Saturday, June 07, 2008

Smooth Operator

Gear Heads


n: a person who pursues mechanical or technological interests (as in automobiles or computers)

But this has nothing to do with the gear heads that I am talking about here today. Gear heads are a mounting system for cameras that provide very precise control over the panning and tilting of the camera.

Fluid Dynamics

Today, most of your low budget indie filmmakers use what is called a fluid head to mount their camera. This type of head uses a thick fluid to dampen the movement of the camera. These types of heads are very effective and reasonably priced.

Some of the lower cost fluid heads make it very difficult to have nice smooth starts and stops. You always end up with some jerky movement at the start or the end of the pan or tilt. Some of this can be overcome by doing simple tricks like putting a rubber band between the head and the tripod to add pressure to the movement in question.

And this brings us to Gear Heads. Gear heads have been around for a LONG time and are a mainstay in studio productions. They provide VERY precise, repeatable control over the panning and tilting of the camera. Here are two examples of gear heads.

A Mitchell:

And an Arri:

These heads use a precision gear transmission and most examples provide the ability to select the gear ratio so that you can have very fine or very coarse control with the head. They take some practice to get used to, but once you gain some proficiency with them, they are an amazing tool to have at your disposal.

Years ago I was on the set of Knott’s Landing with an operator friend of mine (King Nicholoson S.O.C. now retired). The talent was tossing a football around and the director told King that he wanted that football in frame when they threw it no matter what.

Well, one of the throws went wild and the football landed at the base of the dolly that the camera was on. But, King never let that ball get out of frame as he furiously spun the gear head's controls and followed that ball until the camera was pointed at the base of the dolly. I twas an impressive sight to see.

If you have ever used a gear head, you know what I am talking about. Problem is, most Indie filmmakers have never seen what they can do or had the opportunity to use one. Most of the ones I have talked with, don’t even know what one is.

Budget Head

In the world of budget filmmaking we have some amazing tools at our disposal. Redrock Micro makes low cost cine lens adapters, rail systems, follow focus and matte boxes. Varizoom makes low cost Steadicam rigs, jibs and remote heads.

And a host of other manufacturers provide gear for the budget filmmaker. Even Tiffen, makers of the $55,000 Steadicam professional rig, makes lower cost rigs for the indie filmmaker such as the Merlin.

But NO ONE makes a gear head for the indie filmmaker on a budget. I think this is a huge gap. If you buy a used Mitchell gear head that is 25 years old, it will cost you $5000+. An Arri gear head will run you $10,000-$15,000. FAR outside the typical budget of the indie filmmaker.

Last year, at the DV Expo I was at the Redrock Micro booth and I asked them if they would consider making a gear head. They said that I was now the second person that had ever asked them for this.

I explained that I figured that the reason for this was that their customer base had no clue what one was or what the benefits of using it are. If someone could make one for about $1000 for the indie market and promote it properly, I KNOW it would sell. Well, I know that it would sell to at least one customer: Me.

So here is my call out to you low cost indie filmmaking gear manufacturers: Make a low cost gear head!



modifoo said...

If it was possible to make a $1000 geared head that would support a rigged Red, I would jump on it.

Would be great if one could chose which wheel controls which axis - I find the "old school" geared heads to be counter-intuitive.

B-Scene Films said...

Yeah, they take some practice, but a few days with it and it becomes second nature.

Tim Gooch said...

For a variety of reasons (mostly because I like dinking around with things out of intellectual curiosity) I have been building and modifying a gear head designed for DV-size cameras. The tilt motion is handled via a mechanism similar to what Ron Dexter proposes in this link, but the pan control is via a piece of machinist's equipment called a "rotary table."

At present, all the materials I'm using are too low of a grade for me to subject anyone else to them, but they've been useful for establishing what the dynamics of a gear head are like. If I come up with anything that I'm not too ashamed of, I'll post pictures and a link. - Tim