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What Happens in Vegas: A Gimbal Operator’s Story

September 13, 2016

The Gimbal Revolution has been upon us for a few years now—the machine has really taken root in today’s production world, where it continues to impact creative filmmaking processes in a variety of ways. However, it’s no surprise that this new tech isn’t always rainbows and sunshine… more often it’s sunny with occasional patchy clouds.

Recently, for example, we were tasked with outfitting a DJI Ronin with our Alexa Mini for a full day of filming a star athlete for an apparel company in Las Vegas. The Mini is tailor-made for gimbal use; with its carbon fiber body, balanced compact design, and a litany of other convenient features, Arri conceived the Mini with gimbals in mind. In addition, we had a Zeiss CP.2 lens set, remote focus, wireless video, operator’s monitor, handheld director’s monitor, plus the Ronin, Ready Rig, and lots of batteries. No big deal, right? Especially when you throw in the logistics of travel on top. Because we would be flying the rig 2,500 miles to Vegas, we prepped everything in the comfort of our Camera Checkout Room to ensure nothing was left behind.

Arri Alexa Mini

To start, we stripped the Mini down to its bones, snapped on a lens, added the follow focus, and mounted the Teradek Bolt Pro 600 transmitter to the handlebar—swell, but we still had to power all these gizmos. WHERE DO WE PUT THE BATTERY? In the past, we’ve powered the camera off of the Ronin Battery using the DJI power distributor plate. This has worked well in the past when shooting for shorter periods of time and with fewer accessories. For this shoot, however, we needed more run time than the Ronin Batteries could provide so we mounted a Goldmount battery plate to the Ronin handlebars and snaked a P-Tap Multi splitter from the battery down to the pan bar and BongoTied it to the underside. From here, we powered the camera, follow focus, and 5” Starlite monitor (the Teradek was powered by the Ronin P-Tap accessory port). Next, we tested everything.

Arri Alexa Mini

After some balancing tweaks and fine-tuning with the DJI Assistant iOS app, everything felt good… good and heavy. Fortunately, there is yet another piece of equipment available to help lighten the load. We chose the Ready Rig GS for its compact size (it fits nicely in a suitcase) and dual support arms. The Ready Rig transfers the weight of the gimbal to the operator’s core, while also dampening the vertical jitter when running or walking. This type of support is extremely helpful when operating extended takes or long periods of time—essential for our shoot.

Steadycam

Fast forward to PHL International Airport. The whole package fit nicely in my overhead carry on… Just kidding. Miraculously, it was possible to fit everything into three checked bags and two carry-on Pelican 1510s. For a two-person crew traveling to Vegas, this was manageable. We made sure to pack only batteries under 100Wh in the carry-ons (apparently TSA has been having problems with cheap hoverboard batteries catching fire in luggage bays, and now we all must suffer).

Traveling with Film Production Gear at the PHL Airport

Finally, we are in Vegas! Against my better judgment, we didn’t go straight to the craps table. Once in the comfort of the luxurious Circus Circus Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, we spent a few hours rebuilding and tuning the rig. The tech scout revealed we would be moving quickly to a variety of locations and have limited time with the talent. So, first things first I guess.

Circus Circus Vegas

The goal of our shoot was to capture our star athlete traveling swiftly through sleek environments; the schedule was jam-packed with locations that would allow for a minimal equipment footprint.

Downtown Vegas

From a logistical and technical perspective, it was essential that we spent as much time prepping as we did, and the Ronin performed well given the circumstances.

The shoot was not without its share of challenges. The misconception about the Ronin, as perpetrated on DJI’s website, is that it is a simple “grab and go” piece of equipment and balancing and re-balancing is a non-issue. There is significant preparation that goes into the balancing of these devices and they are very sensitive to any shifts in weight. If the weight shifts at an inopportune time, it can be very difficult to get it rebalanced and shooting again. The process can often entail taking the rig apart and building it almost all the way back up again. When you are in the heat of battle, sometimes there is just not enough time for that. There was one instance—after shooting on a flight of stairs that particularly jostled the rig—where we started to experience horizon drift. The Ronin needed to be rebalanced and tuned, but there was no time and we were forced to push through the scene, only able to make quick adjustments using the DJI Assistant app.

This is the often-frustrating part of working with gimbals. After extensive use on set, things get out of whack (usually at the most inconvenient moment!), and valuable time needs to be taken to rebalance. Just a word to the wise, budget for that sort of time when planning a gimbal shoot. But all in all, things worked out great.

Oh, we also hit it big on the Corgi Cash slot machine. Those damned, magical creatures—it’s no wonder Queen Elizabeth loves them.

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