GV - April 1997

Looking for Some Stability
by Sheldon Liebman

Finding stability in your life is never easy. Lately though, when it comes to stabilizing lenses and platforms, it's become a whole lot easier. In this article, we'll look at four companies that provide very different solutions designs to achieve the same goal - letting you create videos that look rock solid.

There are basically two types of effects that can cause your videos to become unstable. The first is high frequency vibration. Typically, this happens when your arm or hand get tired of holding the camera or camcorder and literally start to shake. The best way to get rid of this is often simply to use a tripod, but this isn't always practical. For example, if you are shooting on soft or very uneven terrain, it may not be possible to set up your tripod so it doesn't move.

The second type of vibration is low frequency. This is usually related to moving around while you shoot and is most easily identified with walking (or running). It's just hard to keep the camera level if your body is moving up and down. Getting rid of this type of vibration is probably best accomplished with a lot of practice and a very unnatural walk.

Other kinds of vibration can also affect the quality and look of the video you shoot. Shooting from a moving car or helicopter introduces a great deal of vibration, both from the vehicle itself and from your reactions to the movement of the vehicle. Wind is another source of concern. It doesn't matter how still you are, a sudden gust of wind is almost always going to affect your shot.

Thankfully, there are solutions to all of these problems. They come in different forms, have different costs and are best suited for different types of shots, but they are available. Best of all, some very significant announcements were just made that are bound to change the way people look at stabilization.

Come Fly With Me
Everyone who witnessed O.J. Simpson's "slow speed chase" became very familiar with one type of stabilization product, the stabilized platform. This is the type of product that is usually mounted to a news helicopter so that as the chopper flies around, it can broadcast stable images back to the ground. More recently, this kind of system was used to provide live footage of the robbery suspects in LA who became involved in a shoot-out with police. These same types of systems can be mounted to cars, boats, or airplanes and provide similar results.

FLIR Systems of Portland, OR is a leading supplier of platform based stabilization products. Because the platform is stabilized, says Bill Martin, FLIR's Vice President of Sales, "the payload can be virtually any type of camera/lens combination." According to Martin, FLIR's most popular product "is the UltraMedia, which uses Fujinon or Canon lenses and industry-standard broadcast cameras."

The UltraMedia is currently being used in most major markets including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Dallas. The system weighs approximately 75 pounds with the camera and lens. For smaller aircraft, FLIR recently introduced the UltraMedia-RS. This lighter system weighs only 35 pounds when fully loaded, so it can be used with a much larger array of vehicles.

Both products are referred to as "5-axis gyro-stabilized" camera systems, but neither one uses a traditional gyroscope. Instead, says Martin, "they use inertial sensors like in a cruise missile. These sensors feed force motors that actually push against the gimbal (camera housing) to hold it still regardless of what is happening to the (vehicle)." Compared to a true gyroscopic system, adds Martin, "they react more quickly."

Having control over 5 axes also provides the FLIR systems with the highest degree of stabilization, according to the company. "Broadcasters want the picture to look like the camera was mounted on a steel pole," explains Martin. With their products, FLIR provides control over fine and coarse azimuth, fine and coarse elevation, and roll. Why aren't there two controls for roll? "The whole camera has to pivot inside the sphere," says Martin, "so you can only have one roll axis."

FLIR typically sells complete, integrated systems that can be rotated 360 relative to the platform and offer some very long focal lengths. Pricing is approximately $300,000 for the most requested system, but Martin says that other systems are available "as inexpensively as $195K."

The Better to See You With, My Dear
One of the oldest names in stabilization is Schwem, which introduced the Gyrozoom image stabilizer lens over 10 years ago. Purchased by Tinsley Laboratories five years ago, Schwem is now the name of the product line but no longer the name of the company.

The Gyrozoom uses a gyroscope and prism to keep the camera level. It fits most ENG/EFP cameras to provide stabilization in a hand held environment. Like FLIR's products, the Gyrozoom is often used with a vehicle.

Clay Sylvester was one of the original employees at Schwem and is now with Tinsley. "The neat thing about a hand held device like this," says Sylvester, "is that you can shoot from different kinds of moving objects. (Our system) works very well under a number of different frequencies, from high frequency helicopters to low frequency boats."

One disadvantage of the Gyrozoom is that it's coupled to a specific zoom lens, so Tinsley developed another system, the GX-4, that combines a lens and camera with a stabilizing unit. "We wanted to provide a wider angle," explains Sylvester, "so we had to come up with a different technology."

The GX-4 uses optical and mechanical methods to manipulate a set of lenses called a "Passive Optical Corrector" that is mounted in front of a standard zoom lens and camera. It can be either hand held or mounted in a gimbal, although Sylvester admits that it's "more likely to go in a helicopter application."

Since the GX-4 and Gyrozoom are smaller systems and can be used in hand-held applications, the price is significantly lower than the FLIR systems. According to Sylvester, a helicopter mounted GX-4 system is approximately $45,000 and a Gyrozoom is just under $18K.

Another company that is providing stabilized lenses is Canon Broadcast Equipment Division. Approximately three years ago, Canon Broadcast released their first lens adapter based on "Vari-Angle Prism," or VAP, technology. VAP is an optical technology that uses prisms to eliminate image shaking.

According to company literature, "normally light rays from a subject pass through the object lens to the image plane." When the lens shakes due to vibration or high speed movement, the light rays "move across the image plane causing image shaking." Placing the VAP lens between the subject and the optical system allows the prism to "control the angle of refraction of light rays so that the subject remains centered on the image plane." So, even though the angle of the camera is changing as it shakes, the prism is bending the light back to where it belongs.

Canon's first VAP lens for video was the J14aX17B KRS-V. This lens was strictly for telephoto use. Two years ago, the technology was expanded to the J13aX9B KRS-V which features a wider angle. Last year, Canon introduced the IS-20B adapter, which allows their popular J20aX8B/H20aX6 to be fitted with image stabilization after the fact. This product was the first of its type and allows all of the features and functions of this lens to be used while the adapter is in place.

According to Ken Ito, Product Manager for Canon Broadcast, this wasn't enough for the company, so they have just introduced a new product that goes one step further. "After the introduction of the IS-20B, says Ito, "the challenge was to create an adapter for the other customers and their lenses. We asked the factory to design something that would go on anything."

The result was recently introduced and is called the IS-20BII Image Stabilizer Adapter. With the introduction of this product, Canon Broadcast can provide after market stabilization for a wide variety of Canon lenses including the 14aX, 15aX, 20aX and 33aX IF+ series. As with the IS-20B, this new adapter connects to the lens "without compromising the original specs of the lens," according to the company. Priced at around $17,000, the IS-20BII allows cameramen to use their favorite Canon lenses and still have stabilized images. The adapter attaches to the front of the lens and weighs only 3.5 pounds, so it shouldn't change the "feel" of the camera very much.

"Image stabilization lenses and adapters are now being used in everyday applications," comments Ito. For local television stations, this now presents the opportunity to rent a helicopter and use a stabilized lens for reduced cost and increased flexibility. And, adds Ito, "There are tons of lenses out there that can now be upgraded to include image stabilization technology."

Walk This Way
Approximately 25 years ago, cameramen started wearing a funny looking device designed to let them wander around without creating a shaky image. Steadicam, created by Cinema Products of Los Angeles, started out as a tool for filmmaking and has evolved over the past five years into a product used every day and virtually everywhere by video professionals.

The concept behind the Steadicam is pretty simple - if you can balance the camera correctly, you can move without shaking. To make sure this can happen, the traditional Steadicam product includes a vest, a support arm, a mounting sled and post, a monitor, and a battery. When set up correctly, the monitor and battery help balance the camera and the support arm and vest distribute the weight evenly across the cameraman's (or woman's) body.

There are a number of different models available that are differentiated by whether they are for film or video camera and further by the weight range of the cameras they can hold. Whichever model you use, the goal is to achieve "dynamic balance," says Ed Di Giulio, President of Cinema Products. The first type of balance that must be achieved is around the center of mass of the equipment "so there is no tendency to rock it," explains Di Giulio. "Then you get it nicely balanced on vertical in a static position (for dynamic balance)." If the system is not in dynamic balance, adds Di Giulio, "it will tend to tilt when the cameraman tries to pan."

Although this sounds complicated, Cinema Products offers workshops around the country specifically geared toward training people how to set up and adjust a Steadicam. And, once it is adjusted, it stays adjusted, even if another person puts on the vest. "The balance has nothing to do with the size of the man or woman (using the Steadicam)," says Janet DeVita, Marketing Manager at Cinema Products. "The only thing that needs to be adjusted when moving from one person to another is the vest."

Pretty soon, you might not even have to do that. With multiple versions of Steadicam available, pricing ranges from around $9000 for the SK version just introduced at NAB to over $50,000 for the Master Series Film version. However, Government Video had a chance to speak with Joe Lenney, Founder of Sandlake Design, who is working on a radical new product that was previewed at NAB and should be available soon. Lenney's company has been working with Cinema Products since 1993 and has done the industrial design for all of the Steadicam products currently being sold.

This product is so new that it doesn't have a name yet, but it promises to revolutionize the Prosumer video market. Lenney is designing a hand-held product without a vest or stabilizing arm that can be used with camcorders weighing from 2-6 pounds. This new product will work with a 4" active matrix TFT color display and a power supply to provide balance, just like the professional models, and has a camera mounting platform that is adjustable to set the balance correctly.

The new model is geared toward high-end videophiles and lower end professionals and has a price to match. When it ships, it is expected to cost under $1000. The nice thing about this system, says Lenney, is that it "doesn't require that the person have a 6-8K camera, but it definitely provides a super stable image."

That's quite a difference from the $200,000 and up FLIR systems, but it's also quite a difference from their own $9000 Steadicam SK. As consumers of this technology, it's great to know that there is such a wide range to choose from, both in terms of technology and in terms of pricing. Whichever we choose, we'll benefit from adding a little stability to our lives.

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