Steadicam for Indies

Steadicam Operator
Photo by Reinis Traidas

B&H has an video interview with the inventor of the Steadicam, Garrett Brown. The Steadicam, for those who don’t know, is a stabilizing mount for a camera that isolates the camera’s movement from the camera operator’s movement. On terrain that is too rough, or other situations where a track and dolly are not practical, Steadicam allows smooth, moving shots.

Interestingly, Brown focused specifically on the drive to bring the Steadicam to smaller scale productions:

“The things that the Hollywood guys with their $50,000 rigs have, someone wants with a little HDV camera,” says Brown. “It’s our job not only to supply the gear, but also to help educate people to use it with the same degree of freedom and panache that the big boys have.

Brown’s mission to bring the Steadicam to the masses fits within the general trend of democratization of technology and it is particularly exciting, if not altogether unexpected, that stabilized camera mounts are becoming more widely available. Guerrilla filmmakers in particular may find great value in being able to get stable, smooth shots without the burden and setup of a dolly.

Democritization of Technology is Not a Problem

Mike Curtis of HD for Indies recently wrote a piece titled The very, very serious problem with democratization of technology in moviemaking. I am a regular reader of Mike’s blog and I generally find him to be very insightful, but on the premise of this article I must respectfully disagree. He mentions that this is a rough draft, so I won’t nitpick it, but I will say that the article primarily focuses on the difficulties faced by current industry players who insist on maintaining the status quo.

I would suggest Mike pick up a copy of “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson and then take another shot at his draft. The “trouble” isn’t caused by more production and the same number of buyers and technology isn’t a problem. Technology has changed the entire economy of entertainment (among others). Attention is now a scarcer commodity than consumer’s money. This is a fact that we seem to agree on. Lower barrier to entry means more people make films for less money. Some of those are good; many are not. The trick is filtering through the bad to find the good; a job that is increasingly offloaded to the viewers.

However, where we differ in opinion is that I do not see this as an obstacle, but an opportunity. Mike talks about the rising cost of marketing, and how films must shout loud enough to be heard over the noise (I paraphrase). I think this is the wrong approach. Success for a small, low-budget film is more easily found by connecting that film with its niche audience, a goal that is aided, not hindered by technology.

Digital distribution lowers marginal costs to asymptotically approach zero. Crowdsourcing of the filtering process negates the need for taste makers and executives to tell people what they want. The declining need for those jobs means the people currently holding them have to adapt to the changing landscape. Some try to hold onto the status quo long enough to reach retirement. The real winners will be the ones who take a risk and leave the comfortable status quo to be at the forefront of the wave of change.

The final point in Mike’s article is about the major challenge for content producers of creating content and selling it at a profit. As the technology is democratized, more people can create content, and with the same amount (or decreasing) consumption, it’s true that maintaining a health profit margin is difficult. But if the only barrier keeping a novice from creating content that is more relevant or enjoyable to the viewer was technology, then the old guard of content creators hasn’t been doing a very good job.

The technological playing field is being evened, the challenge is to produce content that people connect with and want, not just content that looks good. There are 4 quadrants in the production quality/story quality grid. The result of democratization of technology is that the production quality gradient gets flattened and it is no longer the determining factor in success. Story quality (however you define it), becomes a larger differentiator and, as such, will be the main measure of quality to people deciding ‘what to watch’ (or ‘where do I spend my attention?’).

We’re seeing the effects of this already (Mike points to Speed Racer’s absence of plot and resulting box office figures), but it will only become more pronounced as the difference in production quality from a studio-backed blockbuster and a low-budget indie gets smaller. Personally, I don’t see this as a problem so much as an opportunity. It’s an exciting time to be creating independent media of any kind and consumers have more choices than ever before. The future entertainment economy may not support large studios and monolithic entertainment empires, but there will continue to be a place for content creators and artists.

Red One: 120fps footage

If you follow developments in digital video like I do, you’ve probably been drooling over the Red One for quite some time now. I won’t attempt to explain the impact of the Red One in it’s entirety just yet, but I thought you might be interested in seeing an example of the Red One’s new feature: 120fps shooting. This lets you get true slow-motion footage, rather than creating it by interpolating frames in your edit system.

Mike Curtis has graciously posted footage over at ProVideo Coalition of Spencer chasing tennis balls. It’s worth a look.

The Red One, although vastly more affordable than it’s competitors, remains out of the price range of most small budget independents (at about $17,500 for the body alone), but it’s being put to good use by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Peter Jackson, and Doug Liman.

To get a sense of the effect the Red One is having on the industry, consider Soderbergh’s reaction: “This is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole career: jaw-dropping imagery recorded onboard a camera light enough to hold with one hand. I don’t know how Jim [Jannard, Red founder] and the Red team did it–and they won’t tell me–but I know this: Red is going to change everything”.