Floating Camera, Smooth Shooting

Have you ever wondered how Hollywood filmmakers get those terrific gliding dolly shots when the camera seems to float with an uncanny smoothness over rough terrain? Or how they make the camera move through narrow hallways, in and out of elevators, and up and down stairs-without a dolly track ever appearing in the picture?

The tool behind the trick, called a “Steadicam” (credited to the genius of Garrett Brown), earned an Oscar for “outstanding technical/scientific achievement” in the motion picture

How might a videomaker with a consumer’s budget accomplish some of those smooth shots without spending a cool 40 grand for the necessary equipment?

The Next Best Thing

What works for me is a makeshift contraption which mounts a camera on the end of a pole, balanced with a counter-weight at the opposite end.

I’ve put together what I call a “Steadi-Vidcam” from mostly odds and ends around the garage and my miscellaneous photo equipment. I paid a total of $50 for parts, the most expensive one being an electronic viewfinder (EVF) extension cable.

Unless you wish to mount your camera at the bottom of the pole (with the EVE remaining at the top) for low-angle shots, this cable extension is not required.

If using one, however, its length should be no less than 4 feet, because there are other practical applications for an EVE extension. Future uses, including other projects to appear in this column, should be anticipated.

The stock 6-inch length of cable, the one from the FVE with the eight-pin male connector that plugs into my camera, lists in the JVC parts catalog for $8.70

It was a running battle to get JVC to sell me extra cable only; they insisted I would have to purchase an entire new $180 viewfinder, even if I had the misfortune of breaking the little plastic connector. I finally located it through a friendly local VGA repair shop.

The next most important component is the viewfinder. If your camera is equipped with a detachable EVE with a swing-away rubber eyecup and diopter magnifier glass, you’re in luck, Use it as is. However, if your EVE is too small (two-thirds-inch tube) or has a fixed rubber eyecup, you should opt for a separate (larger) modified viewfinder

I’ve found a number of various sized viewfinders in the $10 to $15 price range at camera shops, surplus electronics stores, and electronics swap meets. Most are from older, obsolete cameras taken in trade or from new ones converted for surveillance applications.

If they are direct-view or in-line viewfinders, no modification is necessary other than adding a standard mounting shoe. If they are the right-angle mirror-reflector type, however, the following steps should be followed so that viewed images read correctly without the mirror’s type

Minor Surgery

Separate the two halves of the plastic case housing the printed circuit (PG) board and viewfinder tube by removing two screws and counter-rotating the large serrated plastic ring.
Discard the right-angle first-surface mirror. Remove the LED indicators for “record,””white balance,”” low light,” and “underexposed.”

Trace the leads from the LEDs back to the PG board, unplug the harness or unsolder the wires, and discard. Determine how far you want to cut back to the front of the tube (about three-sixteenths ot an inch), carefully cut away the plastic right-angle housing, and file the edges smooth.

In the electronics area, find the DC power input leads and the video input leads that originally came from the camera. In most cases the brown (plus) and black (minus) wires feed the power. The grey coax wire (the shielded one) sources the video. Since 9 volts is all an EVE requires, you needn’t worry about electronic disasters when experimenting.

The image on the viewfinder tube was reflected in a mirror, so now the picture must be flip-flopped electronically by reversing the horizontal polarity. In other words, the green wire and the yellow wire from the tube must be reversed at the PC board.

Usually, the wiring harness from the tube terminates in a white mini-plug. Unplug and carefully pull the green and yellow wires from the back of the male plug, reverse them, and insert the male plug back into the PC board. If the wires are soldered to the PC board, unsolder the green and yellow ones and resolder as above.

Finally, replace all of the parts in the case and tighten the fastening screws.

Other Parts of the Whole

The remaining Steadi-Vidcam components include two pieces of aluminum tubing, five-eighths- to three-quarter-inch in diameter; a 3-pound lead diving weight, available at scuba-diving accessory shops; a push-on/push-off switch tor the remote with cable; a matching remote plug tor the camera; a quick-release for the camera base; a locking swivel with a standard camera shoe and a fixed locking shoe; and some nuts and bolts where needed.

Saw the diving weight into equal halves and drill a hole through the center of each to accommodate a bolt for securing the weights to the ends of the horizontal pole. In use, the weights dampen the right/leff pan swing and contribute to movement steadiness.

The vertical pole bolts to the camera’s quick-release as well as to the horizontal pole with weights.

When using the Steadi-Vidcam I put a PAVE PSV-1 perispheric supplementary wide-angle lens adapter on my camera, available for around $100. It not only compensates for camera jiggle without distorting with that fisheye” look, it also holds focus from a few inches to infinity.

To improve viewing contrast on the EVE (now a monitor), cut a piece of green acetate or gel to size and insert it in front of the picture tube’s face. Increase the monitor’s brightness control and readjust contrast as needed.

These practices will significantly help viewing under broad daylight conditions.

Steady As She Goes

Imagine you are carrying around a full glass of water without spilling a drop.

Your wrist acts as a mechanical gimbal and your arm and elbow are the shock absorbers. With a little practice, you’ll be-pleasantly surprised at how amazingly smooth those walking and running shots can be.

I once shot a sequence from the low-angle position for a dog’s-eye view of the world of our neighborhood canines; it turned out to be a real crowd-pleaser.

The Steadi-Vidcam also makes it possible to shoot super traveling cutaways by hanging the camera out of a car window for one of those running front-wheel shots as seen in car commercials and movie chase scenes. See you in hollywood!

Bill South worth is a former network television news camerman. The numerous do-it-yourself “gadgetries for videomaking” he has designed originate from years of on-location videomaking frustrations and inspirations.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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