to zoom while recording without introducing shakes into the footage.
- Discreet Vest: This is an accessory that is specific to the Indicam Pilot. As I mentioned before, the Indicam is a very portable system as everything fits inside a backpack. The backpack serves a dual purpose in that it is also used as part of the vest. You don’t have to leave your gear on the floor and you can carry it around with you in the backpack if you need to. However, personally, I feel that wearing a backpack doesn’t look as professional when shooting weddings. The Discreet Vest (Figure 5, below) was developed to give a more streamlined and slim look to the vest. The vest is so slim that you can wear it under a jacket without any noticable bulges. It’s very comfortable, and it makes you look much more professional.
- High Shot: This is an accessory that is sold by Indicam, but it can be used with the Glidecam arm and vest support as well. The High Shot gives you an extra 12"–18" of height for when you want a bird’s-eye view or higher vantage point. It is a bit trickier to operate with the sled up higher, so be careful mounting and dismounting the sled.
Table 1 (below) is a comparison chart of camera stabilizers available on the market today.
If you have to have the best of the best and have an unlimited budget, get a Steadicam. The Pilot is a great starter stabilizer.
If you already have a hand-held stabilizer like the Glidecam 2000, 4000, or the Indicam Pilot sled and want an arm and vest support, the Indicam trumps the other options in features and price. If you don’t have a stabilizer and are on a limited budget, the Indicam Pilot is, again, the clear winner here. I am fairly certain that you will run into fewer problems with the Indicam than with most of the other alternatives on the market today.
I strongly recommend the Indicam Pilot for aspiring filmmakers on a budget or wedding videographers looking to add more dynamic movement to their videos. The Indicam Pilot has greatly increased the quality of my productions. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t added this versatile tool to my arsenal.
Be forewarned, though, that there is a pretty high learning curve in using this tool. It doesn’t just “work” right out of the box. There are a lot of nuances and new concepts that you will have to learn and understand. But with a lot of practice, you will get footage that would be near impossible or very cumbersome without a stabilizer.
For examples of stabilizer footage shot with the Indicam Pilot, check out www.kairosweddingfilms.com.
Peter Chung (peter at kairosweddingfilms.com) is the owner and operator of Kairos Moment Wedding Films, a Kansas City, Mo.-based studio specializing in cinematic wedding productions. He was named 2008 Best Videographer in KMBC-TV’s annual Kansas City A-list competition.