I've been doing this a long time - over 20 years. I spent the first 10 years of my photography/cinematography career on the East Coast of the United States working in commercials and corporate videos. For the past 10 years I've lived and worked in the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles/Hollywood, CA. Everything that I share here is born of my experience working on TV, movie, commercial, documentary, music video & in shooting live events. I've had to negotiate some unimaginably difficult environments to do my job - I've shot footage in operating rooms and surgical suites, on some of the largest stages in the world, in remote locations with extremely dangerous conditions, and on some of the most dangerous streets here in the USA and abroad. My goal in sharing this information is to help. I readily accept that just because one piece of equipment, or this or that setup works great for me that it will work for you. In many cases it might not, but what I hope to accomplish is offering a solid opinion based in real-world experience - one that might be a good starting place for you as you struggle to find the right equipment and work-flow for yourself. This is a disclaimer - I don't work for anyone (meaning a camera company, etc...) - I don't have an endorsement deal with anyone - I simply have gone through a couple of tons of equipment looking for the best combination of functionality and durability to help me be more efficient and productive when I am on a set or in a studio or on location shooting. I hope that some of the hard lessons I've learned - mistakes and great choices alike - when shared might help you get further on the path you've chosen. BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST -
Above - I love this first shot. Me with a rented $75,000 camera and a director who wanted the shot as low (and close) to the water as possible... my cam-op absolutely wasn't comfortable with this so I stepped in and took over - I got the shot. But as you can see - I wasn't happy about the director's insistence with flirting with disaster. Another catch - that's a "no human touch" water supply. And there was a city water dept. rep on sight... I never did touch the water but got close. This wasn't such a difficult situation as it was stressful; it's just part of the job.
A "RIG" or "CAMERA RIG" - is the term used for all of the support devices anchored to a camera so it can be used. Excluding the camera body and lens itself, a rig usually consists of a support device (tripod, high-hat, monopod, gimbal, jib, etc...), rail or support system connected to a plate (for connecting to the camera and the support device - it's a bridge that allows you to connect the camera and support while adding more stuff to manage the camera), and a wide-assortment of devices from lights to external monitors, lens adapters (the first photo above with me next to the lake - the rails are supporting a depth of field adapter - which allows that particular HD camera the ability to shoot footage that looks more like 35mm film). If you go through the photos above you'll see that in nearly every shot I'm using a different camera, different rig, and the shooting environments are very different. Welcome to the world of professional video and cinematography. To understand why any one rig would make more sense or less, let me tell you about the history of the cinema/camera rig. DESIGN BORN OF FUNCTION
First - it's notable that in the photo above the camera is being supported by a commercial lift truck... a big truck with a forklift attachment on front. For the first 30 years of film making - the cameras were not designed to record sound (actually something they are still not designed to do) or more importantly, synchronize with sound. Cameras were loud - they sounded like heavy industrial sewing machines. Which ironically they share a lot of similar traits. The mechanics involved in pulling 24 or so frames per second through a camera took a lot of gears and levers and other mechanisms that made the whole device large, noisy, and at times, temperamental. When sound was introduced to "moving pictures" there were two major issues that needed to be addressed. The frame-rate of the camera had to be consistent from second to second so it could be synchronized with the recorded sound and the camera needed to be silent. Quartz motors - with timing that was precise like a watch movement were invented (thus the term originally was crystal sync motors) and a sound-proof device aptly called a "BLIMP" was invented. You put the crystal sync controlled camera inside the massive blimp and because the blimp was sound-proofed and insulated you could record and sync the film and sound in the post-production phase of the film's development. Blimps were massive, heavy, and a pain to work with. ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement) and FOLEY (recording sound effects separately) was developed for those times that you just couldn't bother with the time and practical movement issues associated with a "blimped" camera. BL - BLIMPED BODY CAMERAS -
Motion pictures were made with large blimped cameras until a revolution of technology was introduced by German camera innovator Arnold & Richter (ARRI) in 1972 (that's right - MODERN motion picture cameras were not invented until 1972 - a mere 43 years ago). The ARRI BL35 Motion Picture Camera was the first self-blimped - light-weight camera. Seen above - "Light Weight" is a relative term... fully loaded as the camera in the photo above is - it weighed nearly 75lbs. I know because I lugged the camera in the photo above around for about a year as I was working with a good friend of mine (who was the camera's owner) on a documentary for the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). Note the second photo - it's of THIS camera sitting in my lap as we drive to a location. I was responsible for it and we were headed to a location with limited space to set the camera up - so we put it together and it rode in my lap. Sometimes even a self-blimped camera would be a little noisy, this usually was the film magazine's fault. In the mid-1970's the film magazine blimp/cover was created to help keep the noise down. THE QUICK ADVANCEMENT TO THE MODERN CAMERA RIG
In the next decade a number of new "silent" camera systems were developed by ARRI and Panavision (USA) - the two leading manufacturers of motion picture cameras at the time. With each new generation of camera came new advances in operation, output, and quality. Each new generation also saw the creation of new support devices to assist the camera operator with managing the sophisticated device that is the motion picture camera. Third party vendors - the vast majority of which were started in and around Hollywood - such as Alan Gordon Enterprises and Otto Nemenz - were born of the need for innovative film tool solutions. These companies were the first to develop lens support systems that used quick-release plates and steel rods (rails) to mount various devices on. In the beginning - what I like to call the "Golden Age" of rig development - in the 1970's and 1980's - these products were prohibitively expensive for they were all hand-made using the available tools at the time. This is before CAD (computer aided design) and computer controlled milling machines - CNC (Computer Numeric Control). The process of creating the dies and performing the milling for each component was costly and time consuming. This meant that only studios and production companies with large amounts of money could afford to create these devices. Additionally there was no standard. That is until ARRI decided to get into the business of designing and selling camera support systems and devices. THE MODERN ERA BEGINS
The ARRI "Dovetail" quick release base-plate - a system that allowed the camera crew to quickly remove the camera from whatever support system they were using - was married with support for rods/rails. Two rod standards were born - 19mm diameter rods on a 100mm center (center of rod to rod) for larger camera systems (35 & 70mm) and 15mm diameter rods on a 60mm center for smaller camera systems (16mm). These standards exist today. ARRI also introduced what is considered the "gold standard" for follow-focus designs with their "Studio Follow Focus" system. The ARRI Follow Focus is designed to work with both 15mm and 19mm rail systems. With the invention of CCD video the "Video Tap" was born. A small CCD video camera would be mounted to the camera and a prism splitter would be inserted into the camera's eyepiece - allowing the images the camera operator saw to be sent to external monitors for the director, DP, and other members of the crew to observe. The huddling of crew department heads around these monitors became known as the "Video Village". MARKET COMPETITION & FRAGMENTATION -
Pretty soon there were numerous companies making rail systems, dovetail systems, follow-focus, matte boxes, video taps, lenses, and support systems. These were still all very expensive. You would spend $15,000 (US) to buy a dovetail plate, rods, follow-focus, matte box, and tripod. Then another major breakthrough in technology occurred - CAD aided CNC machines and vacuum cured carbon fiber/carbon composites. A CNC machine can perform (nearly) precise complex milling functions without requiring hands-on die and milling work. Vacuum cured carbon composites offer an affordable alternative to milled metals with better weight to strength ratios. Suddenly there were dozens of companies offering rail systems, follow-focus units, matte boxes, and more. The 15mm and 19mm standards still held and for the most part these new products were designed to work with the well-established ARRI standards. A few companies developed dovetail systems of their own. And many developed their own follow-focus designs, adding additional functionality and versatility. With the cost of manufacturing dropping and the demand for entry-level camera support/rig systems on the rise - in the 10 years that I've lived in Southern California I've seen the cost of these items drop by 200-400% - the used market is ripe with affordable, barely used equipment at a fraction of the cost of new, and the options for building your own specialized rig (made to assist you in your particular work flow) has never been easier.
I've give you an example. I used to own both ARRI 35mm and ARRI 16mm motion picture cameras (The two behind me in the very first photo attached to this card - the thing over my shoulder is the battery pack used to power them). The 35mm was purchased used - it was around $5,000 (US). I used it for 5 years and sold it for 1/2 of what I paid for it. I've seen that same model of ARRI available here in LA listed a few places for under $1,000. I was lucky with the 16mm. I actually sold it for what I paid for it, but it had a VERY rare AC (wall outlet) powered crystal sync motor - only about 100 of these were ever made. For the collectable value alone it was worth it. TECHNOLOGY IS PROGRESSING AND INDUSTRIES ARE STARTING TO MERGE -
ABOVE - Luc Bisson on the set of "Lucy" - note that the Sony HD Motion Picture Camera next to him pretty much is an unrecognizable bundle of cables and wires. Cameras today are capable of so many complex operations at once. Oddly, you will note the boom and microphone - modern motion picture cameras do NOT record sound. And they do NOT have an auto-focus feature. The camera operator is standing behind the camera - closest to the left and the focus puller is standing right next to the lens. It still takes two people to operate this camera.
CANON - the maker of SLR cameras, lenses, and video cameras turned the motion picture camera industry upside down when it released the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera body in September of 2008. Capable of full super-35mm 1080p HD video capture - it was priced thousands of dollars less than any other full-35mm sensor HD video camera. Primarily a still digital camera with an impressive set of features Canon showed that a compact, affordable, full-35mm (important for depth of field control), HD camera could be made and sold for well under $10,000. Actually you could outfit a Canon 5D Mark II with a full HD video rig and a professional lens for under $10,000. This was unheard of and it shattered the barrier to entry for many aspiring film makers.
May 2010 Fox aired an episode of it's award winning drama "House" - the entire episode had been shot on the Canon 5D Mark II - replacing the show's normal 35mm motion picture format. With this the concept of the DSLR being used as a professional, viable replacement for film was cemented. I sold my ARRI 16mm camera and used the money to purchase a 5D Mark II and full rig in late 2009 and I haven't looked back (at owning another film motion picture camera) since.
With the entry of an affordable, viable professional HD video camera which was compact and light weight - a whole new category of professional cinema equipment was born; the "DSLR Rig"
MY SEARCH FOR THE ULTIMATE RIG - BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST - BEGINS
As I started working more and more shooting HD video I started playing with the components I used to build my camera rig. I developed a couple of setups that allowed me to build the camera around the specific ergonomic needs of the shoot. The trouble has been that if the parameters of the shoot change during the shoot - I have to take precious time to break the camera down and build up a different rig. And this means I have to take 3 medium sized pelican cases full of "spare parts" on the off chance I may need them. I shot Canon camera for 6 years and as of April of this year (2015), I have moved back to Nikon. This move is born from two things. First, I've always shot Nikon. I started with an F3 when I was a teenager and I moved up to an F5, eventually moving over to the D1x, etc... I like full-body Nikons and I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE (just in case you didn't catch that... I absolutely LOVE) Nikon glass. I have a large investment in professional top-of-the-line Nikon lenses (note in the photo above - I'm holding my Canon 5D MK II and one of the rig setups I created for it - and it has a Nikon 35-70 f/2.8 lens on it). I never purchased any Canon glass. I always used my Nikon lenses and Nikon to Canon adapters. Why? Because when you work as a cinematographer you work with cameras with all manual everything. So losing the ability to auto-focus doesn't matter - because the Canon 5D won't engage the auto-focus in video mode regardless. The second reason is the Nikon D4s just smokes the Canon 1Dx for latitude (exposure value), speed, and functionality. FINALLY! Nikon made a camera worth going back to. This has set me on a quest to build a rig that will work for multiple scenarios and lenses without needed to be broken down and changed. This is no simple task. It's been an odyssey for sure.
In PART II of this series of articles I'll discuss the current state of rig manufacturing with examples of products from multiple companies (from the US, Germany, China, & India). -------- Photography & Cinematography 101 - © Jon Patrick Hyde - 2015