Hollywood Cinematographic Approach

- #1 Gimbal and Steadicam Distinctive Usage -

Hiroyuki HAGA / Director of Photography


When you hear “STABILIZED SHOT”, what do you imagine first? These days, a lens itself sometimes has OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer) and even DSLR may be equipped with “5-Axis Image Stabilization”, which let you easily acquire “STABILIZED SHOT” with smaller budget. Also at post-production, Warp Stabilizer in After Effect/Premiere Pro became famous at first and then of course some stabilizing tools are installed in other editing tools such as Avid and Vegas Pro. Even nowadays DaVinci Resolve is equipped with an excellent stabilizing tool. In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)” directed by David FINCHER, they shot 4.5K/5K resolution with handheld on RED EPIC, which RED Digital Cinema just announced Mysterium-X sensor at that time. They chose 4.5K/5K resolution purposely for stabilization after a crop factor in post-production. I still remember how shocking news was written on a magazine, “American Cinematographer”. Now the bigger resolution has been used as one of benefits for this kind of purpose and post stabilization takes a big role for it. For me, a first thing caming up in my mind is Gimbal or Steadicam for “STABILIZED SHOT” as a cinematographer. When I worked with a director who likes ONE LONG SHOT (it means one long continuous shot), we often discussed to use Gimbal or Steadicam. Movi M10, a well-known Gimbal representative, was released in 2013 and honored, “It’s revolutionary new technology and should create a new shooting method!”, and some filmmakers were excited that Gimbal should replace Steadicam. On the other hand, Steadicam was born in 1976 and took a spotlight in a movie “Rocky (1976)” for a scene that Rocky runs on a staircase at Philadelphia Museum of Art for his boxing training. Do you think Gimbal replaces Steadicam which has been much longer years? Let’s focus on the characteristics and cautions of each.

Difference between hardware control and software control

Sometimes when I shot Promotion Videos and Commercials, I have heard, “Let’s use MOVI for the all remaining shots!”. I have questioned why we had to reply on Gimbal for saving time under time limit. After Gimbal was released, there are many Gimbal owners these days. In terms of a renting cost, Gimbal would save more money than Steadicam because Steadicam requires us to hire a professional operator for it. The most significant difference between Gimbal and Steadicam is the system. Gimbal is controlled by a software but Steadicam is controlled by hardwares such as weight balance and an arm supporting a camera and tools. Likely analogue vs. digital, Gimbal’s software problem would come from an unknown issue like a computer’s bug. If you want to be secured, you might ned to hire another professional tech person who really knows the software system, which would cost additionally and means not cheap at all any more. On the other hand, Steadicam is made more simply and lets you easily understand an issue and solution. I often think we haven’t pointed out the speed of how fast we can recover from an issue happened on set. If we can quickly come back to shoot, we can get more shots, which leads money saving in the end. I have seen some sets that a production didn’t understand this key method but used Gimbal without a good reason. Then they couldn’t find out a good solution to recover from a software issue and eventually they took a camera out from Gimbal and changed to a handheld mode.

Usage Range due to Weight Limit

Besides, the weight and size limit of Gimbal is another difference than Steadicam. Gimbal requires a camera’s physical size fitting inside a cage of Gimbal and also weight limit will be determined depends on a model and brand: Movi Pro’s weight limit is 6.80kg and Ronin 2’s is 13.6kg. I’ve seen Alexa XT was attached on Ronin 2 with very simple accessories. (You cannot put many accessories on cameras with Gimbal) Steadicam also has weight limit but the range would be much bigger. For instance, “Hugo (2011)” directed by Martin Scorsese was shot on 3D and 2x ARRI Alexa with 3D rig were on one single steadicam, whose weight would be around 35-37kg. Like this, Steadicam lets you put more varieties of accessories on a camera with more flexible weight and size of cameras.

Proper Choice by the Difference of Camera Movement

How about the movement of Gimbal and Steadicam? I believe that there is not much difference between Gimbal and Steadicam about straightly following and leading a subject. Because many “Stabilized Shots” are such straight movements, many people think both tools are the same. Under a tight budget, Gimbal would be chosen more with less expensive rental cost and I agree with the idea if a production could hire an operator who experienced the gimbal well. The reason why I say “Straight” is that Gimbal could hardly achieve a great 360 degree round shot and extreme high or low angle shots. There is a solution for them to use Movi Controller or Mimic that allows a cinematographer to operate the camera angle and detail movement of camera (pan or tilt) beside the gimbal operator. However, those additional controllers rely on wireless connection and not stable, so Steadicam could beat Gimbal for an accurate camera movement and controlling a subtle camera composition.
On the other hand, Gimbal could beat Steadicam for some factors: at first, easy adoption of Low Mode. Steadicam would require at least 10 minutes for set-up change from Standard Mode (regular mode: usually aiming a subject’s eye level) to Low Mode. However, Gimbal lets an operator easily adjust the height of camera and doesn’t require any set-up change for height sift. Also Gimbal is highly recommended for some special/unique shots. For example, when Movi was announced, they surpris-ed us with a demo video that an operator on roller skates followed a subject going inside a taxi and still aim the subject inside a taxi while the operator was holding the taxi door. It was accomplished as ONE SHOT! I also used Movi for a long one shot in a small and tight location where I used a rope to carry the Movi down from 2nd floor to 1st floor while passing it out to another operator waiting at 1st floor and continuing fol-low a different subject. I couldn’t achieve the shot without Gimbal. (If the location was large and we had a big budget, I would have used a techno crane for the shot.) Recently some filmmakers attach a Gimbal on a head of crane and operate the cam-era by Controller, which almost works as a Remote Head. In a Live Sport program, I’ve seen “Spider Cam”, which moves fast on wires connected between far apart places and use a gimbal to add the stabilization and remote control. Of course, most drones use the gimbal system very well. Another advantage of Gimal doesn’t require big space to operate it: a narrow spiral staircase, rough ground, and limited space where Steadicam could hardly operate.

Different Impression of Shot

Lastly I would like to share my thought about difference of shot impression between Gimbal and Steadicam. When you take a slow following shot, you should be able to use both methods, but do you think the both shots would be exactly the same? It’s may-be my own thought but Gimbal makes me oddly feel more floating and artificial move-ment by adjusting the camera straight if the camera especially pans left/right or tilt up/down. I believe Steadicam has much less this feeling. The camera work should compensate an audience’s point of view on his/her behalf and if the camera work adds some oddness, the audience would lose his/her focus on a movie. Some direc-tors may intend to use this method but Gimbal would be inferior to Steadicam for this point. Also sometimes we aim a shot emphasize a subject’s emotion by slowly push-ing a camera in or slowly pulling back. If you have already used a gimbal for another shot, you may want to keep the gimbal for such shots. But these type slowly and less noticeable camera movement would be better by using a dolly or slider. The dolly and slider can be repeated the same movement easily and save budget to rent them, so please reconsider to use those old tools as well.
05 Hiro on Dolly 2
Nowadays there is Hybrid way that Gimbal is attached with Steadicam, which lets a filmmaker achieve a new shot. In the future there could be a new tool combining both advantage and we could get better “Stabilized Shot”. I always believe that a cinema-tographer should fully understand all features and specifications of all existing tools, learn new technology and choose a best way/method for a shot to tell a story and message a director wants to tell. There is always limit of of time and budget but I think it’s fun to propose a best plan within the limit. Also I like to enjoy a new tech-nology and possibility for a new shot from now on.