Bad Advice and Good Experience

My first short film “Jetlag” was an experiment and an education. It functioned like a mini film school and was intended to get me to shoot something, anything, and learn the process. In that way, more than any, I felt it was successful.

Having worked with a very bare bones camera rig on that shoot I wanted to expand what I had to make rolling camera easier on an upcoming project. To that end I went back to Youtube at the end of 2016 and sought out tips on how to rig out a GH4 for filmmaking.

I found a video that detailed the equipment that was said to be functional and ideal to do the job. It included a tri-pod, fluid head, camera cage, monitor, shotgun mic, among other things. Seeing and admiring the work the person had done in the past I more or less bought everything that was on the list.

The camera cage was a Yelangu brand intended for the camera, but also a few others. It cost around $120. It had an arca swiss mount on the bottom as well as typical screws to mount it to anything as well as ever important 15mm rails.

However, when the camera was properly seated in the cage the battery door on the camera did not swing fully open. You could get the battery in and out but it wasn’t ideal. The other immediate issue was that the memory card door didn’t open all the way either. To access either properly you had to loosen the camera off the cage a bit and rotate it.

Now the little guide cage and screws on the other side of the cage that were intended to hold the mini HDMI didn’t actually line up with the cable. The guide cage also stuck out enough to block the flip screen from opening all the way and certainly from stopping it from rotating. The solution was to remove the little guide cage. Now when having to unseat the camera for the memory card access it meant unplugging the mini HDMI and mic jack first. Far from ideal.

The top handle wasn’t reversible so if you did want to look through the rear of the camera you’d get stabbed in the forehead by it. I didn’t realize this was any kind of problem until over a year later when I was forced to shoot in bright daylight. The cage did later fit the GH5 (with the same issues) but they were mitigated a little bit.

Still, it came highly recommended by one of the few people talking camera gear on Youtube! Probably because getting a cage for a camera like the GH4 at all was a bit of a novelty at that time and it did function to add other elements to the camera. The local camera store was selling cages for HUNDREDS more so the $120 was shockingly cheap. I decided to live with it because I had a shoot coming up and $500 for milled steel was not in the plan.

As I said in the previous post, I needed a decent tripod as my older drugstore bought “fluid head” tripod did not cut it. I decided to go with the recommendation, which was an iFootage T5 at around $550. It is a clip based tripod and had the low spreader which I’d never used before. It is well made, even though it needed a tighten shortly after owning it.

The problem is that when paired with the recommended Manfrotto fluid head at $250 the two items weighed almost 13lbs and could support up to 88lbs! Now a fully kitted out GH4 or GH5 comes in at maybe 7lbs total. The whole support system was overkill. With the camera you now have an almost 20lb rig that is unwieldy and the size and weight of everything almost requires two people to setup. Not heavy in and of itself but walking it up and down stairs or hiking with it outside was an issue.

It was $800 in a support system that was inconvenient for a single operator to use. The low spreader is also 3 more operations for an camera person to have to deal with and it is an extremely fidgety thing to use at the best of times and a time killer for every camera setup.

The Aputure VS-2 field monitor was $300 and worked but it didn’t have a physical on off switch and the battery would often unseat itself disconnecting the monitor from the camera, constantly needing a restart. Also the packed in mini HDMI wouldn’t carry 4096×2160 to the camera so I had to go get another cable which thankfully solved the problem. This monitor was next to useless outdoors. It isn’t bright enough, the sunshade design blocks some of the screen and the glossy front leads to mirror like reflections. Because it can’t be used outdoors I needed to defer to the in camera EVF which is when I realize the top handle on the cage was problematic.

The Rode Video Mic Pro was fine and that is as kind as I’ll be to that $300 piece of gear that is probably $15 in materials.

Much of this equipment purchasing leading to repurchasing could have been avoided if I had had some better advice, proper reviews, and if I considered the use case. Getting big support systems sounds good until you actually have to use them by yourself.

What I really needed was a light, sturdy, clip based tripod. It needed to go very low, go decently high, include a removable centre pillar, have defined clicked leg angles, and the flip locks to simplify setup. Something, that while not a support monster, was fast and convenient to use for one person.

I found a Sirui EN-2004 model that weighed 3.5lbs and was around $250. Half the price of the T5 and less than half the weight, while still able to bear 30lbs of weight. A downside is any tripod needs a levelling base. Sirui has a great one but it is shockingly expensive but I was able to find a Neewer brand one for $80.

The Manfrotto fluid head had to go too. It was too heavy and complicated. I went for the most simple thing I could find. A Sirui VA-5 for $200. It is an Arca Swiss mount head. The camera cage could slide onto it with without needing a plate!

Now this is not really a good fluid head. Up and down it is fine, but the turn action can be jerky and it requires patience and practice. However it is very low profile and weighs only about 1lb. It was also multiple inches lower than the Manfrotto. I used it on multiple shoots but then replaced it with the far better Sirui VH-10X which is really what I should have gotten to start with.

I later found a much better monitor, and a camera cage that perfectly suited the GH5 that the camera can live in without needing to be removed. I discovered too that I really liked shooting shoulder mounted and sought out good and inexpensive shoulder support and handles.

It took a year of experience with what I had to discover what I actually needed. It also took rolling camera on multiple projects to figure out how I most like to operate. I never thought I’d be confident shoulder mounted and pulling focus myself. Practice and experience made me comfortable with it.

To that end I use Youtube more than ever for gear advice. With more people covering cameras and rigging as well as sharing their experiences it is easier and easier to be put onto the right track, or at least a track that works for you. There is no substitute for experience and even if you make a mistake you can learn from it.

– Matthew