MoVi’s M10 gyro-stabilized handheld three-axis gimbal stabilizer system
For some two decades, Steadicams and their imitators have been the cutting edge of mobile, off-tripod camera support with little challenge from new technology. However, at last year’s NAB Show a newbie called MoVI finally emerged with a stabilization system in a much different form. Instead of supporting a third bionic arm (with the help of an exoskeleton like the Steadicam), the MoVI product is more tuned in to the DSLR rig than the Steadicam with which it competes.
Long before it began shipping late last year, Freefly Systems’ MoVI M10 was hailed as a game changer by production pros of many stripes and the product has generated buckets of buzz.
The true genius of MoVI is in how it repackages existing technology into something that’s new, effective and exciting those of us wanting an alternative to tripod- based camera support. In some ways, it’s a high tech Rube Goldberg variation on a tricked-out DSLR shooter’s rig. It can be operated either with both hands on a short handlebar or with only one hand via its top handle. The remote controller in the MoVI package is the same one used to control quadcopters and other UAVs.
In many respects MoVI is unique in its design and composition. At heart it’s a triple-axis, digital gyro-stabilized camera support system with a continuous 360-degree pan range and 180-degree tilt and roll. Slew rates range from 0 to 150 degrees per second.
For two-handed operation the handgrips on each end of the “handlebar” are equipped with soft, textured rubber for a comfortable grip. And at only 3.4 pounds, MoVI is in the lightweight range, yet supports cameras weighing up to 12 pounds. These include the RED Epic, Canon’s C300 and Sony’s F7, among others. The low weight is largely due to the use of the latest high tech materials such as an ultra-light steel alloy and carbon fiber.
Part of MoVI’s magic is software-driven, with its concise menu navigated from an Android Bluetooth-Windows connection on a GUI-equipped pad.
There are three control modes: majestic, stabilized and stabilized slew. Majestic is operator stabilized via a gimbal base. The stabilized mode requires no operator control and basically operates on autopilot. The stabilized slew mode enables remote control of pan, tilt and roll axes with the Spectrum DX7s remote controller, which is part of the MoVI 10 package.
However, before MoVI is operated in any of these modes the camera must be manually balanced in all three axes: pan, tilt and roll. To become buoyant enough to “fly,” the camera’s center of gravity must be precisely determined so that it can be neutralized. Once it’s properly balanced, your camera should remain suspended in virtually any shooting position and at most any angle.
Achieving such a degree of stability requires maximizing the “stiffness” of the pan, tilt and roll axes with the GUI.
MoVI’s configuration also provides control of pan and tilt speeds, with attention given to the “smoothness” of their endings. Pan and tilt each get their own smoothness and window levels, allowing users to start a move quickly and then end it slowly and smoothly, or vice versa.
MoVI’s camera platform can tilt up or down—as much as 75 degrees—from a central hub. It’s controlled by a brushless motor and gimbal to keep it level (or at predetermined angles) while shooting. This is set via the pan and tilt smoothness menu; otherwise, MoVI will try to keep the camera horizontal.
Camera movement can be controlled remotely via the Spectrum DX7S. This controller has its own pan, tilt and roll controls which largely override those set with the MoVI GUI. A pair of joy sticks control separate functions (pan/tilt on the right and roll/pan speed on the left.) There’s twoposition switch below each that lets you decide which to control at a given time.
MoVI comes with compact 2.6 Amp, 14.8 Volt lithium-potassium batteries that can power it for two to three hours. However, a word of caution is needed in connection with these batteries. Although they’re quite potent, they’re also vulnerable to damage and can be rendered unrechargeable if you aren’t careful. You must diligently monitor the three LED indicators associated with the main motor. Freefly recommends swapping batteries once the charge level drops from three LEDs to two, even though it’s possible to still power the unit for some time before dropping to a single LED, a level at which it’s possible to damage the battery if recharging is not initiated.
Independent powering options are also available.
Think of MoVI as a pricy hi-tech sports car—something that will wow you when well it’s well tuned, but will disappoint you otherwise. MoVI’s magic all revolves around proper tuning, and this begins with determining camera’s center of mass for pan, tilt and roll axes. Freefly roughly illustrates each stage with a single sketch and terse description in their “Quick Start Guide.” For more detailed information on balancing, users should download and read the pertinent section in the user’s guide. I was fortunate to receive some live tech support by phone and this proved invaluable.
(I would advise anyone planning to use MoVI to learn as many basics and tricks from a MoVI expert, as some key details are glossed over in the guide and tutorials and can cause frustration. A good example of this is the importance of keeping MoVI as still as possible when flipping on the power switch; if this isn’t done, the unit may not boot up and perform properly despite your best balancing efforts.)
I learned that small movements are best achieved when balancing your camera on the pan, tilt and roll axes. Sometimes a millimeter or two either way can make the difference between being perfectly balanced or out of balance. Balancing the pan axis is the trickiest procedure, requiring a good bit of time to do properly.
I learned that when tuning MoVI you need to be sure that both the GUI and MoVI batteries are fully charged, because if you lose your connection between the two in mid-stream you’ll likely have to start over. Connecting MoVI and the GUI happens seamlessly in auto mode once Freefly Config is opened. If properly connected, you’ll see several green windows on the left edge of the GUI’s main window; however, if your boot goes awry, those same windows may turn red and flash error messages. This happened to me when I rocked the MoVI in its cradle by pressing the power switch a bit too hard during boot up.
Once everything is connected, tuning the MoVI is a matter of pushing for the highest stiffness levels that it will accept before vibrating audibly. While 100 is a prime target value for pan stiffness, I only got there once or twice, having to drop to 90 when the MoVI started vibrating as I picked it up. The key thing to bear in mind is that the better you balance the MoVI, the higher the stiffness levels it will accept, resulting in higher overall stability.
After working through the balance and other issues I was finally ready to try the full range of vertical, horizontal and diagonal camera angles and moves showcased in some of the MoVI demo videos (starting and stopping suddenly and smoothly transitioning to a series of different camera moves including pans, tilts, rolls and more).
I found that a wide-angle lens and high stiffness really helped when tracking fast moving subjects up close. This combination allowed me to switch between high and low angle shots, pans and tilts, often while tracking a subject that frequently changed speed and direction. I was able to move fluidly between high and low angle shots and vice versa, often capturing events from a bird’s eye view.
I quickly learned that a well-tuned MoVI opens the door to a new, ultramobile, impactful shooting style that can raise the production bar on everything from documentaries and unscripted projects to features and commercials.
A well-tuned MoVI is an amazing, powerful new tool; however, every technology has its weaknesses and MoVI is no exception. The biggest problem I encountered was battery power. Somehow I inadvertently discharged the batteries to the point where they couldn’t be recharged. Although the lithium-potassium batteries pack a good punch, they are rather fragile as I discovered when I accidentally ruined those supplied.
In fairness, the MoVI does provide a detailed warning not to drain a battery below three Volts. However, there isn’t a clear warning that the user is nearing this threshold. Apparently once a single LED begins blinking, it’s too late. Freefly advises recharging batteries when they’re barely half discharged (down to two of the three green LED illuminated), but this should be printed in boldface due to its big implications, particularly if you’re counting on recharging in the field to get through an assignment.
I also found the use of a microphone somewhat problematic, as standard shotguns can bump into the MoVI’s handle and bias the center of gravity. Freefly recommends removing external mics, leaving you with only an onboard mic option— not great if you’re shooting interviews.
MoVI is a revolutionary camera stabilizing system optimized for compact “squarish” digital cine-style cameras and can provide the kind of shots needed in high-end productions.
However, the MoVI system has many moving parts and must be well-tuned for optimum results. A comprehensive userfriendly interface and training is critical and there are some gaps to be filled here. Once well-tuned, though, MoVI can enable an experienced camera person to consistently capture a wide variety of creative and fluid shots with moving or still subjects.
Doubtless, many producers of documentaries, features, and events will want to try out a MoVI and then likely become hooked on its magical moves. The only problem may be in deciding between the MoVI, a new camera, or a modest new car.
Carl Mrozek operates Eagle Eye Media, and specializes in wildlife and outdoor subjects. His work regularly appears on the Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel, CBS, PBS and other networks. Contact him at eagleye11@ gmail.com.
Feature productions, commercials, episodic television, special events, sports, news and music videos
Lightweight, multifunctional, works in high to low angle shots, as well as 360-degree shots, easy learning curve