When people go to movie theaters, they go to watch beautifully filmed footage – not to watch a cinematographer take a roller coaster ride with a camera. However, this is what often happens when operators try to move a camera without the proper balance and support. That’s why a quality sled, arm, and vest system are crucial to a good production. They provide a way to keep shots smooth while still allowing total freedom of movement. Unfortunately, quality equipment doesn’t come cheap, so a sled, arm and vest system will likely be a significant investment for most video enthusiasts so we put VariZoom’s newest camera stabilizer, the Aviator MX-HD, through its paces.
When most people plunk down more than $6,000 for a piece of equipment, they want it to be durable. Thankfully, VariZoom did not disappoint. Everything from the monitor to the vest felt incredibly strong and reliable. All of the parts were made of either high-quality aluminum or stainless steel and came in a custom padded rolling case for added security and support.
Let’s face it, balancing isn’t easy. From eating balanced meals to balancing a budget, keeping things balanced is notoriously hard to do. Nowhere is this truer than with sled and vest systems. Balancing some of these systems has been known to have operators grabbing for the bottle of hair dye to cover the new gray they just received trying to make things work. So, risking a few new gray hairs, we took the Aviator MX-HD to our studio for some balancing action.
The first thing we learned was to not be surprised to have to clear at least two to three hours out of our schedule to get the MX-HD set up correctly. No matter what, a piece of equipment with this kind of precision requires a bit of fine-tuning before it will be ready to use.
After reading the manual as thoroughly as possible, we first tried to find the camera’s center of gravity. This was surprisingly easy to do. Following VariZoom’s directions, we took a round pencil and using a flat surface, placed the camera on top of the pencil until the camera was able to balance precariously on top. Once we did this procedure both vertically and horizontally we made a mark on the bottom of the camera for future reference.
The next step was to balance the camera on the sled. Thankfully, to make all of our lives a bit easier, VariZoom also included a C-stand adapter post for balancing. This meant that we didn’t have to deal with the additional burden of bearing a heavy camera as we tried to balance the unit. Of course, using this adapter does require a C-stand (which is not included in the price of the unit). As with any sled system, we tested our vertical balance by rotating the sled until it was horizontal with the floor then let it drop until it was completely vertical again. The idea was to make sure that it took somewhere between two to three seconds for the sled to become vertical. Any longer and the sled would be too top-heavy. With the Aviator MX-HD, we were able to quickly adjust this balance by loosening a convenient hand clamp on the side of the unit and then either shortening or lengthening the gimbal assembly until we had the timing right.
Then we set the horizontal balance. Adjusting the lateral balance was as easy as moving the plate forward and backward on the stage of the unit until the helpful bubble level on the stage was set. However, that’s where things stopped being quite so easy. In order to adjust the longitudinal movement of the sled we had to crank a knob on the side of the plate either clockwise or counter-clockwise. This was difficult. The crank was incredibly stiff and with the adjustments being so fine, it took a lot of time and a few blisters to finally achieve balance.
With the sled being set, we put on our vest using the Aviator MX-HD four-point heavy-duty velcro strap system. While it was possible to do by ourselves after a while, we found it to be a lot less frustrating with a little help.
Knowing that the arm doesn’t always sit just perfectly on an operator’s hip, VariZoom also included a Trim Adjuster, which allowed us to tilt the post that the arm attaches to. We found that the unit was easy to adjust when the arm was off, but it was nearly impossible to adjust it after the arm was attached due to the weight. So having a setting already in mind before attaching the arm to the Trim Adjuster is by far the best way to go.
VariZoom also allows operators to adjust the tension of the springs in the arm of the unit. It just requires a simple counter-clockwise turn of the spring knob to loosen the tension or a clockwise turn of the knob to increase it. We found this to be incredibly handy as it allowed us to adjust for a variety of environments in our shots.
Build quality and setup aside, the most important thing about any sled and vest system is how well it performs. Incredibly, throughout all of our tests, we found the footage to be usable even when the operator had little training. This is definitely due in large part to the quality of the materials and design. The most common problem we had was the camera swaying from side to side during quick moves, but with practiced footwork, these problems quickly went away. In addition, the vest was really comfortable and distributed the weight so well that even after an hour of use with a Canon XF300 camcorder, we were ready for more. Read Canon’s FX300 review.
In addition, VariZoom included a 7-inch 16×9 NTSC/PAL monitor, as well as two Li-Ion batteries with a convenient LED capacity indicator on the top. We definitely found the batteries useful when the camera was raised high but the SD quality of the monitor became an issue when trying to pull focus. The monitor, however, can be replaced easily and focusing doesn’t really occur all that often, so we found it to be more than bearable.
The Bottom Line
For shooters who want to learn a valuable new skill-set on some of the most durable equipment out there, VariZoom’s Aviator MX-HD is a great solution. With it’s precise engineering, solid construction, and great performance, the Aviator MX-HD can take your videos from good to great.
Weight: 20.1 lbs
Packed Weight: Approx. 43.65 lbs
Vertical Range of Arm: 38 inches
Arm Dimension: 36″ x 2.63″ x 2.25″
Sled Dimensions: 22.5″ x 14.5″ x 4.5″
Case Dimensions: 29″ x 17″ x 16″
Camera Weight Supported: 2-16 lbs
Components: Sled, Monitor, Arm, Vest, Trim Adjuster, Weight Plate, Balancing Post, Tool Kit
Warranty: 3 Years Arm and Vest, 1 year Sled and Case
- High quality aluminum construction
- High definition video support
- Comfortable weight distribution
- Difficult to adjust longitudinal knob
- Difficult to move Trim Adjuster when weight was on the unit
817 West Howard
Austin, TX 87853
With its solid construction, precise engineering and comfortable weight distribution, the Aviator MX-HD is a solid option for keeping shots steady.
Dan Bruns is an Associate Multimedia Editor at Videomaker