It is an exciting time to be a photographer or filmmaker. Almost daily, new innovations and technology are being used to develop tools that make creative image-making cheaper, easier, and more fun. I recently got the chance to use a relatively new innovation, the MoVI M5 three axis camera gimbal. The people at Freefly Systems were kind enough to loan me a M5 to evaluate during a shoot in Nice, France.
The Back Story
Through the ages of filmmaking, camera movement has evolved to to become an essential piece of the story-telling puzzle. The basic tripod allows for the most primitive of camera movements, the pan and tilt. Throw some wheels on the bottom and the dolly shot is born.
Later came the concept of steady cam rigs that allowed a camera to become an extension of the operator. While effective, these rigs were expensive, heavy, and were still limited to movements that the operator could make, mostly walking around at ground level. Because of the expense and the weight these systems were reserved for larger budget productions and multiple crew sets.
As digital video cameras improved in quality and became mainstream, the Glidecam emerged as a low cost, lightweight way to achieve smooth, handheld shots. As DSLR camera makers added video features, the Glidecam adapted perfectly to a whole new breed of video creators who for the first time could afford a video camera system with interchangeable lenses. While the Glidecam does require quite a bit of practice and setup time, it remains one of the most effective ways to stabilize a video shot on today’s small DSLR or digital cinema cameras.
If there is one industry that should get the credit for some of the major advancements in the photography and videography worlds it’s the cell phone industry. The demand for cell phones and smart phones has driven smaller, faster, cheaper and more efficient camera components and batteries. Miniaturized components such as digital manometers, gps, accelerometers, and gyroscopes from the cell phone world found their way into the remote control aircraft realm. Multirotors , or “drones” as they are more commonly referred suddenly became much more accessible and reliable.
As cameras started to take to the sky on unmanned aerial vehicles new technology was developed to keep those cameras stable during flight. An active gimbal works much like a Glidecam except it uses precise brushless electric motors to keep the gimbal balanced and level. Freefly Systems had been in the UAV camera platform business and was perfectly positioned to bring the active camera stabilizer to the larger film and video production market.
When my loaner MoVi M5 arrived and I started setting it up, my first impression was that this device was indeed born from the RC world. The MoVi uses the same battery, connectors, and carbon fiber that anyone who has spent any time in the RC hobby would recognize. It does feel more like an expensive hobby item than a polished consumer or prosumer piece of equipment. That’s not a bad thing, just an observation.
Setup was relatively easy. Freefly has done a good job of make all the necessary adjustment to attach and balance your camera accomplishable without tools. They have a custom camera plate that acts like a quick release plate. On the M5, there is also a rail that attaches to your camera’s hot shoe to further stabilize the camera on the rig.
Software settings can be adjusted easily enough with a laptop connected to the M5 through a bluetooth connection. Beware that if you need to change those setting in the field you’ll have to have your laptop handy.
During the first few days I had the M5, I asked Tyler Porter from Porter Pro Media to use the MoVi to get some behind the scenes shots during a photoshoot.
Tyler put together this short behind the scenes video all shot on the MoVi:
From the moment you get the M5 setup and working, it’s obvious that this is a powerful new tool for filmmakers. The rig is remarkably quiet and responsive. I only used it in “Majestic” single operator mode, but it was intuitive and simple to use. Where the Glidecam has a certain learning curve to start using it effectively, the MoVi has none. Anyone can pick up the rig and get insanely smooth video.
The rig handles subtle movements surprisingly well. A single operator could potentially go from a dead run with the rig to a very slow and deliberate push in or closeup shot. I like that this technology allows a single operator to mimic the movements of a crane, dolly, or jib, with one single piece of equipment that requires very little setup.
Just like any tool, the MoVi is best suited for certain types of production.
My first complaint with the MoVi is the weight. I was using it with a 5D Mark III and a 24-105mm f/4 lens. Definitely not the heaviest configuration. I’ve seen people with Alexa or Red cameras on the larger version of the MoVi. It takes two hands to operate the rig, so the weight is manageable in shorter takes, but it ends up being awkward to use or cary the rig for extended periods.
Another complaint related to the weight is that you can set the rig down without the special stand that it comes with. In fact, in order to turn on and calibrate the unit, you need to set it on it’s stand on a level surface while it initializes and boots up. This is probably not a big deal on a bigger set with an assistant or grips to help carry the stand around or relieve the operator of the rig between shots. For the kind of shooting that I do 95% of the time, this limitation alone makes the MoVi almost unusable.
Most of the events that I cover I have to do so in a “run and gun” style. During my trip to Nice, it was really difficult to drag the M5 onto and off of busses and public transit all while trying to capture the subjects I was following. I had left my Glidecam at home to try out the M5 and ended up regretting that decision on the first day shooting with the MoVi.
Another limitation of the Movi is the fact that when you have your camera installed in the rig, it’s difficult to see the LCD screen on the back of your camera to frame your shot. This can be remedied by attaching a secondary LCD monitor to the top of the rig but this adds to the overall weight of an already heavy system.
Focusing is also a challenge. You need two hands to hold the system so there is no way to adjust your lens focus ring while you’re holding the rig. If you have the luxury of a second operator, this person can pull focus and monitor the shot remotely. This of course would require more expensive follow focus systems and remote controls. In contrast, the Glidecam can be held with one hand and you can make quick focus adjustments with your other hand. It’s also easy to set the Glidecam down on it’s flat base or lay it down on a camera bag with the camera still attached.
The MoVi M5 is a great and exciting piece of equipment for high end commercial productions or movies. I would love to use it in a dual-operator situation. For run and gun single-operator style productions, my recommendation is to stick with the Glidecam.