Given the plethora of options in camera support systems, we present the latest developments in key product domains—tripods, lenses, lighting, etc
By Pradeep Suvarna
The past few years have seen plenty of evolution when it comes to camera support systems. This has gone a long way in helping cinematographers create better films and realise their visual aspirations.
Traditionally, cinematographers use a lot of gear, and for certain projects, when they have to work with a small crew, this can be present many challenges. At times like these, they have to be careful about the camera support systems and production devices they select so that their output quality is premium, while ensuring they are not saddled with lot of equipment while moving about.
Here we present some of the latest developments in the key camera support system domains that can help content creators adhere to fast-paced production schedules without compromising on their creative comfort.
Cinematographers operating cameras need to set up and change locations of their rig often during a shoot. This can be extremely time consuming and exhausting. Having a tripod that can do this job much faster gives them the luxury to concentrate more on the creative side and accurate framing.
There have not been many product innovations in the well-established manual supports segment. However, in 2017, Sachtler and Vinten, both part of the Vitec Group, introduced a carbon fibre tripod technology called flowtech. This 75mm-version offers a fast way of setting up and adjusting tripod legs, while moving all breaking clamps to the very top of the tripod and keeping the tripod weight to an absolute minimum.
Talking about the product, Tobias Keuthen, director, global product marketing management, Sachtler, said, “With flowtech, operating the camera in changing conditions becomes much faster. The top position of the breaking clamps also avoids the constant bend over. Due to the integrated hinge locks mechanism, flowtech can be used without a spreader, which allows for extremely low angle shots and without the need to carry a separate pair of baby legs.”
When it comes to the tripod, its head and legs are an essential part of the camera operator’s professional gear and need to fulfill the highest expectations. They have use the best camera and lens, but if this is mounted on an unstable tripod or if the head doesn’t allow for a smooth camera movement, then the output will result in a shaky picture, risking the entire production. Not only is this a creative disaster, but also a great cost liability.
Therefore, Keuthen pointed out that maximum tripod stability and a perfect pan / tilt behaviour are both essential for the operator to get the expected picture in the frame. When it comes to tripods, camera operators expect it to set up quickly so that they can set install the camera on it in a matter of seconds.
“The speed of deployment in conjunction with the transportability of a camera rig becomes more important the more often the shooter needs to change location during a production. Having an easy to adjust, lightweight tripod with minimum complexity and size is a must in such environments. Using a tripod head that can carry a wide range of camera-lens combinations and a tripod that can handle multiple shooting heights allows faster rig changes giving more time to shoot,” he added.
While many would like to believe that lighting is a precise science, Peter Daffarn, MD of thinks it is much more of an art and can be considered to be similar to painting but with light. According to him, it is easy to simply light a scene so you can see what is happening; but often, particularly in drama, what you don’t see, hidden in shadow, is often more important.
“A recent major scene for a Hollywood blockbuster was lit using all tungsten hot lights as that gave the quality and feel that they were after. For others it is the ability to have a full range of colours available that is popular however for lighting the talent a good quality white is not only popular but necessary—not many directors like their stars to be green or yellow, with the exception of Shrek and the Simpsons!” Daffarn exclaimed.
His advice to cinematographers has often been to not start thinking what light source they need but rather what type of lighting is needed on the scene. Then they can work back and find the right source to give the quality they are looking for.
According to Alan Ipakchian, product marketing manager at Litepanels in recent times LED panel lights have become quite popular in cinematography. With the benefit of LEDs, cinematographers can power them by battery so they are not tethered to a cable. LEDs are also heat-free so they don’t have to worry about burning the set walls or even the talent.
The portability and the quality of light is what are most popular for cinematographers when choosing lighting options.
Rod Aaron Gammons, MD of Rotolight agreed with Ipakchian and stated that one of the most impactful developments in recent times is the huge power consumption saving that comes with using LED lighting rigs over traditional tungsten alternatives, which can deliver significant cost savings for both studios and cinematographers. “We are also seeing an increasing number of lights that can be operated with batteries, which makes them ideal when shooting in remote locations or on sets where space is at a premium,” he said.
Daffarn, too, called LED a recent game changer for lighting. “In the early days the quality of LED was extremely variable. But, it is starting to really find its way and the general quality of LED lights is good these days. However, more conventional lights are still valuable and if used with care can be energy efficient and certainly cost efficient compared to LED,” he opined.
In his opinion it will be a shame to see all tungsten lighting removed from the palette as currently there is nothing to truly replace a tungsten Fresnel. “When you go to various trade fairs and industry expos it is easy to think that only LED is the option but conventional forms such as tungsten, fluorescent and HMI are still a valuable and useful source of light,” he pointed out.
Ipakchian, on the other hand, felt that incorporating quality full-spectrum LEDs in innovatively designed fixtures that have features, such as Bi-colour with green adjustment and full colour, allowed for productions to be more efficient and ultimately cost efficient. “It saves time on set and in post-production. You can battery power them to save time on running and wrapping cable. It allows you to dial in your specific lighting needs without having to gel or get scrims to reduce the output. The technology has moved rapidly in the sense that you can now have effects built-in. So, if the shoot doesn’t require one, a specialty light like an ambulance will not have to be ordered separately,” he noted.
According to Gammons, aside from the cost savings that come with low power consumption, the use of batteries for shooting in remote locations can deliver further financial savings, and also means there is no need for cinematographers to carry around large, heavy lighting rigs when shooting away from the studio. “The sophistication of the built-in lighting effects essentially allows for extra creativity and flexibility on set without the need for any additional equipment—again, in turn allowing for further cost savings—and are being used in critically acclaimed films,” he explained.
Stefan Lange, a VFX cinematographer, recently used Rotolight’s CineSFX feature when working on the BAFTA-nominated film Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. One of the film’s scenes sees two characters watching the 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien in a cinema, and the director wanted to project the film’s flicker onto the faces of the audience. Lange therefore used the flicker effect to achieve the desired shot, with no additional cables needed and no time wasted: it was simply an instant solution with an easily adjustable effect to help Lange get the desired result.
Cinematographers have varied requests when it comes to lighting. Daffarn said, “One of our most common requests is that our customers want bright, low power and cheap lights. Our standard answer is you can pick any two of those and we can find a light for you!”
Ipakchian added that cinematographers expect to have full spectrum lighting that renders great colour and skin tones. They want to light their scenes with quality lighting to make beautiful images. “Cinematographers also want to be able to shape and diffuse their lighting, so it is also important to make the controls in the lighting simple and offer a variety of light shaping and diffusion functionalities. There are times where you have to dim the light down to below 5% just to get a little glimmer of light in the eyes,” he stated.
According to Gammons since cinematographers are often working in high-pressure situations, they need to ensure they can work efficiently, and to the highest possible standard within a certain time frame. This therefore means they are looking for lights that are powerful, quick to set up and versatile—being able to finely tune the colour of the light, or to operate a larger lighting setup via DMX control are huge advantages, for example.
“While there are plenty of lights that can fit this bill, the very best options also include advanced features that allow cinematographers to experiment creatively and control their work with an incredible amount of precision. Tuneable colour temperature, combined with accurate colour rendition is very much in demand. LED lights in general used to have a reputation for poor colour rendition, but since then the technology has advanced to such a level that it can meet the very highest demands of cinematographers,” he added.
Amongst the latest developments in lenses, full frame is amongst the most popular trend. Brands like Sony Venice, ARRI ALEXA LF and RED Weapon can already shoot on it, and others are expected to embrace it soon. Looking at is growing adoption, about a year ago, while people were still sitting on the fence, Cooke designed its S7/i purpose-built full frame lenses even before any large format cameras were available. Through its relationships with the camera manufacturers and cinematographers, it felt that the demand would be there.
Les Zellan, chairman and owner of Cooke Optics said, “Now, we are waiting to see how the market develops in the next few years. The growth of full frame hasn’t upset the market for any of the other types of lens, though— it is just another choice for cinematographers.”
According to Sunil Kaul, MD, Asia Pacific of Leica Camera India, there are three key developments that have hugely impact the film making industry, namely mirrorless technology, LED (for both display and lighting) and information network. As the cost of making high density display panel today is lower as compared to a decade ago, high-definition TV has become a norm. Hence, while it was prohibitive to produce a 4K video earlier, the cost today is probably one quarter of what it used to be.
“High speed recording also another feature that is getting cheaper, bullet time, slow motion, 360 degree video, both software and hardware are more accessible and are more wallet friendly. In recent years, Leica launched a series of mirrorless that include most of the above mentioned features such as their TL, SL, CL series which fit to different budget for different needs,” Kaul added.
Zellan is unsure whether the newer lens additions have made things more efficient for users. “If anything, they make things more complicated—now, in addition to addressing the look and the story, you have to think about whether you are shooting 35mm, 65mm, anamorphic… you have all these options,” he said. However, the abundant options available also mean that they can make a better choice on what to choose to tell their story.
According to Kaul, as more companies join the industry, competition will increase and resulting in lower average price for the end user. Talking about user expectations, he said, “When it comes to lens, most cinematographers tend to lean more towards optic quality, adaptability across different system and also speed (in-terms of both focusing and manual control). Some prefer light-weight, some prefer smoothness of focusing ring, some prefer weather seal, while others prefer lenses with in-built stabiliser.”
When it comes to rigs, there are many involved within. Some are purely mechanical, while others play an electrical role. However, the objective is that they have to work in sync. Basically, rigs are the addition equipment that surround a camera or are attached to it, which help it function perfectly. This could include the matte box or follow focus, support for the larger lenses and adapters, mounts to add lights, monitors or microphones. These are often customisable, based on the functionality of the equipment and the nature of the project it is supposed to be used at.
According to Hans Salzinger, head of sales, ARRI, in India the focus is more on the camera, but choosing the right accessories can help save money significantly. “We concentrate on getting the most lightweight and smallest camera. But you will need more parts to mount on the cameras, which is a big challenge, since these parts might be of different brands. Hence, ARRI works produces accessories that will fit other cameras, like Sony and RED,” he said.
He cited the example of their matte boxes with swing away arm that makes it easy to exchange lenses quickly. “Our filters are absolute colour true, without reflecting, barcode for better archiving, easy to clean and it protects the filter from scratches because of superior coating,” Salzinger added.
Several innovations are taking place in the rigs domain. For instance, the typical mechanical follow focus has increasingly being replaced by wireless control units, which can store a larger database of lenses.
“With these tools, you have the possibility of using a scale ring on the system so that the focus puller knows the position of the focus—whether it was 0.5 m, 5m or infinity. This helps in better precision in focus pulling. With larger sensors and smaller bandwidth of the focus area, things are more challenging for the focus puller. For e.g. there is a higher chance of things being out of focus in an action scene, increasing the probability of re-shoot. That’s why such tools helps to save time and cost,” Salzinger explained.
Also, if the focus puller has little room for navigation during the shoot or has to move beside the cameraman because it is a Steadicam shoot or handheld shoot, then it is not possible it use a mechanical FF Lens Data. With tools like the ARRI Master handgrip, users can programme different functions on each of unit for various shoots, so they one hand free to hold and operate the camera.
Ultimately, the role of camera support systems is to help cinematographers do their job with minimal distractions or difficulty. It should work so effortlessly, that the camera assistant or the DoP does not have to think about how it works or its technical nuances.