When I showed up the day before the shoot for a camera prep, the director of photography (DP) and I immediately dove into the rig.
We began discussing the odd baseplate combination the rental house had provided him for the Steadicam as well as how they didn’t provide the correct cabling to use the rig’s monitor (I didn’t pick up the equipment, so I didn’t know until I showed for prep).
After some discussion, the DP seemed a bit resigned to his back-up plan: shooting handheld. But after a bit of coercing from me, we decided we were going to make this rig work anyway we could.
Balancing the Camera and Its Weight
Besides our first two problems, the baseplate and the monitor, the Steadicam wasn’t balancing correctly with the RED and all its accessories on it. So getting the weight distribution right became priority number one. Because — no matter what — if a Steadicam is not balanced correctly, it’s not worth using.
The major reason the camera had trouble balancing on the Steadicam was because the baseplate given to us didn’t allow the full range of back and forth motion on the dovetail. This meant the camera was always positioned too far forward. This caused the DP, who was operating, to constantly pull back against the camera’s weight. Operating the camera like that was far from acceptable, especially with the RED’s heavy weight.
Our solution: strip off everything on the RED we don’t need.
The only reason we had a weird baseplate on the bottom anyway was to accommodate bottom rods for a follow focus. That was the first to go.
Now the camera could rock back and forth, side to side, as it should on the mount.
Next I took off the batteries from the RED which add a substantial amount of weight. We had had two Anton Bauer batteries to juice the monitor, but since that wasn’t working, we used a p-tap cable the guy at the rental house made to run the power from those batteries to the RED.
All those efforts had solved the weight issue.
More Problems for Frankenstein Steadicam
But as a result, a few more issues cropped up: where to place the follow focus and how to make two Anton Bauer batteries last an entire 12 hour day — which was especially annoying with six RED bricks waiting on standby.
Then we got even more creative.
I found a way to mount the follow focus on the top rods. Without the battery mount on the back of the camera, we were able to slide the longer top rods back further so they didn’t jut out too much in front, nor in back. Pulling focus like this was a bit weird at first, but like any job — where something is always slightly different — you get used to it fast.
I’m even more proud of the fact that we completely dismantled the RED battery mount and found a way to gaff tape it to the bottom of the Steadicam rig. Then we used the cable to juice the RED with its own batteries. This had a two fold effect: it gave us more power and it gave a greater counter weight to the RED’s heavy body.
Finally we had Frakenstein’ed together a workable Steadicam rig.
The DP and I simply shared a monitor, though his use of it was obviously a bigger priority than mine. In the end, we shot two full days on that rig without any major problems.
Update: Please Read
A lot of attention has been drawn to this post recently with many people commenting about how this is the prime example of why Steadicam operators do what they do and why it’s important to hire professionals. I agree with this statement.
With that said, there also seems to be much confusion over my role in helping construct this rig and my telling of that story. So I’d like to clear up a few things:
- I was not the Steadicam Operator. I was the 1st AC.
- I did not have access to a wireless follow focus and the DP acknowledged this was an issue. There wasn’t money in the budget to rent one.
- I was hired two days before the shoot to replace another AC who dropped out. I was hired at night, came in the next day and presented with this camera package.
- I had no power to request additions to the camera package (no money). I had to work with what they had already rented.
- I informed the DP this rig was less than ideal, but it was ultimately his decision to use it. As a 1st AC, I don’t second-guess the DP’s decision as long as I have given him all the information he needs to make an educated choice. He was also the operator. He decided to use it so I helped him work with and around it.
I agree with those who are saying this rig is not ideal and not the right way to do it — that is true. But as I mentioned in the comments below, my job as an AC is to help the DP fulfill whatever technical tasks they throw at me. In this case, it was “make what we have work as best as you can.” So I did that. He was pleased with the results and the director was as well.
Was it ideal? No.
Would I have liked a dedicated Steadicam Operator to work with? Yes.
Would I have liked a wireless follow focus? Absolutely.
Would I have preferred a rig built to handle the camera? Definitely.
But I didn’t. And getting those things wasn’t an option the night before the shoot.
I did the best with what I had — sometimes that’s what being professional is about.
What would you have done?