Not every director likes to move the camera. Some simply can’t afford it. Go back and look at Kevin Smith’s Clerks, for example. Almost every shot in that movie was a locked-down tripod shot—no movement at all. At the other extreme is Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov’s mind-blowing Russian Ark, an entire feature film shot in one continous, moving shot, featuring 2,000 actors in 33 different rooms.
One reason indie moviemakers don’t use much camera movement is fear. There’s a pervasive myth that it’s impossible to cut a static shot with a moving shot. That’s really only true if the action you’re shooting from a tripod doesn’t match the moving shot. Of course, setting up a mobile shot can take a long time, which eats up a lot of your schedule. Long, moving shots are riskier than simple coverage. But what good director runs from a little risk?
If you’re new to the concept of moving the camera, take a couple of hours to familiarize yourself with the lingo of camera movement. Grab a copy of Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen, a book by Steven Katz, and read the sections about moving the camera. Once you can describe a pan, tilt, crane shot and tracking shot, you’re ready to look at some equipment.
For this article, I’m focusing on the last category of camera motion: Tracking shots. In this type of shot, the camera glides in and out of the action, either on a tram or dolly, attached to a vehicle or, in the old days, with a handheld camera. Today, instead of handhelds, most directors use a camera stabilizer—a counterweighted rig operated by someone with rock-hard thighs. This concept has been around since the 1970s, but the gear has recently come down a lot in price. Let’s look at some of your best gear options, as you seek new ways to bring your camera moves to life.
Glidecam V-25 System, $9,995 (includes vest, arm and all necessary add-ons)
Most indie moviemakers have heard of “Steadicam” technology. To set the record straight, Steadicam is a trademarked term owned by The Tiffen Company. But moviemakers use it to refer to almost any type of body-mounted camera stabilizer, including the ones made by Glidecam. A few years back, I bought a lower cost Glidecam system. What I learned right away is that the gear will get you halfway to good footage; the other half comes from experience. After buying, I soon purchased the body harness that shifts the weight of the camera to your torso (forget about trying to hold the rig up for long without one). This rig will handle most HD cameras without undue stress on the operator. With it, you gain the ability to follow actors in and out of rooms, get some wild, flowing footage of nightclubs or shoot from the middle of a battle scene.
If you’re a low-budget shooter who wants to dally with roving shots and shoot with a lightweight (read: under five-pound) camera, this nifty, multi-purposed stabilizer may work for you. While I wouldn’t recommend it for long days of extended tracking shots, the Flowpod has some nice perks, the biggest one being that it converts to a low-angle stabilizer. That means you can create a roving shot like the one from Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, where Bruce Campbell is being terrorized by a nightmarish critter that is running along smoothly through the underbrush behind him. Also, the rig converts into a monopod for static shooting. (Note that you’ll need a special weight kit to use this product with a Canon XL1, and it’s not recommended for use with the Canon XL2 or JVC HD100U.)
“Sticking it to the Man”
An automobile is a ready-made camera dolly. But until recently, mounting a camera on one has been pricey. That’s why this low-cost unit is such a nice piece of technology. It allows you to thumb your nose at the studios, who don’t even know how to enter a figure as low as $129 into a budget sheet.
Here’s my advice on making the most of this suction cup-mounted rig: Use it to put the camera on the hood of the car and point it back at two actors who are chatting away. That’s a major savings over renting a tow rig, the way it’s often done. Granted, the actors have to be able to drive and act at the same time, but if you’re lying down in the back seat watching the monitor, you can bark directions at them. If suction cups scare you, add a safety tether to the Stickypod (although the unit does seem to stick securely, as advertised, and it’s supposed to be able to handle wind speeds of up to 175 miles per hour). Use this thing once and it more than pays for itself; use it twice and you can start to gloat.
“Over the Top”
NCT-6 Noblét Camera Trolley, $10,199 (base price only)
Remember those sweeping overhead battle shots in the first The Lord of the Rings movie? That “impossible” shot was accomplished by way of a remote-controlled camera tram. This tram technology has finally trickled down to a much more affordable package, thanks to some innovators in the state of Washington. The NCT-6 is pretty simple—thus the reasonable cost. It runs on a single cable that can extend up to 400-feet, handle a 20-pound camera, climb a seven percent grade and be controlled by a wireless remote with tilt and pan features. Of course, the unit also has limitations: A windy day may not bode well for the single-cable option and it has no wireless LCD monitor (you’ll have to pay extra for all of those essential features). Nonetheless, if you want epic-quality tracking shots at budget prices, here’s a tool that might pull it off.
“Quick and Slick”
Universal Dolly, $1,099 (not including track)
One of the things I dread about location shooting is dragging the heavy tracking platform and accessories to the site (forget about flying anywhere with it). This handy dolly package puts a lot of emphasis on portability and weight reduction. If you’re shooting with one of the lighter HD cameras or a Canon XL1 or XL2, this setup makes a lot of sense. I like the idea of being able to schlep it around without throwing my back out—and the ability to take it with me on an airplane is a major plus. Many times I’ve been at a protest or other big event where a tracking shot would have raised the bar professionally. The portable three-foot sections of track are pricey, at $500 to create a 12-foot section (and that’s just the straight track—curved costs twice that). But I’d consider buying a setup like this, especially immediately after I get done putting away my 100-pound tracking platform.
“Twists and Turns”
PT20 Camera Turret, $1,599
Whether you’re doing moving vehicle shots or hooked up to the tram system I just described, this joystick-controlled contraption allows you to pan and tilt the camera to follow the action. Plus, a set of bolts lets you mount the unit anywhere you want. The motors conveniently run on 12-volt power and the joystick allows you precise control of the speed of tilt or pan. It also has a built-in system for smoothing the transition as you change speed, sort of like the “ease in” commands connected with keyframing video when editing. The unit is controlled with cables, but the company now offers a wireless conversion kit for $699. If you’re planning to put the camera out of reach on a trolley or tram, this may be the way to go. MM