Would you hammer a nail in with a jelly?

Well, I’m sure there is a small on-line group out there who do this exact thing but I have to confess to never having tried. I’ve always gone straight for the hammer, boring I hear you say but I stick to my guns and reply that a hammer is better than a jelly when it comes to banging in nails. This is a roundabout way of talking about using the right tools for a job. Recently there have been a huge number of new tools for camera stabilizing and aerial work which is terrific. I am lucky to be involved with a range of budgets to make films and so my path crosses a wide range of these tools, my decisions are based sometimes on budget requirements and sometimes by choice, however it’s really important to be aware of each tools limitations even if you are forced into one by budget. This is possibly going to turn into a rant but I will try to avoid it! The rant would be about people comparing the MOVI or Ronin to a steadicam. This happens all the time by people who love the Ronin and are constantly heard saying ‘oh, it’s just like a steadicam, but better’ and people who have booked a Ronin instead of a steadicam and moaning that they didn’t get that steadicam look that they wanted. I have had two projects recently, one I used a Ronin on and the other used an AR rig (posh steadicam, for those who don’t know). So why did I choose these tools? Let’s look at film 1. This was a film for RM Sotherby’s who are one of the worlds leading classic car auction houses. They asked me to film a 1960’s short wheel based Ferrari 250GT worth a cool 12 million Euros.

I designed a sequence to start the film where we followed the driver to the car to build up some atmosphere. Great idea I thought, then I saw the budget and more importantly, the time we had with the car. So in my budget I could afford either a steadicam and 1 camera or a Ronin and 2 cameras. Lets talk briefly about what each tool can offer. The steadicam is an excellent tool that gives smooth and precise movement in pretty much any direction but it is limited in range of height, you can either go low mode and have knee height to chest or high mode and have waist to head, but not both in one shot (unless you use the AR rig, more of that later). Also it takes at least an hour to set and balance. The Ronin is very flexible but there is a very definite up/down movement as the operator walks which is extremely difficult to lose. This is normally disguised if there are people moving in shot but can look terrible if you are just tracking past inanimate objects. It is quick to set up but generally less precise.

So rewind to film 1. Here it is, apologies for the text start and end, it’s an approval version.

We went with the Ronin as the second camera that I could then afford gave as more options for the driving shots we also needed. For the Ronin sequence nearly all the shots had a person in so the up/down movement was disguised. If you look at the shot before the end of the opening sequence where the camera tracks around the car you can definitely see the vertical movement but the time saved in setting the Ronin and the cost savings made this the right tool for this job despite it’s limitations. A steadicam would have given us slightly more elegant moves but there wouldn’t have been much in it and the loss of the second camera would have had a huge impact.

The second film was a trail for Discovery Channel to promote a series of VE day films. The director, Zeliha Bozkurt, went for a bold one shot treatment. We were to move through a living room seeing props that connected with a radio broadcast of some key moments throughout WWII.

The room is devoid of people until a reveal at the end (ut oh, sorry, plot spoiler). To complicate things we needed to make sure this move is complete within a 40 seconds. The set was slightly oversize but nowhere big enough for a dolly, there was a long lateral move with no people in shot so Ronin was out, the shot required a camera height from knee to head so Steadicam was out, the only choice left was an AR rig. These are brilliant tools. It is basically a jib arm mounted on a steadicam vest which allows the camera to move between floor level to about 2 meters whilst the steadicam op moves around as normal. If you ever need one Simon Wood is your man, not only a magnificent operator but also a true gent. Here’s the film;

If we had booked  a Ronin for this job we would have all been cursing it and indeed I would be one of those people moaning that it wasn’t a steadicam. That in no way means the Ronin or MOVI aren’t great tools, they just have different characteristics. There have been plenty of times that I have had to redesign shots because we just couldn’t get the steadicam around a tight corner whereas a Ronin would easily have fitted. In fact, I have just finished another job for the National Trust where we ended up using a Ronin for that exact reason, some of the spaces were so tight that we couldn’t accommodate the footprint of a steadicam. We did also have some long moves along straight corridors where the Ronin’s up/down movement would have been obvious so for these we stood the Ronin op on a flatbed dolly with soft wheels which worked well. Anyway, I digress, the point I was making is that as DoP’s we need to know the tools. We are blessed with new fantastic tools all the time, it is our responsibility to make sure that we use the right ones for the right jobs. However cool, wacky and creative it sounds I am not going to bang in a nail with a jelly.

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