For starters its seems inevitable to me that some form of brushless gimbal technology (or whatever Tiffen is calling the tech behind the WXB) will end up on the top or bottom of our sleds in the coming years. All of us have spent countless, hours, months, years perfecting the craft of gently holding this damn stick level in the wake of some unfriendly forces, be it wind, an overeager member of the grip department, or simply the sudden changes in momentum that a truly dynamic shot can necessitate. Keeping a perfect horizon in these situations can be the most technically difficult part of our jobs and to a degree its what separates the men from the boys. So, what happens when technology, pardon the pun, levels this playing field?
I've had a few spirited discussions with other ops about this and feel extremely mixed emotions about it. We have all been in situations, where some form of this technology would be super helpful. The obvious example is wind but there are others. On the other hand we all charge a premium for our ability to "get the shot" no matter the obstacles. I'm of the opinion that, to quote Alec "10% of the job is tilting and panning." Still if the perception becomes (especially among line producers) that the hard part of our jobs can be 'solved' by the tech then we are kind of fucked.
Sometimes I find myself watching a film or series trying to spot a steadicam shot by the minute imperfections in horizon when coming around a corner or even ever so slight wobble inherent in even a "perfect" lock-off. On the other hand we can easily spot a brushless gimbal shot by its strange framing, the often apparent footsteps of the operator, and drumroll... its clinically perfect horizon.
So while we all complain that new technology is bringing us back rather than further, bringing step skippers on to sets where they don't belong, I'm more curious about what some of these advancements in technology can do to the tool we all fell in love with.
I've had the good fortune to have an opportunity to demo the prototype of the WXB, it's a very nice piece of equipment, it works incredibly well. It's effect doesn't ever feel intrusive, although it doesn't fix "bad operating" it sure as hell does a lot to aid in good operating, combined with antlers I could see it becoming an indispensable tool for windy situations/action scenes where you a wrenching the rig around a bit, or indeed anything where you might appreciate a little extra help in keeping a rock solid horizon.
From what I can gather in my conversations I had at Tiffen on the demo day, it works by shifting a weight in minute increments according to feedback it receives from a version of the "Wagner Horizon" that is built into the unit".
Even with the current mounting system you could mount a dovetail onto an intersex AB plate from Media blackout and it should quite nicely mount onto the bottom of any sled with AB battery plates with minimal hassle.
As it's quite heavy I don't think I would have it on the rig all the time, but I think once they release it, it will become an invaluable accessory that could come in very handy.
So, what happens when technology, pardon the pun, levels this playing field?
When people come up to me while wearing the rig, I often get questions regarding how it operates: gimbals, hydraulics(?), special electronics, etc. Generally, my quick 15 second response emphasizes that the whole system runs off "dumb" physics: low friction gimbals, ball bearings, inertia and equilibrium/balance are what make the system work well.
To that point, I've also had a number of productions call me when their Movi was broken on set, or not working properly, or the 2-man mode wasn't getting the shot they wanted, etc.
Personally, I love having a rig whose movement and work performance is 100% mechanical because I can oil the bearings, I can grease the arm, I can make quick repairs in the field. Adding another electronics-driven point of failure, to me, creates a liability. So, the notion of flying a brushless gimbal technology all the time already seems like an "as needed" accessory. If the shot needs it, we use it.
In my opinion, brushless gimbals on Steadicam make me think of wireless follow focus running from an iPod touch: sure, it works... but WHY BOTHER? Perhaps there's just a specific instance when it was CRUCIAL, but otherwise these just seem like instances where technology shows the potential to lower cost. However, what it actually does is reveal the necessity of experience and talent. A brushless gimbal on my sled, or in the arms of a Movi operator, could create the most flawless images ever... but what good is it during the 15-45 minutes of blocking and lighting prior to the shot? If the operator didn't know how to block out the scene, what good is it towards making the day? Likewise, if the device is constantly breaking, then why bring it anyway?
The reason why spirited discussions take place is usually because it's enthusiasts arguing with insecure people. However, the people who know their role, people like Alec who say panning is only 10% of the job, file those accessories away as potentially useful for the day when a DP or director describes a shot and we know the tool for the job. Enthusiasts see it as their entry-point, while the experienced see it as another tool in the toolbox.
Auto-tune makes singers sound great, but I have a feeling talented singers like Adele, Tyler Perry or Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden, you chumps) could care less about auto-tune threatening their careers.
Still if the perception becomes (especially among line producers) that the hard part of our jobs can be 'solved' by the tech then we are kind of fucked.
In my opinion, line producers are more about the dollar sticking point than the tech solution. They want to come in at or under budget, and the show to be completed satisfactorily, shots be damned. I think they're less interested in hiring a Movi operator for $400/day vs a Steadicam op at $3,000/day... and more interested in trying to get a Steadicam op at $1,000/day and a Movi operator for $400/day.... or just the Steadicam op for $1,000/day.
In the last 28 years, I have tried them all, Kenion Gyros, Antlers, Helix ect. I think the market for something like the WXB will be huge, it's shocking to me that Tiffen has killed off all of it's own technology to compete with gimbals. Even the best of the best operators will find their horizon a bit off in a fast pan or aggresive move, I think that Tiffen would be pursuing a product they could offer to the thousands of ops that really want this?
Bob I totally agree. The reason given to me was that folks thought it was A) too heavy and that it worked better with slower drop times so they thought we wouldn't want to change our preferred drop times. I don't know about you guys but I alter the drop time for each shot. Increased inertia with a slow drop time seems like a win-win to me. Hopefully they will change their tune
When I tried the WXB last Cinec the rig was set to zero drop time actually with the WXB providing a kind of virtual bottom heaviness or resistance to sideways tripping. As James already said it achieves that effect by shifting a brass weight in small increments according to feedback it gets from a Wagner IMU. It worked great and I was very impressed by the system.
Remember how long folks "trying out" our gear last? Not likely that producers and similarly minded folks will take over camera operations. Sure, we are known for the "pan, tilt, invoice" line but let's just recall how this job is actually accomplished--by caring, creative, and talented individuals who actually make it happen. Not by folks who just check off items on a list.
That being said, I'm very interested in playing with the gear when it does surface.
Since I got hold of my first rig, in 1992, a Steadicam III, I have tried to make something that could help stabilising the horizon. Of course, practice makes perfect, but a little help can be very convenient.
My first tries involved a moving battery stage, with servos, with batteries that I designed myself and with a Futaba heli-gyro.
That did hardly work, to slow in reaction time and I didn't continue after that.
It was also at that time that the "Rollvision" came out with a similar design as the modern gimbals nowadays, but it was not reliable and cumbersome and needed 2 operators. ( familiar?)
Fast forward to this time, about 2,5 years the Letus Helix came out and I saw that it could work, it has the right structure to become a useable addition to the Steadicam. I bought one and struggled for a long time to make it work with a normal but relatively lightweight camera package. Therefore the roll-ring ( made in China) was added to the front to support the weight of such camera package.
But my problem was still that I needed to use a bare camera for a Red or Alexa Mini, hardly any accessory was allowed.
That sucks because most of the time the productions I work with have only one camera and cannot allow me and the assistant to strip the camera completely, then rebuild again for a normal setup. So I was looking for a setup that allows me to use must normal accessories with a Dragon or Mini. Today I found a way to do that!
This problem became even more pressing after I did a shoot last weekend with Anamorphic Hawks, mostly wide angle, on the sloping, (loose) sandy beach and the level became quite critical. ( many handheld shots from the DoP/operator had the level all over the place, but.....)
At that time I could not use my Helix because the camera and lenses would be too long ( Red Dragon with Action Products accessories), so I search for a way to make more space for a common camera configuration.
This is what works quite well:
Results: rocksteady horizon, high to low mode in 5 seconds. Lens nearly in nodal roll axis. All rig angles in between still perfect horizon, very easy to reach the camera over tables, chairs, through doors.