There are many variables to deciding on a lens control system for a job. They are not all created equal; each option has qualitative and quantitative differences. Here we’ll explain how to choose, and give you information that helps explain the reasoning behind your choice.
Wireless or Manual?
One of the first steps in this decision relies heavily on what the camera will be doing. If your shoot has a lot of camera movement, whether it be gimbal, dolly, handheld, car mount, jib, et cetera, the choice becomes more clear. You need a wireless system. On the other hand, if you are going to be in a less mobile setup, having a manual follow focus is definitely an option. Believe it or not, there was a time before wireless lens control technology, when everything was knobs, gears, and grease. This option requires a nimble and flexible camera assistant who will often be smushed into very uncomfortable positions.
Wireless systems offer enormous flexibility, but the trade-off is that they are more susceptible to functional errors such as losing connection, motors frying, bad cables, and various other gremlins getting in the way. There is a pretty direct positive correlation between budget allotted to the lens control system and the reliability of a said system. Always do a checkout no matter what, but take extra care during prep to ensure that everything works as it should. If possible, have redundancy cables and a backup manual option (this will definitely, at some point in your career, save your butt).
When it comes to manual follow focuses, it’s fairly simple. You can choose a single sided or double sided. Double-sided helps when you have to switch over to the operator’s side of the camera because of positioning. It also gives the operator the option to take control of the focus, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what your job is. Make sure that if it’s compatible, you have a whip and speed crank, as well as extra blank marking disks. When in doubt, just go with an Arri FF4 (FF5 if you’re fancy).
Wireless lens control systems are significantly more diverse and modular. Let’s talk about axes briefly. When we say “3-Axis” we are referring to Focus, Iris, and Zoom. A 3-Axis lens control system normally consists of one or two hand unit controllers, an MDR (motor driver), and 3 motors. So the questions are 1) how many axes do the lenses you are working with have, and 2) how many of those axes do you need to control? Also, often a 3-Axis system will have 2 handsets – the main one that can control all 3 motors and a single channel handset that can be assigned to control a single motor (such as a DP or DIT pulling Iris). Within this category, there are lots of options, but you can mostly narrow it down by budget.
In the top tier budget, the main competitors are Arri’s WCU-4 3-Axis setup and Preston’s FIZ kit. Both offer 3 axis control, extra handset capability, lens mapping, lens data, and Cinetape integration, but the WCU-4 works seamlessly and doesn’t require an MDR when used with most Arri cameras including the Alexa Mini, Alexa Plus, and Alexa XT Plus. When used with these cameras, you also gain some camera control functionality via menus in the hand unit. If you are using something without direct WCU-4 compatibility, you need an Arri MDR, like the UMC-4, to round out the package. Both the Preston option and WCU-4 are pretty rock solid and will likely not give you any problems on set. Their motors can easily handle even the toughest cine lens and losing connection will rarely – if ever – happen.
When it comes to mid-budget systems, look no further than relative newcomer RTMotion/Teradek RT. This option gives you up to 3 axis wireless lens control and a tiny, lightweight MDR. It is dependable, responsive, and has great range. They also offer a number of accessories to make the system more modular and compatible with a range of cameras. It does not, however, interface with the Cinetape system. It is also newer and less battle-tested, which means it is (only slightly) more prone to operation failures. Other options in this category are mostly single-channel systems, such as Heden and Bartech, they are normally slightly more budget-friendly, but definitely dependable, well-made, and are simple and quick to configure.
Finally, in the budget category, your main competitors are Tilta (with their new Nucleus M, which is a 3-axis system) and DJI. Although to a degree (time will tell) the seemingly obvious winner here is Tilta’s system. Their 3-axis kit needs no MDR, as the motors contain built-in receivers and are daisy-chain-able. You get a lot of features with the price, but things like lens mapping and integration with cameras is off the table for now. The menu system is also a challenge to deal with, but if you can navigate it, the Nucleus is a pretty powerful system for those who want significant lens control but are working with a tight budget. The DJI system has been around for longer and also doesn’t need an MDR, but quite honestly, their motors are basically disposable. We have gone through two of them and have since given up on the system entirely. To give them some credit, they were an early innovator regarding MDRs built into motors, so perhaps they have a spot in a museum.
There are numerous other options to consider and many differing opinions and preferences, so we encourage you to do further research on these systems for yourself. We here at Expressway are always willing to answer any questions and/or demo equipment we have in-house, so don’t be a stranger!