Camera Motion Research has a new handheld stabilizer for camcorders that weigh between one and eight pounds, called the Blackbird. It has an adjustable lower T-bar assembly that comes with both an 11- and a 15-inch horizontal weight bar, plenty of counterweights, two mounting brackets, tripod adaptor and all the hardware needed get your cam flying smoothly.
When we received our review unit, we were immediately impressed with the way everything was tucked securely in place between custom-cut foam shapes that isolate the attractive black anodized finished parts from contacting each other and the outside world while in transit. Everything is well designed, and individual parts fit together with ease.
Before you put your precious camcorder on any new piece of equipment other than a tripod, it’s best to read the manual. No, really, read it! The manual is very basic, but it provides the necessary information to get the rig (the combination of Blackbird and camcorder) safely balanced and ready to operate. The Blackbird also comes with a DVD showing various design aspects, along with useful operation tips.
Putting the Blackbird components together, along with mounting the camcorder, took us less than four minutes. We unpacked all the parts, mounted the universal docking bracket to a C-stand weighted with a sandbag and slipped the upper chassis on the bracket’s pin. We then put the Blackbird’s lower section together, extending the T-bar to about two-thirds of the travel. Our light camcorder weighed one pound, 11 ounces, so we added only two large weights to the wider 15-inch horizontal bar. The weights are well engineered to fit snugly on the T-bar. They interlock with each other and with the crossbar itself to ensure that there is no shifting that can create noise made by loose elements. We also added the extension to the gimbal, which was a recommendation for balancing lighter camcorders.
Next, we attached the Blackbird’s camera mounting plate to an old JVC GR-DVF11U Mini-DV camcorder. If you’ve got one handy, using an expendable camcorder is a good idea for practicing with new stabilization devices. There is a nice non-slip rubber pad on top of the camera plate, so you don’t have to over-tighten the camera. We then attached our camcorder to the stage, the platform that supports the camcorder. This is a key component of any stabilization device, as it is where you make fine adjustments to balance the rig. Both the fore/aft and side-to-side adjustments are smooth, and there is no lash (play) in the adjustment screws. A nice safety feature is a pin that prevents the mounting plate, and your camcorder, from slipping, in case you forget to tighten the camcorder plate to the stage.
Balancing any stabilization device is the most important step in getting good-looking shots, and with the Blackbird this is very quick and easy. Using the two built-in bubble levels gives you the ability to get the rig quickly leveled in both axes.
With everything put together and balanced, we are now ready to do a drop test. This is a test that lets you know how quickly your rig will return to level. It is performed by holding the rig approximately 90 degrees from the resting position and letting it swing freely. The drop time is the time it takes the lower portion to swing past its neutral position. Two to three seconds is a good starting place. Shorter drop times make the rig feel more stable but will cause the camcorder to tilt or roll when changing your rate and/or direction of motion. Longer drop times will reduce these tilt or roll problems but will make the rig slower to return to level.
There are two ways to control the Blackbird. By placing the thumb and index finger of your control hand on the lower control ring, you are limited to only panning. This is a good option if this is the only movement you need and you want to prevent operator-induced roll and tilt. By moving your control hand to the upper control ring, you can control the tilt, pan and roll.
To test the Blackbird in action, we set up three courses used to train professional Steadicam operators that simulate a variety of conditions. The first included a narrow tracking tape stretched tight between two C-stands about 20 feet apart that ran from about four feet off the ground to about six feet. An obstacle in the middle required the operator to step on and over it. We’ll call this one Hurdle. The second course used the same two C-stands and tape placed alongside a rock stairway. Let’s call this one Stairs. The last, Target, was simply a large cross made with black gaffer tape on a white garage door at about chest height. A quick note before getting to the tests: all three courses are as much measures of operator skill as they are of the rig being tested. Our tester is a professional Steadicam operator with 15 years of experience who spent several hours practicing with the Blackbird before performing these tests. The goal of each test is to keep the center crosshairs of the camcorder’s viewfinder pointed at the tape or target at all times.
The Hurdle test measures how quick changes in up/down travel while walking impact the rig’s dynamic stability. After only two trial runs, and using the Blackbird’s lower control ring, it became quite easy to keep the camcorder’s crosshairs on the tracking tape on both the up and down motions. The footage from the Blackbird looked as if there was no step obstacle at all.
The Stairs test measures how successive changes in terrain and subtle changes in rate alter the rig’s dynamic stability. Since the level of the tracking tape ran from about waist height to about head height, we used the Blackbird’s upper control ring to control tilt. While there was a small amount of roll toward the end, the footage showed that the Blackbird does a good job remaining mostly level.
Walking down the steps required us to hold the Blackbird’s handle at an angle. It is very forgiving if you don’t keep it perpendicular to the ground, but if you tilt the handle beyond about 75 degrees, you will get a type of gimbal lock on your panning movement. But this is an extreme angle and not something you will run into often.
For our first test with the Target setup, we started about 30 feet away from the Target, zoomed our camera’s lens to its widest setting and aligned the Target with the center crosshairs in the viewfinder’s display. This measures how easy it is to keep the camera on target in all three axes. We started walking toward the Target slowly at first, then at a faster pace, then slowing to a stop a few feet from the Target. The footage showed us there were small tilts both starting and stopping, even with careful feathering. Our rig was set up with a drop time of 2.25 seconds, and a slower drop time would make this less of a problem. With the camcorder still just a few feet away and facing the Target, we turned our body so that the camcorder was now facing behind us. We then walked about 30 feet away from the Target, then slowed to a stop, walked around the central axis of the gimbal and now returned to the Target with both body and camcorder facing forward. This is a common, though more advanced, technique used to shoot talent walking forward, then changing direction. This tests the amount of friction of the panning bearing in the gimbal.
We found that transitioning from one side of the rig to the other required a good amount of finger finesse to counter the friction in the gimbal. This countering input is less necessary with more expensive devices that have very high-quality bearings. But high-quality bearings could add several hundred dollars to the cost of the Blackbird, so it is understandable why they are not used.
The last test was really an observation. One balancing act you must consider is how much weight you can carry and for how long. Since you operate the rig by using one hand to hold and one to operate, you may find your support arm getting tired during extended shots. After about three hours of on- and off-again operation, we noticed some fatigue, but, with our light camcorder, it wasn’t an issue. Heavier camcorders will require more counterbalance weights, so expect fatigue to kick in sooner.
Overall, we found the Blackbird to be a well-engineered, good-looking, low-cost handheld stabilizer that, with some practice, can give your shots a whole new level of professionalism.
Stabilizer Weight (including camera mounting plate but no counterweights) : 2.1 lb.
Minimum Height: 20 in.
Maximum Height: 25 in.
Case Dimensions: 18 x 12 x 6 in.
Case Weight (components included): 8.8 lb.
Shipping Weight: 10.9 lb.
- Easy to use, low cost, lightweight
- Gimbal panning friction somewhat high
A low-cost and easy-to-operate stabilizer for small camcorders.
Getting Ready to Go Steady
All handheld or body-mounted camera stabilization devices require practice to get consistent shots. Since you can’t manually adjust focus, and autofocus is almost never an option, you are forced to focus with your feet. The way you walk also determines how smooth your video will look. The less pronounced your “bobbing” up and down, the better. A heel-toe technique helps here. When you start or stop moving, the camcorder will often tilt unless you “feather,” or let your arms continue slightly forward after your feet stop moving when stopping. Wind will quickly throw the rig out of balance. If you are working outside, you may need an assistant with a large reflector upwind of the rig.
Brian Peterson is a commercial video producer and Steadicam operator.
Camera Motion Research
3200 Gresham Lake Rd., Suite 113
Raleigh, North Carolina 27615
$745 – $645 introductory