March 23, 2016

How to Film Over Your Shoulder for Hours With a DJI Ronin Gimbal Mounted to a Steadicam

Eric Phillips-Horst Ronin Rig Steadicam HERO
When asked to help document two guys who are walking every street in the five boroughs, I knew I'd be shooting on foot for hours—and would need a better solution for mobile interviews than a handheld MōVI.

As Riley Hooper's DP for a video in The New Yorker, I faced a particular technical challenge. We were tasked with following two people who are attempting to set foot on every single street on the map of New York City. By the time they’re done, they will have walked past every house in New York, every apartment, every ice cream shop, you name it—over 6000 miles of streets in total.

Here is the final video, and if you want to learn more about how we did it, keep on reading:

Riley knew she wanted to capture her subjects on the job — they had to be walking. She wanted as much of a feeling of movement as we could imbue, while also being able to chat casually with each subject. The icing on the cake would be to capture a moment or two of genuine interactions with others or the environment, as they ambled the neighborhoods of NYC. Riley and I both come from a verité documentary background, meaning we’re familiar with the stoic task of hanging out for long periods of time, waiting for real life to happen. But that also means being ready for anything at any time: there are no second takes.

So how were we going to film an interview, keep the camera moving, and also grab sweet little moments as they organically unfolded? My first thought was the MōVI, the well-known camera stabilizer, and which my production cooperative Meerkat Media had recently purchased. Meerkat has had great success with the MōVI, but the maximum operating time we’ve been able to log is around 30 minutes of continuous shooting, and that usually renders the operator’s arms pretty tired by the end of it. Riley mentioned she wanted to shoot for around 2-3 hours each day, for 3 days in a row. Not sustainable with a handheld MōVI, unless we brought a body builder to set.

I began doing research into possible support rigs that I could combine with the MōVI. I’d heard that the EasyRig could support a MōVI, but my research told me that if the operator is moving, it’s very difficult to get rid of the bounce created by footsteps. I found deep into one forum that if you hang the MōVI from the EasyRig hook with 5 bongo ties, it might remove the tilt-shake, so I tried a jerry-rigged test using some grip gear in our office. However, the stretching rubber of the bongo ties didn’t work effectively enough to remove my footsteps, not to mention that it could also result in a compensation feedback loop that would send the arms of the hanging MōVI into a swinging death spiral, within head-striking distance. Not exactly what I wanted to have happen in hour 2 of a walking interview.

Eric Phillips-Horst Ronin Rig Steadicam 2

The other issue was that none of these rigs solved the problem of how to get the camera to face the walking interviewee, while the operator simultaneously moves backwards at the same speed. Even if I could walk backwards for 3 hours straight, I didn’t think I wanted to. I proposed some crazy ideas, like standing on an equipment cart with a PA to pull me — Or what about a powered wheelchair, like the kind grandpa uses? But not only did we not have budget for something kooky like that, we wanted to keep our crew and gear to as minimal a size as possible, to keep the dialogue real and let the real world penetrate the frame.

Asking around a bit, a DP friend of mine directed me to his buddy Mike at 16 by 40. Mike is a bit of a mad hatter when it comes to gear. His Facebook page has videos of him rigging stabilizers to rental bikes, and testing out reverse helmet cams of his own design. He has a personal relationship with a custom parts factory in New Jersey. His kitchen table often has a slider track on it. You get the idea.

A rig Mike invented, available for $300 on his site, seemed like it could work. He’s taken a Ronin, the much heavier competitor to the MōVI, and attached it to a traditional body-mounted Steadicam. The result is that you can operate the Ronin normally, but all the weight is supported by the Steadicam on the operator’s hips. Suddenly you can go from 30 minutes of operating time to 3 hours. My solution seemed at hand. 

16x40 DJI Ronin Gimbal and steadicam Support Vest

Going over to Mike’s place, I learned that the rig actually functions with the camera mounted upside down. The process is relatively simple. There are handles on the top cross bar of the stabilizer, so the first step is to flip them up so they face to the ceiling. Then you build and balance the Ronin and camera on its stand, and suit up with the Steadicam rig. So far, so normal, but here comes the tricky part: you turn on the Ronin, and once it’s stabilized itself, you slowly turn it upside down. The motors get a little confused at first, but once it’s fully upside down it readjusts itself and behaves normally again, hanging upside down from the attachment plate. With a little help, the rig is then lowered onto the custom-modified attachment peg on the Steadicam arm, and it’s ready to go. 

The best part was realizing that as easy as it was to walk around with, the Ronin has the ability to rotate freely on the Steadicam peg, thus enabling me to pan the camera 180 degrees, so it faced behind me. Pushing it towards my body quickly eliminated my shoulder from creeping into frame, and also centered the weight better on my body. We went up the roof to test out the feel of it and it quickly proved to be effective. I sent some test footage to Riley, and we were good to go!

Actually using the rig on the shoot proved to be a new challenge, but one that we were able to address pretty easily. I think the Ronin’s best feature is that it was able to reset and rebalance without needing to be on its stand. Most stabilizers are going to need to be reset from time to time — either the batteries run out, or something goes wrong and the device gets confused. When we swapped batteries on the Ronin, I simply held the camera in place with my hands (upside down and attached to a Steadicam, mind you), and as it re-initialized, it was balanced just as well as before. Even the motor stress indicators on the mobile app were consistent, so I knew I wasn’t going to wear out the unit’s motors. Without this function, our shoot would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

We rigged our Odyssey 7Q to the cross bar on the Ronin, which was at waist-level, and enabled me to monitor frame while also keeping an eye on the sidewalk in front of me. We used a Canon C100 Mark II, and a Canon 17-55mm stabilized lens. And Mike threw in some high fidelity thumb rockers that allowed me to control pan, tilt and yaw on the fly.

Eric Phillips-Horst Ronin Rig Steadicam 4

One challenge was that frequently we'd have to turn around to follow our character as he approached a person on the street, and I'd have to pan the rig on its axis 180 degrees, switching quickly to shoot facing forward, and ogling the camera monitor upside down. The rig worked fine facing this direction as well, but it was an interesting mental switch — a little like jumping from Nikon to Canon lenses, and reminding your muscle memory to adjust focus in the opposite direction. Probably would have been nice to have an extra camera on set for those moments, to be honest!

We chose the C100 Mark II in part for its continuous auto-focus, which I’ve used effectively while shooting in corporate environments, tracking in front of someone as they walked forward. However, the auto-focus is not so smart on the streets, especially at the distance we maintained, as it sees all the detail behind the person and tries to focus on that instead (even with the person smack in the middle of the focus window). To compensate, I stopped down as much as possible, which actually matched the look we were going for, in that the world around each walker was as much a character as the individual himself.

As we wandered around town with our subjects, sound operator Lindsay Cordero deftly boomed when she could, dodging plants and garbage cans and passersby, and Riley walked alongside camera, to simulate the look of a typical interview using an eye-line slightly to the side of frame. We strolled around town with a svelte crew of 3, on one day for over 5 hours straight, and captured whatever came our way. 

Eric Phillips-Horst Ronin Rig Steadicam 3

I did look like a crazy cyborg, but it never seemed to interrupt the realness of the world, in part due to the camera facing backwards. By the time any camera-gawkers were in frame, they just appeared as if they were looking at the guy we were shooting, who was in between them and the lens. And of course, when you’re shooting in NYC, people don’t care about your camera anyway, you’re just one more weirdo on the street — gotta love disinterested New Yorkers!

The completed piece has genuine moments, never stops moving (just like the director wanted), and is a testament to what a small crew and some resourceful thinking can accomplish. 

What kinds of rigs have you been able to make work in constrained circumstances? Let us know below in the comments.     

Your Comment

27 Comments

I tried this setup a couple of times.

But it felt uncomfortable to control (compared to a traditional Steadicam) and the results were even worse than a Ronin hand-held or worse than a traditional Steadicam.

The Ronin is still too light for the spring arms, so you see "walking hits" even more than hand-hold. And those vertical micro shakes can also bee seen in the video above.

Another note: for this setup, you need an assistant. You cannot put that Ronin onto the spring arm alone. And: the entire setup takes ridiculous long.

March 23, 2016 at 5:28PM

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JeffreyWalther
Steadicam Operator/Owner
1471

Couldn't you add weight?

April 18, 2016 at 8:45PM

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David Gurney
DP
1787

Cool vid, I saw it a few months ago when it came out! Great idea for a little doc.

Your ronin over the shoulder thing is neat but I feel like a rickshaw would have made your life hella easy.

March 23, 2016 at 6:29PM

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matt
887

I hate to be a hater, but i actually thought the camera style was all wrong on that piece. it felt really canned and contrived. Not at all like what it's like to walk the streets of New York (I lived in the Big Apple 10 years). There's times when our efforts to create the perfect smooth shot do a disservice to the material. I wouldve preferred a little more shake and a little more bounce in the cameraman's step. This felt all wrong to me based on the story.

March 23, 2016 at 8:52PM, Edited March 23, 8:52PM

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STEPHEN SPEILBERG!!!! Oh my goodness - you made it finally to the NFS comment section.
It is an honor, sir.

March 23, 2016 at 10:09PM, Edited March 23, 10:09PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1704

Totally agree, might be a case of overthinking a shot.

March 24, 2016 at 1:17AM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1573

that's where experience comes into play. This rig is comically ridiculous. Entirely too much time and effort was put into playing with toys and not enough time into planning the overall look.

March 24, 2016 at 12:58PM

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LOVE IT ERIC. Love everything going on here. Very cool article too!

March 23, 2016 at 10:09PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1704

I really think this is the way things will go with steadicams, as in combining gimbles for better axis control and stabilisation, but using an arm to smooth positional movement. As this eliminates the pitfalls of both. But this example isn't quite right yet.

In his set-up, holding onto the two handles firmly with each hand as he is doing will seriously introduce a lot of movement and shake to the set-up. When operating a Steadicam we are always taught to hold the sled lightly and just guide it to minimise additional movement and shake from a firm grip. Currently he is turning the steadicam arm to just a weight barer and removing its ability to effectively stabilise positional movement. Also it seems very top heavy which seems to also be picking up movement from his walk.

I think Tiffin need to come up with an decent Gimble/Steadicam hybrid option and they will sell like hotcakes with operators.

Maybe something more along the lines of this:
http://nofilmschool.com/2016/01/letus-helix-1-axis-pro-steadicam

March 24, 2016 at 6:57AM, Edited March 24, 6:57AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
575

This will never happen.
A traditional Steadicam and an electr. gimbal are two different tools for different purposes.

For further information on this topic follow this thread:
http://nofilmschool.com/boards/discussions/have-systems-ronin-and-movi-k...

March 24, 2016 at 9:29AM

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JeffreyWalther
Steadicam Operator/Owner
1471

This kind of already exists and has for a long time now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4EWdsO4Xzs

Really what they've done in this article is come up with a much more DIY versinon of the AR, but as others have pointed out you get a lot of bounce in what they've created.

March 25, 2016 at 1:57PM

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I realize I don't know all of the limitations of this particular project, but, my first thought was to incorporate a stabilized rig (of your choice) with a golf cart. No more fatigue, place for extra gear and spares, capability of incorporating a small jib, ability to easily get other shots not possible with a person on foot...etc You could easily incorporate a quick connect to "hop off" and shoot handheld when the need arose. This just seems unnecessarily complicated. Just my two cents!

March 24, 2016 at 12:45PM

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Something tells me a golf cart on sidewalks in NYC would not fly

March 27, 2016 at 1:49PM

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I don't know what it is about No Film School but it sure brings out the negative-Nellies. It seems to me the point of this was to do this mini documentary with the smallest crew possible for cost and simplicity reasons and so as not to stand out and be a distraction. A golf cart and the people/gear needed to support that or some other bigger set-up, would not have accomplished this goal. I think this rig is fine in a simply, straight forward way. Mostly the shots are smooth (it would be too shakey all hand-held) but there's just enough movement in the walking so you get the feeling of "walking" New York, which is the whole point of the story! Great job Eric. I found the story engaging and interesting. I hope if I'm in New York in the near future I run across one of these guys so I can walk and talk with them because they seem like interesting, likeable guys.

March 24, 2016 at 4:27PM

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Dave Stanton
DP
244

I don't think anyone is being a negative-nelly. we just were exposed to a 2000 word article about how a cameraman made a steadi-rig to shoot two guys walking. And, at the end of the day, it seems some people agree that maybe this approach was a little too artificial. So, I think it's important for readers on No Film School to remember the big picture. It's the story that counts and the shooting needs to be subservient to the story. It's easy to lose your focus as a gear-head.

March 25, 2016 at 11:26AM

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Thank you

March 26, 2016 at 3:00PM

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B.D. Sharples
Cinematographer and Director
236

I agree. Even after reading these comments I watched the video and quickly stopped caring about the camera and was engaged in the story they were telling. Seems to me, that means the cinematography was a success.

March 27, 2016 at 1:51PM

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quel fantastique post ça a été. Dans aucun cas vu ce genre associé à poste utile. Vous trouverez quelque chose d'utile dans mon site:
http://www.montrespascherfr.com
http://www.montrespascherfr.com/replique-omega-c-23.html

March 24, 2016 at 11:03PM

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VAN
102

I agree with traditional Steadicam because they are safe.
This technology is new and needs more time to gets better.
So I use it...

March 25, 2016 at 7:29AM, Edited March 25, 7:52AM

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Cyamac Khademi
director of photography
74

I ask the question from the perspective of being a DP and a Steadicam op: "Is this a compelling piece independent of the technique used to accomplish it?", and I'd have to say "Yes", I found it very interesting and engaging. Eric was tasked with figuring out a way to shoot long stretches of walking footage- with the flexibility to have the camera facing either forward or over his shoulder- while keeping a small crew footprint and not interfering with the spontaneous dialogue. His solution utilized the resources he had available, solving the puzzle of how to shoot the footage in a very clever way. It worked well for him and that's really the only answer necessary. I applaud the ingenuity and energy involved in bringing this story to life. Nice work!

March 25, 2016 at 9:42AM

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JM
81

https://vimeo.com/114691072

The video above was shot operating a Ronin and riding a cruiser skateboard. Sometimes people wanna push aside the obvious and cost effective choice for smooth camera movement. The best choice is not always the most flashy or technical.

Side note yes you would need a experienced rider

March 26, 2016 at 2:57PM, Edited March 26, 2:57PM

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B.D. Sharples
Cinematographer and Director
236

This doesn't help with the issue of filming continuously for 3+ hours at a time without getting tired.
And FWIW, it was a Movi, not a Ronin.

March 27, 2016 at 1:59PM, Edited March 27, 1:59PM

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Flowcine makes a rig that gets rid of the vertical step in handheld rigs and it's lighter and looks a bit less silly to walk around in than the rig used for this piece. Nonetheless good work by the operator and nice piece too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rHaC-S30R4

March 28, 2016 at 2:56PM, Edited March 28, 2:57PM

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Arturo Dickson
WEAR ALL HATS
8

...seems overkill to me for the project.. why not DJI Osmo in 4K? ..easypeasy .. lol

March 28, 2016 at 9:30PM

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Rob Englander
business owner/video producer/DOP/editor/miracle worker
186

The Ready Rig could have been a good option too, really enjoyed watching the mini doc. Would love to see something like this for different cities across the US.

March 30, 2016 at 2:10PM

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Here's another version of the Roin or Ronin-M steadicam adapter.
http://supamods.com/product/3-axis-gimbal/dji-ronin-steadicam/

June 1, 2016 at 10:13AM, Edited June 1, 10:13AM

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Rob
DP
100

You have first to know to properly horizon and after preaching...

November 12, 2016 at 5:37AM, Edited November 12, 5:45AM

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Vag Tzoum
Videographer
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