ProAm USA’s Autopilot Camera Stabilizer
The ProAm USA Autopilot is a compact, lightweight camera stabilizer designed to eliminate unwanted camera movement with a minimum of mechanical intervention. It provides free-floating camera movement which rivals those available from much more complicated and expensive camera stabilizing devices.
The Autopilot is carefully designed to achieve effective handheld camera stabilization with a minimal number of moving parts. This allows the unit to be lightweight, compact and easy to operate. It consists of a two-part, telescoping pole made of sturdy, lightweight aluminum. Its main column extends from 14.5 inches to 22.5 inches, weighs only 4.6 pounds and can fit easily into a backpack or utility case.
The heart of its engineering is contained in the three virtually frictionless socket bearings that connect the unit’s handle to its pole. When calibrated to the weight of the camera, the bearings work with the shock-absorbing properties of the human arm to mitigate vertical and horizontal shock. The resulting effect is that of a camera appearing to float through space. The device also effectively steadies still shots. The Autopilot is designed for video cameras weighing up to six pounds, so DSLRs or small-to medium-sized camcorders are ideal candidates for the Autopilot.
The camera is mounted on the top plate with a standard camera-threaded bolt. There are four bolts beneath the plate that can be turned by hand, allowing the plate to be slid into the desired position for the particular camera.
The key to getting good results from the Autopilot is to carefully balance the camera to the counterweights on the bottom of the column. The Autopilot comes with eight metal plates that mount on two sides at the bottom of the pole. Each plate weighs a quarter pound, providing up to two pounds of total counterweight. Adjusting the length of the pole and setting the bottom counterweights enables you to achieve the right balance for different cameras.
There’s a standard series of steps for balancing the camera with precision and ProAm USA provides a video on their website that demonstrates this procedure.
Once the camera has been mounted and the Autopilot balanced, operating the unit is very easy. You simply hold the handle in one hand and use your other hand to gently guide the direction in which you want the camera to point. The counterweights and the three-axis gimbal bearing take care of the rest.
I tested the Autopilot with two cameras of different weights and designs. The first was a JVC GHY150U, which is a compact professional camcorder designed for ENG work and weighs about three pounds.
I followed the procedure for balancing the camera, which consists of two steps. The camera has to be centered so that it remains level. Then you have to place the column in a horizontal position and measure the time it takes to return to its natural vertical position. The goal is to change the length of the column until this action takes about two seconds.
When executing this process for the first time, close attention and some amount of time is required to get it right. The trickiest part is to move the camera plate into exactly the right position so that the camera is perfectly level when held by the handgrip. The slightest shift in position will cause the camera to tilt. I found the balance so sensitive that just flipping out the camera’s LCD screen would unset things.
At first, I found this disconcerting, but then I discovered a significant shortcut described in the instructions. By slightly loosening and changing the angle of the plates on the bottom of the column, you can finetune the camera balance quickly and easily.
The second part of the balancing process went much more quickly and smoothly, as adjusting the length of the column is quite easy.
Once I achieved the correct balance, everything was simple and direct. I held the column by the handgrip in my right hand, and placed my thumb and forefinger from my left hand to gently point the camera in the desired direction. Once I was recording, I walked down a stairway and into a long hallway and turned several corners. The Autopilot adds very little weight to the camera, so I found it easy to hold the rig for long periods of time without strain.
I also tested the Autopilot with a Canon T2i DSLR, as this type of camera is very popular for documentary and independent productions.
I used the T2i with two different prime lenses: a 20 mm wide-angle, and a 50 mm normal. Even with these relatively heavy primes, the total weight remained below two pounds, which is well under the sixpound limit for the Autopilot. I only had to use two counterweights and did not have to extend the shaft to achieve the correct balance.
I balanced the camera to the 50 mm lens first. This only took about 10 minutes, including adjusting the weights and testing the two-second horizontal reset.
All was well, and I turned on the camera and walked through the hallway of a building. The first thing I noticed was that a 50 mm lens is not really appropriate for this type of camera work. The magnification is too high, resulting in exaggerated motion. Also, the depth of field is far too shallow, making it impossible to keep a range of objects in focus while moving. It could work for a very specific shot that is well rehearsed, but not for spontaneous action.
I then switched to the 20 mm lens, and found that this worked beautifully. When I reviewed the footage, I found that it was very smooth and that I had successfully achieved the “floating camera” effect. (I did cheat a little, and switched on the auto exposure function, something I don’t normally use. However, when you’re walking through bright hallways and into dark rooms, it is necessary.) In any case, the test convinced me that one should only use a wide-angle lens or a wide zoom setting when using such a camera stabilizing device.
The footage I captured with the rig was quite remarkable. There was no sign of the shock generated by walking the stairs or through the hallway. It’s actually difficult to believe that a device so simple in design could yield such stunning results. It’s definitely something that must be seen to be believed. ProAm has some video samples on their website, and I can attest to the fact that these clips are accurate examples of what anyone can achieve using the Autopilot.
The ProAm Autopilot is a simple, yet finely engineered device that enables you to achieve very smooth camera motion for handheld shots. It’s ideal for DSLR cameras and small- to medium-sized camcorders. It’s a highly economical alternative to more costly camera stabilizing systems, yet can produce comparable results. The minimal size and weight make it particularly useful for mobile production.
Geoff Poister, Ph.D. is a member of the film and television faculty at Boston University and a regular contributor to TV Technology.
Whenever camera support with complete “floating” freedom of movement is needed
Low cost, compact, easy to transport and use
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