November 30, 2021

My most beautiful films were taken without a tripod

The unchained camera makes movies more vivid

My boots crunched on the frozen ground, it was the only sound in this icy, seemingly lifeless landscape. I stopped. Now it was eerily quiet, and the fog made everything seem even more unreal, abstract in gray/white. For a nature film about the salt marshes on the North Sea coast, I was looking for motifs here that could liven up the subject a bit in the overcast weather.

Then I saw the decaying wooden bridge over the frozen watercourse. A strong photo motif no doubt, but as a film, without movement, without action - is that enough? How can this outlandish mood be conveyed in an exciting way? Quite simple: when the camera moves. Even a few centimeters can make scenes more interesting: up, down or sideways, smooth and slow - but with the right technique. 

A Turning point

It wasn't so long ago, the time of shaky videos with the handheld camera! On a small screen, the effect was still bearable, but as soon as the screen had a medium size, it was just exhausting - too unsteady, too confused. If the screen was even larger - nothing special today - then the effect was no longer tolerable, every small movement increased to irritating dimensions.

And yet, filming without a tripod can be so much livelier, offering more chances to react spontaneously to the unexpected, follow action or breathe life into still scenes. Today, various systems and techniques make it possible to record even the wildest scenes with an unchained camera, without the hustle and bustle of fluttering images - even for the big screen. 

Static and Movement

A photograph is static, a snapshot taken in a fraction of a second. Film, on the other hand, is movement, a stringing together of multiple images. A breeze that ripples the water or moves a leaf, a wheel that turns, a blink of an eye - everything is movement, and film shows that.

Photos and films tell stories. And these always consist of some form of movement. The challenge of the photo is to convey a story, a movement via a single image instead of the sequence of images in the film. The challenge of film is to portray movement as vividly as possible using the versatile means of the medium.

Important for both media is a solid base or suspension for the camera. This can be a steady hand, a firm support, a monopod, a tripod. The still camera needs stability for sharp images, the film or video camera needs it for smooth image flow. But what if the scene is so calm that the film lacks its most important feature, the movement? This brings us to the unchained camera.

Calmness and liveliness - opposites that complement each other

A simple camera pan is less spectacular than a movement vertically or horizontally in front of the scene, which changes the perspective. On the tripod, the camera remains static, even though it can look in various directions. It is only truly unchained when, freed from the tripod, it can change locations at will. Then it can be guided in such a way that, for example, the foreground and background shift against each other or scenes move past. The closer the foreground is to the lens, the more striking the effect, especially with the wide-angle lens.

Even the unchained camera needs a support so that its movements remain balanced and as smooth as possible. It's all about linking calm and liveliness - the confident, stable camera moving freely and adding dynamism to the scenes. The effect not only brings life to still subjects, but can also dramatically enhance action-packed scenes without the camera losing its ease.

In feature films, by the way, scenes are sometimes deliberately shot with an unsteady camera, handheld or with a shoulder tripod. This stylistic device is supposed to increase the tension and appear authentic, but can be exhausting for the viewer in the long run.

Traditionally, there are two quite elaborate methods of guiding the film camera in a movable and at the same time stable way: jibarm/crane, and slider/dolly. Attached to the tripod, the jib arm forms a horizontal axis, at the end of which the camera can be moved stably and smoothly in all directions within the radius of action. The camera crane does the same, possibly with an even larger radius. Slider and dolly are rails and wheel systems on which the camera can follow the action. But really unchained, that's even more. 

More flexibility

The shoulder tripod brought a new freedom to camera work. Detached from the tripod, the cameraman remains flexible, can spontaneously follow the action and has a sufficiently firm base for stable shots. In documentaries and action shots, this technique has proven its worth to this day. Slight vertical camera movements are thus possible within very narrow limits, horizontal ones even less so, because the footsteps are transferred to the camera. The strength of the shoulder tripod is the fast change of location, the spontaneous reaction to quickly changing scenes.

When the Californian cameraman Garret Brown invented the Steadicam 50 years ago, it opened up even more dimensions for flexible camera work. His system not only revolutionized action films, but also proved its worth wherever the camera had to make smooth movements in the middle of the action. While running, on stairs, for vehicles, ships, airplanes - the Steadicam doesn't let itself get out of control. It meant the final breakthrough to the truly unchained camera, received a technology Oscar for it and has shaped the styles of many, often famous films.

Advantages often come at a price. For example, Steadicam technology is complex and expensive. It consists of the padded, stiffened vest, the stabilizing arm, the rig with the gimbal camera suspension, the monitor. Although the Steadicam allows the heaviest cameras to float, its operation is still sporty, so the cameraman should be in good shape.

With the advent of lighter digital cameras, simplified versions of the Steadicam appeared. And with the advance of computer technology, the electronic gimbal, a three-axis stabilization system, was developed. With this, unleashed optics finally found its way into every form of filmmaking, especially with smaller cameras.

In addition to these techniques of the unchained camera appeared variants and additions. These include Steadify for special effects. Here, the body's most stationary pole, the hip, serves as the basis for a free-pivoting monopod that is simply worn on the body. Unlike the shoulder tripod, Steadify also functions as a mobile jib arm for vertical camera movements, at the same time the camera becomes completely weightless. And the combination with an electronic gimbal then results in the classic Steadicam effect: the totally unchained camera with freedom in all directions, vertically and horizontally, and in every conceivable situation - at a fraction of the price of the Steadicam, by the way

The new Freedom

So now the technology is here that can almost completely eliminate the limits of movement and weight. The unchained camera is a highly agile instrument, a challenge to filmmakers' creativity. It makes scenes more vivid, while at the same time enabling confident, balanced movements:

A couple sits relaxed on a narrow wooden jetty jutting out into the sea, the water is glassy. A beautiful, calm mood, but perhaps too calm for a film sequence. To make the scene more interesting, the camera moves very slowly from left to right, very close past the wooden railing, this enhances the effect. The movement of the camera breathes life into the scene, the relaxed mood is maintained by the very slow speed.

In a feature film production with a correspondingly large camera, the shooting team would lay elaborate tracks here and pull a dolly along the scene. However, the effect is also easier to achieve with smaller cameras, as it is only a few centimeters, e.g. with the Steadify-Gimbal combination or a small electric glider. 

Under extreme conditions, the advantages of the unchained camera are particularly noticeable. This was the case on the North Sea coast when the water released the soft mudflats at low tide, so that one could now literally walk on the seabed. A beguiling silence everywhere, in the distance only the occasional screeching of the seagulls on their search for crabs which had not made it back into the sea in time before the water had retreated.

For all the beauty of the evening mood, the scene could do with some movement. Unfortunately, there was no crab to be seen, which would have provided some life. So then with the camera. But here, on the soft ground of the North Sea mudflats, where the bare feet sank into the mud, no technique had a chance. Or it did: with Steadify from the hip, a camera lift from just above the wet ground to over a meter upward succeeded, a slow, elegiac movement with the wide-angle lens. This enhanced the effect and fit well with the vastness of the landscape. 

At the Heart of the Action

In the eye of the hurricane, it's supposed to be surprisingly calm. That's where the film camera belongs when it swings along in the center of the action, following the storyline with aplomb.

The term kite buggy is probably clear only to experts of this rare sport. It is a small, simply constructed vehicle on three fat rubber wheels, made for speedy rides on the beach. The rider steers a huge kite sail on long lines. In strong winds, he can reach remarkable speeds. But how can the experience be shown on video?

The rough ride on uneven ground was quite a challenge for me, the cameraman directly behind the driver. To make the scene more exciting, I needed camera movement in addition to driving speed. When shooting moving cars, cameramen occasionally like to have the camera move horizontally in front of or behind the vehicle to create more drama. Here, with the kite buggy, I decided to use a camera lift. The beach floor swept very close underneath me, a thick tire rolling just in front of the lens as the camera slowly moved across the scene, revealing the view ahead. Add to that the haunting sound mix of wind and driving noise, and it was pure drama. The technology? Absolutely simple with Steadify from the hip. 

When the going gets really tough

Change of scene for the production of a documentary film about the dismantling of a huge harbor crane with anendlessly long boom, 30 meters high above the Rhine. What did I need for optimum quality - video tripod, traveltripod, monopod? Absurd - for the narrow metal rungs of the endlessly long ladder you need both hands and aslittle weight as possible. Steadicam? Too elaborate in the narrowest of spaces. Handheld camera? No guarantee forsteady shots. Steadify, stability from the hip? Exactly.

Arriving at the head of the crane, I barely dared to look down; far below, a barge lay in the harbor basin, noticeablyshrunk to toy size. Up here, on the narrow crane boom, work was hard. Men with prizefighter muscles laid outchains, thick, rusty links anchored with heavy bolts. The droning rattle of metal on metal, the shouts of theworkers, the dizzying heights - pulse-pounding.

Right in the middle now was I with the video camera. I wanted to get everything out of this situation to convey it as close as possible. For this I needed, in addition to the action around me, the unchained camera. I had it safely and almost weightlessly propped up on Steadify, so I could follow the scenes in all directions: in a bold pan from the railing over the abyss to the men right next to it, then low along the rusty chains, finally with a lift very close over the bolt that was just being pushed through a chain link, and finally to the arms of the men who were tugging at the chains.

You should practice filming without a tripod until you have mastered it. To do it, you don't have to climb a 30- meter crane, just a desk scene or a flower bed will do. The unchained camera is a lot of fun, and above all it's a versatile stylistic device that lets you explore the possibilities of film even more. And should an ambitious camera movement not have the desired effect, there's always sound to enhance the visual effect. But that's another topic... 

Gert Wagner travels as a photographer and cameraman for magazines, corporations, and brands on all continents and has received numerous awards for his visual language. He is also the inventor of flexible autofocus - now standard in every camera - and the HipJib and Steadify stabilization techniques for cameras.

Gert Wagner

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What is the difference between the handheld camera and the unchained camera?

In principle not at all, both are free to move. However, the unsteadiness of the pure handheld camera can also be disturbing, while the unchained camera's movements are more balanced and thus more pleasant when using support techniques - shoulder tripod, Steadicam, gimbal, Steadify.

How is Steadicam different from Steadify?

Basically, both systems cause a floating camera. With Steadicam, the cameraman can walk while filming. With Steadify, he can move freely, but for the shots he has to stand still. However, a Steadicam is more sensitive to wind than Steadify with its solid support. If Steadify is extended by an electronic gimbal, you have the Steadicam effect of the totally unchained camera - by the way at a much lower price.

What are the advantages of the tripod to the unchained camera?

The tripod supports the conventional film style, which has its importance in many areas. With the camera on the tripod, you get absolutely steady images and smooth pans in all directions when needed. For many situations, when filming, this is the optimal solution for solid, balanced scenes. Other advantages: the camera can thus remain endlessly fixed on a specific point, long time-lapse shots are only possible with a tripod, extremely long focal lengths often require the solidity of a tripod.

Does the weight of the camera have an effect on the image effect when it is freely movable?

Lightweight cameras are always more sensitive to movements than their heavy relatives. The scene effect with the small, lightweight camera is correspondingly more unsteady. Of course, this can be compensated for with support techniques without reducing the dynamics of the scenes, since the camera still remains mobile.

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