Motorized Gimbals vs. Steadicams: Why and When?

Along with an out-of-focus background or “bokeh” the other most recognizable cinematic technique in a scene is a smooth camera move. Traditionally this was the realm of the jib (crane) and dolly but these came with limited flexibility, range, the need to lay tracks, and additional personnel not to mention set up time and cost. While they all still have their place it was the development of the Steadicam in the mid 1970’s and gimbal stabilizers in the past six years that truly released the camera to roam and capture shots that would have been nearly impossible before. On a practical level these are shots that add “high production value” to your project. They imply sophistication and style that is associated with big-budget productions and high-end brands…part of the reason there’s a huge difference in a car manufacturer’s commercial and a spot from a local dealership, although they’re both selling the same thing. On a psychological level they better keep the audience’ attention because new visual information is being revealed every second. The human brain is wired to track on motion (we’re predators, of courseJ). People watch longer naturally and because they want to see what else will come into view. It certainly seems worth incorporating these tools into your project to elevate the perception of your business, product or art.

So what’s right for your production? Let’s first talk about how each works. Most simply put the Steadicam is a mechanical device that places the camera on a post with a counterweight below it (usually the batteries and monitor screen) and attaches to a spring loaded arm through a roller bearing coupler. The arm connects to a vest the operator wears. The springs transfer the weight of the camera to the torso and absorbs almost all the body movement of the op. Careful balancing of the system and control of the post allow the fluid motion of the camera. The gimbal stabilizer is hand-held and uses a gyroscope to control motors on the camera platform and compensate for shake when it’s in motion.

It’s not difficult to see the first difference is payload. A 25 pound cinema camera mounted on a 12 pound gimbal is not something you can hand hold for long without fatigue. The arm and vest of the Steadicam can handle that for extended periods. There are now arms and backpack rigs to attach to gimbals but at the cost of reducing the flexibility of the operator.

But gimbals are able to rise and lower the full range of motion of the operator because they don’t have that post hanging underneath the camera. Additionally they can clear obstructions on the ground for the same reason or even be handed off to another person while in operation, to pass through a window, for instance.

Lens orientation when you’re moving also reveals a big difference. With the Steadicam and operator can pan the camera up to 180 degrees off their line of travel because they control where the camera points by rotating the post underneath. On a gimbal the hands have to be on either side of the camera platform meaning the operator’s body generally has to point the same direction. If you’re leading a subject (filming them from in front while they move forward) a gimbal operator has to walk backwards. And if your subject has to run in that leading shot? Not a very safe or efficient technique to have the operator running backwards.

A final point to consider is fast panning (turning the camera left or right). Since an electronic processor is reacting to the motion gimbals tend to “settle” into a new position not land in exactly the right orientation. At slow pan speeds this is barely noticeable but when the move is fast the camera will often lag behind the action of the operator and then overcorrect (move past the stop point) before returning to the stop point. It’s pretty obvious. The Steadicam operator controls the camera motion directly with the fingertips moving the post and can snap to any spot with pinpoint accuracy every time.

There’s also a very pragmatic concern here regarding your budget. Steadicam rigs, especially those with higher payloads are extremely expensive. $20K-$30K is not uncommon and it takes operators years to master their techniques. This is reflected in the higher day rates Steadi ops charge vice gimbals.

Your producer or director can help you develop a shot list and take these characteristics of Steadicams and gimbals into account so you can choose the right tool for the job. Beautiful moving shots are more engaging for the viewer and help set your project apart from others. In the age of a crowded media market every advantage you can get is an important one.