Steadicam and cables have never gotten along well. By its very nature, Steadicam relies on isolation to get the job done properly, and cables dangling off the rig create unwanted forces that the operator must attempt to overcome.
Imagine trying to build a house of cards and having a little gremlin mischievously jogging your elbow at random moments - frustrating indeed. Even the slimmest looking cable can actually create a great deal of rotational twist that is deadly to our framing.
The solution is fairly obvious: make every possible external interface wireless, restore that critical isolation, and banish the gremlin.
This approach has been achieved with variable success. Remote lens controllers, for instance, have evolved to the point where they offer reliable, high resolution and utterly repeatable performance, while video transmission has traditionally been spotty at best.
I first got into operating Steadicam nearly twentyfive years ago, while based in Boston. Initially, my work was fairly evenly split between film and tape, the latter often represented by the three-quarter inch format with its unpleasantly thick cable strung from camera to recorder.
My worst memory is of the '94 World Cup. Thanks to an unyielding engineer who wouldn't allow me to use a coax adaptor, I was yanked around the pitch by a cruelly thick triax cable - leading me to have my own private, lightweight triax jumper built, much to the engineer's disdain.
In the Betacam era, the sound guy would inevitably wander over with either a snarl of XLRs and headphone monitor cables, or, nearly as bad, a snake cable with all the pliability of a #2 pencil.
Film cameras tended to be blissfully free of that cable madness - tidy, self-contained, and no possibility of onboard audio recording. For video assist purposes, I owned a collection of RF transmitters, mysterious rubberduckied project boxes that sent a rough approximation of the primordial video tap's image onto a single UHF channel.
Tethered to the Panavision Genesis. The grip behind Charles is carrying the recorder. This photo,
as well as title photo, courtesy of Peter "Hopper" Stone.
One particular unit was rumored to output in the vicinity of three watts, which I jokingly dubbed "the Sterilizer," as it blasted away on the base of the rig somewhere near my groin.
Later came more sophisticated versions of these transmitters, offering a wide selection of channels. Still, the reception was spotty and unpredictable, and viewers were always reminded that they were watching a transmitted image.
I eventually made the move to Los Angeles, and immediately found myself flying Panavision cameras and sipping cappuccinos on the dolly, with nary a video camera in sight.
I plied my trade on features like "American History X" and "Office Space," and TV shows like "ER" and "The West Wing," all shot on 35mm. I was cable-free, and happy as a clam.
FROM FILM TO HD
Starting a few years ago, it became harder and harder to dodge the HD bullet. In fact, my last four or five features and episodic series have all been captured digitally, with clearly more to come.
In the HD universe, our old-school RF monitoring with all of its hits and dropouts just doesn't cut it. The DP and DIT (Digital Image Technician) understandably expect to see a reliable and accurate image on their monitors, to properly judge exposure, color and contrast.
On "Balls of Fury," my first studio feature to shoot on the Panavision Genesis, I was requested to deliver an HD-SDI signal at all times.
I hopefully trotted out one of my ueber-skinny BNC jumper cables, but quickly learned that solid-core 75 ohm cable (much stiffer, naturally) was a necessity to carry the HD-SDI signal.
I was quite concerned about the effect this would have on my Steadicam operating, since any little variance in the frame is greatly magnified on a 40-foot theater screen.
Contributing to my malaise was the sensation of being kept on a leash - although, working in the film industry, I'm quite used to having to "heel" or "roll over."
Immediately after finishing a take, I frequently need to catch the ear of the director, the DP, or the actors to pass on a note. Being tethered often prevented me from physically getting to them.
My assistants became adept at mounting and ripping off the cable as quickly and invisibly as possible, but this process remained a constant distraction.
UNCOMPRESSED. WIRELESS. UP TO 150 FEET.
Obviously there was a tremendous need for a solution to all of this nonsense. Thankfully IDX came to our rescue with the CW-5HD, aka the CAM~WAVE. The unit effectively replaces an HD-SDI cable between camera and monitor, delivering an uncompressed wireless HD feed a nominal 150 feet line of sight.
(it will also work with SD-SDI, a format I have personally yet to encounter).
Some of my intrepid colleagues had worked with the original version of this technology a few years ago, but the half-second latency was reported to be less than satisfactory.
At a demo of the latest version, I waved my hand in front of a live camera and was impressed by the identical images from both hard wired and Camwavefed monitors; the latter showed no visible delay and an immaculate image. I was sold, and shortly thereafter began requesting the unit on a series of very successful shoots.
Ironically, my first two outings with the CAM~WAVE didn't involve my Steadicam at all. On a pilot presentation called "The Nebula," we were due to shoot on a spaceship set with textured floors that made dollying impossible.
I called in my friend Erwin Landau to operate Steadicam, so that I could focus solely on my DP duties.
Since the director was also the lead actor (Ahmed Best, of "Star Wars" fame), I felt it important to be able to provide him clean playback. It was a cramped and difficult set, and I knew that running a cable would be awkward. My solution was to build the CAM~WAVE onto the camera, and then feed the receiver through an AJA Io HD to a Macbook Pro as an affordable HD video assist.
I knew that providing a rock-solid image would be critical, as analog RF transmission would likely "confuse" the digital pipeline. The CAM~WAVE delivered fantastic results right out of the box: we just switched it on and shazam! Out came clean, consistent pictures.
I immediately turned my focus to the challenges of shooting the show under ferocious time and budgetary restraints (i.e. business as usual). Hours later I stepped onto the set to talk to Erwin, and was momentarily thrown to see him unencumbered by the expected BNC hose one would associate with such a solid image.
On my next gig, I was enlisted to shoot a set of promos for Encore, the multi-channel US premium television movie network, that involved eight actors sitting in the round in a mock therapy session.
The IDX CAM~WAVE transmitter mounted between the camera body and the battery, connected to the camera's HD-SDI out. The receiver sends HD-SDI into a mintor up to 150 feet away. MSRP for the system is $5995, and is widely available for rental.
We had an extremely tight schedule, so I suggested that we use a dolly on circular track, both to add movement as desired, and to get the camera into any given position as quickly as possible. The intention was to use the CAM~WAVE to transmit the image from my Sony F900 to the director in an adjacent room.
However, the day before the shoot we added a second camera on sticks which both the director and myself needed to be able to monitor. I gave the CAM~WAVE to the B camera and had two small Astro monitors rigged side by side on my dolly - one hardwired to my camera, the other with the CAM~WAVE receiver piggybacked. The dolly thus became something of a mobile control room, as the director walked alongside, and together we could observe both cameras.
With nary a cable to wrangle, we were free to make endless 360 degree rotations on the track, and shoot a tremendous amount of setups, a critical element to our being able to make our day.
The CAM~WAVE has performed well for me under mostly interior conditions, although I have heard anecdotally that the range may be somewhat limited on exteriors. As it approaches the end of the range, the image will begin to "sparkle" and eventually disappear, and once it returns to operating range it takes a nominal amount of time for the two components to lock back in on each other.
The CAM~WAVE, incidentally, is not tiny. It is designed to sandwich between a camera and battery (it will also accept 12V DC via a four pin XLR) and comes in either V-mount or Anton Bauer configurations. Due to its internal antennas, it sticks out a bit in all directions. However, it is reasonably light for its size, weighing in at under two pounds.
The receiver also has battery mounts, which makes it easy to power and carry around, pop on a stand close to the set to maximize operating range, or be mounted inline to a handheld director's monitor for ultimate mobility.
The CAM~WAVE accepts HD-SDI and SD-SDI inputs, supports a wide range of formats, and allows for loop through on the transmitter end. It has a 4-position channel selector on the transmitter side and a power switch and that's about it, which makes it fairly idiot-proof (good choice for me).
MOUNTED ON MY OWN RIG
Two shoots down, but still I hadn't had the pleasure of putting the CAM~WAVE up on my own rig! I spent several months operating Steadicam on "In the Motherhood" for ABC, carrying a hefty Genesis split setup, with fiber link to the recorder at the DIT tent, and thus no possibility of going cable-less. However, I did squeak in a few side gigs that finally offered me the opportunity to fly the CAM~WAVE.
The actor Shia LeBeouf ("Transformers,") was making his directorial debut on a music video for artist Cage. Since we were using the RED camera with its internal recording capability, I thought this would be a great opportunity to shed the monitoring cable.
Steadicam is often used for the performance portion of music videos in a loose, improvisatory way, so a hard line would likely hamper our options. Indeed, at one point I was asked to do a continuous "roundyround" shot of the artist performing inside a massive circle of fans. It would have been a serious nightmare to have to reverse-wrap and wrangle a cable through all of those rotations, with a good chance of lassoing a bystander in the process!
The opening sequence of the video required Shia and friends to drive down an alley with the camera handheld inside the car. Since I wasn't operating that particular shot, I took it upon myself to lash the CAM~WAVE to the roof of the car. The video assist operator was then able to capture several hundred feet of the car's travel. This saved considerable time over the alternative of having to shoot blind, then running a cable to the camera for playback after each take.
On my next adventure, I was hired to DP a promo for a Nickleodeon game show. I ran around documentary- style with the RED once again perched on my Steadicam, doing my best to keep out of the way of the seven or eight studio cameras while they taped several consecutive episodes of the show.
The clients sat at the back of the stage watching my shots via immaculate CAM~WAVE transmission. Flying this compact and self-contained package afforded total mobility, reminding me of the joys of shooting 16mm. Meanwhile, the client had the benefit of a clean, sharp HD image. A win-win situation.
My RED flying streak continued on to a 12-camera concert shoot for Green Day, which was described to me as a probable two and a half hour continuous event. I began to plot which bits of the camera and accessories I could jettison to make the rig as minimal as possible. I was told that my AC wouldn't be able to join me on stage, so I suggested we mount the CAM~WAVE receiver on a small HD monitor for him to pull focus from afar. As a bonus, we could loop out to director Nate Weavers's massive array of 17" HD monitors set up at the back of house.
With a lengthy and creative prep, I managed to strip the camera down considerably and mount a number of components including the CAM~WAVE at the base of the rig, maintaining the proper ratio of camera to counterweight and resulting in an impressively bantamweight 31 lb combined payload (camera and sled), easily half the weight I am used to carrying.
A last-minute decision resulted in no manned cameras on stage, so I was relegated to trucking back and forth between the barricade and the front of the stage. Somehow I had to squeeze myself in and around the phalanx of impressively large security guards, as well as dodge the sweaty bodysurfers that would regularly plummet into the barricade area.
Certainly there was no room for my AC Steve Buckingham to join me in the barricade, so he got comfortable in a corner with the CAM~WAVE, portable monitor and my Preston FI+Z, which provides flawless remote adjustment of focus, iris and/or zoom via microwave.
After the show, I went to visit Nate at his monitor rack and asked him how my transmission had fared. He stared at me for a second, and then explained that he had completely forgotten that I wasn't hard wired like all the other cameras! The technology was all but transparent. It was the first time that he'd never been reminded that a camera was wireless. "Oh yeah," he added, "the Steadicam operating wasn't bad either."
We'll take compliments any way we can get them.
Find more great Creative COW Magazine articles by signing up for the complimentary Creative COW Magazine.