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How much pressure on the gimbal?

Donald ray Turner

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Hi everyone! I’m starting off my steadicam career, and although I’m practicing as much as I can (just about everyday) I don’t want to put all this practice time into any wrong techniques or form. When it comes to the gimbal and I’m assuming the answer to this is all depending on the drop times and the shot at hand, but generally speaking how light should my fingers be on the gimbal as I do a take? What’s the best way to keep your horizon as still as possible? Any tips or tricks? Thank you!! 

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Hi Donald,

You’re right to assume that the answer is quite variable, but there are some rough guidelines that may help. One of the things that I particularly like to do at a workshop is to have a student take their post hand off of the gimbal completely. (Obviously leaving the other hand on the gimbal grip - no need to go totally hands free!) Many new operators get frustrated by what they see as “the rig wobbling”, and yet the moment I ask them to take their hand off, the rig floats magically through space without a wobble. However, as they then see, the camera is now aimlessly drifting, and the frame usually sucks. But hey, it’s stable! What this immediately shows, however, is that every “wobble” is coming from your hand. So the trick is to apply the input you need to frame the shot, but only that much input. There are times where you will need to apply more input - like stops and starts of a move, and there will be times where you need to apply less input, like a very slow consistent speed move. But the challenge of Steadicam is always applying just enough input to the sled.

So, as to how that relates to pressure on the gimbal. The general rule of thumb I’ve found is that it’s almost always on the light side. Times when you need to apply more pressure would be when doing a tilt with a heavier drop time, or when counteracting violent stops and starts with a bottom heavy rig, or when changing directions mid-move. Apart from that, applying as little pressure as possible is the name of the game, as the tighter you are holding onto the gimbal, the more likely you are to make the rig wobble, or throw off the horizon, or cause pan wiggles.

As for keeping the horizon level, that comes with practice, but there are a few additional tricks there. First of all, if you can, there are many new tools that can provide assistance for horizon as you’re operating (such as the Wave and Volt). While I think it’s important to learn how to operate without those tools, they have given a lot of operators the freedom to remove chasing the horizon from their attention loop while operating, and that’s incredibly freeing. It also takes away what was always one of the curses of Steadicam - it’s the only tool we regularly use on set which goes off level easily - so it makes it much easier for Steadicam work to blend in and be less obvious, something I know I appreciate. As for tricks without those fancy horizon aids, think about the blocking of your shots to avoid having to change direction unexpectedly. Every time you change direction or speed in the side to side axis, you introduce a tendency for the rig to go off level, and you will have to fight that. By blocking shots that limit these speed and direction changes, you limit the amount of times that you’ll need to be absolutely perfect. In addition, I run with a set of grid lines on my monitor, and regularly check them to the vertical and horizontal lines of the set. I also run a “CineLevel”, which is an acceleration compensated digital level that mounts on my rig, and seems rather effective at giving me a horizon readout, and it is relatively inexpensive, which is a pleasant surprise!

Finally, and I’m sure others will echo this - if you haven’t, please find time to take a workshop or some private training from a reputable operator (and of those two options, I really recommend the workshop if you’re starting out, for a variety of reasons). While there is much you can learn on your own, and from videos and books, having experienced operators around you, critiquing you, and building your form is invaluable. In addition, there is a ton of nuance to how each individual operator crafts their shots, and handles their rig, and being around a group of extremely talented people gives you tons of people to “borrow” ideas and techniques from, and will vastly broaden your skill set in a very short period of time. If you can logistically and financially make it make sense, the SOA provides some of the best workshop experiences I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been lucky to be able to instruct there a few times.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Exactly what Tom said! I typically do as light as possible with just the pads of my finger tips, but not letting go of the gimbal. On the opposite side of that, I was doing a shot last week outside when unexpectedly the wind picked up during a lock-off and I had to apply much more pressure to fight the wind. I didn't have to "death-grip" the gimbal, but it was getting close to that. 

With regards to horizon, it just takes practice. And when you notice you are off or starting to go off, looking for opportunities to adjust. If you end up in a lock off and you see your horizon is off, you can weigh the pros and cons of 1. fixing it in a lock off, which can sometimes bring more attention to it 2. live with it until you are moving to your next frame and you can fix it.

When you are blocking shots, keep an eye out for horizon indicators that will appear in frame. If you feel it might be too big of an issue, see if you can adjust blocking to help you. Many times the environment's horizon indicators will not actually be level, so having that discussion with the DP/director to say if you want to be level or if you want to be level with something in the world. My sled has been level but the roof of a building on set wasn't level, and the DP asked me to level to the roof, which I did. 

Hope this helps! 

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