Camera stabilisation for guerilla filmmakers

loocas | miscellaneous,opinions,technical | Sunday, March 29th, 2009

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When I bought my first camcroder, Canon VIXIA HG20, I had VFX and animation on my mind, of course ;) After a few initial test shoots I quickly realized that I couldn’t shoot anything without a solid camera stabilizer. The built in optical stabilizer has two major flaws, the first one is it doesn’t stabilize well and the second one is it offsets the optical vanishing center point, which isn’t really good for postproduction (namely camera tracking). Another flaw of the camera (well, most of the consumer cameras on the makret actually) is the CMOS sensor. While it has very nice colors representation, it suffers from what is commonly known as rolling-shutter distortion. Unfortunately the rolling-shutter distortion is introduced with the CMOS design and thus inavoidable, however, it can be more or less dealt with and one of the ways is to use a proper camera stabilizer.

When I was doing a research on which camera to buy and what stabilizers there are available for budget-conscious amateur filmmaker, I bumped into a product called FlyCam offered by a DV-Shop23 over at eBay. The units were very affordable and provided the best value/price ratio to me. So I bought one of those FlyCam 3000 models with all the accessories (wrist-holder, body strap etc…).

The stabilizer is fantastic, even though it takes some getting used to and a lot of tweaking of the camera position and weight balance in the begining, the results are fantastic. Here are two recent shots I did when out on a walk with our dogs to compare the quality of the stabilisation of the unit. The terrain was rough, so the shaking was amplified much more than it’d have been on a street, for example. Also, the built-in optical stabilizer was turned off in both cases.

This video was taken with the camera in my hands while trying to keep it as steady as possible:

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This short clip was taken with the camera attached to the FlyCam 3000 stabiliser:

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As you can see, the difference is huge! You can also notice the terrible rolling-shutter distortion the CMOS suffers from. While still present on the stabilised footage, it’s much more subtle and thus easier to deal with in post. I’ve already successfully solved several hand-held (FlyCam stabilised) shots in SynthEyes with no problems, which is great and exactly what I aim to use the camera with the stabilizer for.

While the stabilizer came with all sorts of extras I still missed one bit and that is the camera attachment unit. The original comes only with a single screw. You put your camera on top of the FlyCam plate and screw it with a screw that comes with it. This is very impractical if you need to use your camera on a tripod for example as you have to disassemble the unit, screw a tripod mount compatible plate and lock-in your camera. So I ordered a Manfrotto plate (since I own a Manfrotto tripod and head) and fixed the plate on the FlyCam for good. Now all I need to do is simply un-clip the camera off the FlyCam and clip it back on to the tripod :)

To make sure the camera stays in a straight line when hand-held I used my little water-level gizmo I bought for my camera and tweaked the plate offset for as long until the camera was perfectly straight. Which of course required to modify the weights on the lower part of the stabilizer, since the camera is quite light.

So there you have it. This is my little amateurish camera setup I use and enjoy quite a lot. It’s easy to setup, affordable and very handy. Tracking shots from the HG20 becomes really easy and straight forward this way, even though you can’t quite get rid of the rolling-shutter distortion, but it’s manageable. If you can, buy a 3xCCD camera, but they’re very rare these days in the consumer field and if you find some, they’re mostly SD. The HD ones are extremely expensive on the other hand.

We’ll see what Scarlet will bring to the table… ;)

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