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Steadicam JR Tips

A few things I've figured out in a couple years of using the Steadicam JR with my VX-1000:

Shooting Steadicam with any model including the little JR is a learned skill. One just cannot pick it up and do it. Think back to learning to ride a bicycle as a kid. At first it seems absolutely impossible, but with a little help from someone who's gone before and a good bit of practice, you eventually slide into the groove and it becomes smooth and easy. The tips here are not about how to operate the JR. The training video that comes with the device is very good at getting you started, especially in re: to setup, trimming, etc., which is at least half the battle. What is here is a collection of stuff that helps me get great shots out of a VX-1000/JR rig on real life jobs.

I can use my external Cool-Lux 7.0amp hr. 12v battery packs with the NRG switching power supply/camera cable. The wire is very thin and pliable. It's not as easy as using the internal battery w/no cords, but it is very possible and I find it essential to use the external power to be able to shoot all day. Cable routing is very important. Run the cable up through the camera side strap. Also, run it between plug and frame of the JR where the camera to monitor cable plugs into the JR. This will hold the power cable snug and bring it off the rig as close as possible to the gimbal. Then, use a clip off a convention badge (or some such thing) to clip the power cable to your shoulder. This will make the cable run from the rig up your arm to your shoulder. This way it keeps it out of the way of the lower spar and also gives you total freedom of movement. I tried clipping to my shirt pocket before I figured out the shoulder thing.

I learned the hard way not to wear one of the 6 pound batteries on my hip. Will cause back pain! Wear it centered in back on your spine. Also, I've recently added a pair of back pack type shoulder straps to get some of the weight off the belt. (really nice ones made by Eagle Creek sold to be used as a universal shoulder strap. You need two. Available from Sports Authority for about $12 ea.) I'm also using a fanny pack with a wider belt instead of the pouch with 1" belt that comes with the batteries. An elastic back support belt seems to be helpful as well. I have used the JR/VX-1000 for many hours at a time. I find my back is the first thing to tire, not my arm, and believe me, I'm not Joe Biceps.

I find the Kenko .5x wide angle adapter works nicely with the JR/VX-1000. However, it requires use of the farthest back hole if you run w/out an internal batt. This causes the camera to see the top of the JR's monitor at full wide. My solution is to put a little piece of rubber about 1/8" thick between the camera base and the JR just in front of the mounting screw. This causes the camera to angle up from the stage just enough to completely clear the monitor at full wide. It does interfere somewhat X-axis trimming, but it's workable. (I use a small piece of a sheet of "blanket" material from a printing press. The other day I noticed something else that would probably work: a piece of flat vacuum cleaner belt such as the ones used in Eureka models.)

Sometimes I have to gaffer tape a weight to the top of the VX's finder to get the center of gravity far enough back. Also, the VX doesn't center LtoR real well on the stage. I generally put a weight inside the camera's side strap - trapped by the velcro - to help get CG to the right. I work the weights so that the wide angle adapter on or off can be dealt with using the range of the Y-axis trim (full back w/the lens, full front w/out it), plus about 4 turns of the Z-axis.

It can be a problem to put the rig down when using an external power cable clipped to your shoulder. There's just so much to undo if you just need both hands to do something for a second. I keep a large mountain climber's carabiner clipped to my belt on the right side. The VX-1000's top handle will clip into it and it makes a handy parking spot for the rig on my hip w/out my having to uncable.

In order to facilitate quick changes between Steadicaming and on-tripod shots, balance and trim the Steadicam rig with your tripod quick release plate attached to the JR. You need quite a bit of balast weight on the lower spar anyway when using a VX-1000, so it's no problem to make the plate part of the balast weight. Then when you need to go on the tripod, simply fold up the JR and put the whole rig on. When you take it off to Steadicam again, you don't have to take the plate off because the rig is already trimmed with it in place.

When using the VX/JR on a tripod, use a Velcro rip-tie or something similar to secure the lower spar to the side strap of the camera. This will keep the JR from opening up if the tripod should tilt far forward. This happened to me once when I wasn't paying attention. The head tilted forward to the point where the JR opened up. The weight of the camera hitting the stop caused the front spar to crack. I got to experience Cinema Products' fantastic repair support, but I sure don't want it to happen again.

I've used the JR on many shoots over the last couple of years. It's great fun for shooting bands. Because the rig is so small, it can fly in between the hardware of a drum kit, or all around a guitar player. The first job I used it on was in Papua New Guinea. I did a shot of a lady telling a long story while paddling a very unstable dugout canoe on a river through a village. The front of the canoe was barely wide enough for me to get my hips down into - and I'm a fairly skinny guy. I was able to fly the camera out over the water for a quartering angle of her. I don't believe there is any other technology with which this shot could have been made. At least not with a crew of 1! On the same trip I also made some wonderful shots inside a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. I could fly the camera all around the cockpit - shooting out the bubble, panning across the instrument panel to a quartering closeup of the pilot. Or tilting from a shot of the rotor mast up through the eyebrow windows down to the pilot's face. Really fun stuff! There are a number of photos from this shoot and others on my web site (www.dpproductions.com).

Here's one more VX-1000 thing not specifically Steadicam related. I haven't done it yet but plan to soon: Make and epoxy a guard around the lock/standby/photo-standby lever (co-located with the thumb record button) to prevent bumping the lever into the off position in the heat of battle. I find that especially when I'm hand holding a low angle with my thumb on the zoom rocker I am constantly doing this and it's a real irritation.

After about 10 years of shooting with Betacams, I'm specializing in giving a good quality production at reasonable prices by capitalizing on the strengths of the DV format. I find the Steadicam JR allows me to provide a look and a style that no one else around here seems to be able to touch at my price point. My clients love it! I've shot a number of smiley-face, edited-on-site convention shows with the rig and everyone goes nuts over the footage. I'm able to do so many shots so fast that I can blow the doors off the guys who try to do it schlepping a Betacam around. Now I'm eager to try a Canon XL-1 on the Steadicam DV model.

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The above article also happens to reside on the In:Sync website in the Video Nexus section at http://www.in-sync.com/videonexus/ (click on "Steadicam JR")