Camera support gear

No matter what type of image capture you are into — video, film or stills, OB, news, or studio work — if you want total control over the quality of the image, then a stable camera platform is essential.

Camera supports must be robust, reliable and simple to set up. Shown here is the Vinten Pro-6 lightweight camera support system, in use in Botswana by Kenyan-born wildlife cameraman Mike Holding.

A tripod system provides you with a stable, controllable platform, enabling you to confidently make those minuscule adjustments that a long lens demands, while minimizing all the external influences such as wind buffet and shivering. A steady, controlled shot not only ensures a quality image, but in these days of Internet streaming, it ensures smaller file sizes and faster download times. The end result is satisfied viewers, a confident cameraperson and one less concern for the production team.

The same can be applied to studio productions, where manual pedestals and heads or robotics might be used. Here, however, something else also comes into play — multi-axis movement. For example, a cameraperson on a drama must not only keep up with the action as directed, but also create a series of seamless moves in order to ensure that the viewer is unaware of the camera move itself.

Robotic camera supports offer the additional benefits of precise repeatability and complex, compound on-air movements. This is important for maintaining the look and feel of many ‘talking head’ productions, as well as instant and repetitive recall of shots from remote and unobtrusive camera positions.

Precision camera support equipment offers completely reliable and predictable control over the image, while enabling the cameraperson to demonstrate and further his or her craft by producing interesting and creative shots that add to the visual storytelling.

The support revolution

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a revolution in camera support products. Technology and lightweight materials such as magnesium alloys, carbon fiber, plastics, computer-aided design, the microchip and advanced manufacturing techniques were fully used to enable television to access places and situations that directors and producers previously considered too difficult or costly. Demand for 24-hour news saw the introduction of automated camera control systems into the newsroom and the development of lightweight ENG systems for the ever-expanding global news crews.

The general demise of the staff cameraperson led to an increase in freelancers and small production companies. With limited budgets and using the new generation of lightweight cameras, these facilities offered the main broadcasters a wider scope using small portable pedestals and lightweight EFP tripods. Remote-controlled cameras, located in inaccessible and unobtrusive positions, were used for the first time to cover parliaments and legislatures worldwide, giving an ever-intrigued audience a front-row seat.

Current technology

There are many types of support on the market today offering the camera-person a variety of creative options. Typically, they are either worn on the body and use the body for support and movement, or they use robotics and/or the vehicle to control camera movement. Alternatively, they rest on the floor, relying on manual or robotic inputs to instigate and control camera movement.

Body-worn camera control devices offer complete freedom of movement within the capability of the operator. They require a significant investment in training in order to operate them safely and reliably. They can be tricky to reposition with any degree of accuracy, relying on the expertise of the cameraperson more than the support itself. Because the cameraperson supports the entire weight of the system and camera, fatigue could be an issue.

However, as the weight and physical size of cameras decline, the ability to balance them comfortably on the shoulder has become nearly impossible. For example, the Anton/Bauer STASIS enables the new breed of cameras to be comfortably supported on the shoulder, using the mass of the battery to counterbalance the entire system comfortably and with much improved stability over single-handed operation. All these devices allow the cameraperson to explore many locations that traditional devices would not easily allow.

Remote operation of cameras is becoming important as new and unusual shots are always in demand. Robotics are particularly useful where a cameraperson’s safety could be compromised. For example, high-speed motorsport coverage could be considered dangerous, especially at the trackside. However, exceptionally stable, close-up ‘on-air’ quality action shots can be obtained safely using camera support. In news and production facilities, robotics are used extensively either in static locations or on robotic pedestals because they offer unrivalled positional accuracy, wide coverage and unobtrusive operation. This is especially important with the use of virtual sets. Robotics offer a cost-effective solution for a wide variety of conventional program types.

Manually-operated camera support devices are becoming lighter and smaller, enabling the freedom to explore tighter sets and to anticipate and respond instantly to sudden or unscripted moves by virtue of the fact that the cameraperson is in the action while maintaining reliable framing and repositioning. The support device takes all the weight of the camera and when combined with perfect balance in both the head and the pedestal, it ensures minimal effort and fatigue.

All of these camera support devices have their operational and creative pros and cons, and their application is limited only by the imagination of the production team.

The future

Tomorrow’s camera support developments will be driven by many factors: the introduction of HD, DV, Mini DV and tapeless cameras; delivery technology such as digital terrestrial, satellite and cable; virtual production; developments in electronics, software and materials; manufacturing and environmental standards; and the demands of the viewer for more channels, more reality programming, more interactivity and 24-hour local, national and international news as it happens.

We are seeing more and more 1-person news reporting — journalists who lock off their pan and tilt head and do their piece to camera. Twenty-four-hour reality programs are here to stay. High-definition cameras are increasingly being used to produce major projects for the big screen and for TV. Web TV will eventually be a viable reality as will digital interactivity. Camera weights are rapidly falling, but lenses are getting bigger. All of these drivers open up the way for new and improved camera control solutions and opportunities to become more creative.

Peter Harman is the marketing and training manager for Vinten.