Steadicam Smoothee review
Some might not agree, but we think that the Steadicam is the greatest thing ever to happen to cinematography. Some might argue it's digital cinema, some could claim it's the dolly or the technocrane, but the Steadicam is where we're at.
And it's not without reason either. When Garrett Brown first started work on his unique camera stabilisation system, he wanted something that would fly through the air and give the camera a look that wasn't achievable with any other type of support system. Brown locked himself away with anglepoise lamps and other mechanical whotnots and drew prototype after protoype and built early test rigs, all in the pursuit of an idea that had never been executed in cinema before.
And eventually, the Steadicam was born. From then on, cinema has never looked the same. Stanley Kubrick was so blown away by it, he used the early Steadicam, with Brown as its operator, on The Shining. Anyone who has seen that film will know that the camerawork is, like all Kubrik's movies, perfect for the atmosphere he's trying to create.
What is the Smoothee
The idea with the Smoothee is that it offers some of the same style that you get with a proper steadicam. It gives you tracking shots that are much smoother than you could achieve handheld, and it allows you to move in a way you can't with a dolly (set of wheels) or a tripod-based tracking system.
It's hand-held, so the cost is minimised, as is the amount by which you look like a crazy person. That makes it a little more complicated to control, and there's certainly a learning curve here, which we'll talk about in more detail later.
There is only one moving part too, so there's not much to go wrong and it's pretty easy to set-up.
This is a real Steadicam
There are hundreds of videos on YouTube all claiming to offer a $10 Steadicam. They are all, almost without exception, horrible things that are incomparable to the big Hollywood rigs that are common on movie and TV sets these days. Those rigs cost tens of thousands of dollars each, and are precision pieces of engineering.
The Smoothee costs about £160, and has the same pedigree has the larger Steadicams. Of course, there are a lot of differences, but the ethic is the same, this is an incredibly well-built accessory for your GoPro - even though it's nearly as expensive as the camera it's carrying.
The most intricate part is, without doubt, the gimbal and handle arrangement. This gives the Smoothee its ability to pan smoothly and to remove shake from your shots. It's sturdy, but it also looks like you could mess it up if you got anything like dust or sand trapped in it. We aren't sure if there's an easy way to clean this part of the Smoothee, although compressed air in a can would probably do it.
A different design to the pro rigs
A TV or film Steadicam is made up of three parts. A vest, and arm and what's called a "sled". The vest you wear, as the name implies, and it has a hard mount attached to it that enables it to support the Steadicam articulated arm. This arm takes any movement in the operator's body, and removes it. It does this through some precise springs and in an arrangement that looks like the anglepoise lamp that Garret Brown used for inspiration in the early days.
The arm, in turn, connects to the a sled that holds the camera on a platform at one end, and a counterbalanced weight at the other. This design means that the camera is held in balance against itself, keeping it level, while the arm removes any operator-introduced shake.
The Smoothee works differently. It is, in effect, just a sled. There's no option to mount this Steadicam on an arm and vest system - the £500 Merlin does, in fact, allow you to do that, should you want to take the next step up. Instead, the camera attaches to the top and is counterbalanced by a weight at the bottom. You can get the Smoothee with a variety of different mounts at the top for different cameras. We're using it with the GoPro, but you can also attach an iPhone to it too - you'll need a different mount though.
To get up-and-running you need to attach the supplied bracket to your camera. With the GoPro this screws in to the weatherproof housing - as all GoPro mounts do. It takes a few seconds, then the HD Hero or Hero2 will securely attach to the Smoothee.
Once the camera is on, you need to tweak the trim of the rig slightly. This works by moving the plate on to which the camera is mounted. One moves the camera and plate from left to right, this is used if the camera is wonky, and your horizon is off. The other moves the camera back and forwards. This tilts the camera toward the ground, or toward the sky.
You'll probably only use the left/right trim once, when you set up the Smoothee the first time. In fact, you might not even need it then, and dead centre is often the right setting here.
The forward and back tilt is much more useful in shooting. We did a lot of baby video with the Smoothee, and because babies are small, we "trimed" the camera to point downward more. If you're outside or shooting up at someone, or something, then you can do the opposite.
You don't have to adjust the trim though, as the Smoothee has a front mounted weight that you can tweak too. This allows more speedy adjustment, although it's a little more fiddly to get right.
Messing up shots
In movies or TV there are lots of reasons a shot might need to be re-shot. Actors forget lines, sound causes a problem or the Steadicam operator hasn't quite managed the shot. When you use the Smoothee you'll get a little taste of why that is.
Steadicam is hard to get right, and the Smoothee can be too. Although it's a lot easier to set-up than a bigger rig, the actual shot is subject to the same problems. A gust of wind might knock the camera off. You might hit the Smoothee with your hand, by accident, or catch it on something. And then you'll have to start again.
And this is easily the most frustrating part of using the Smoothee. It's not a hardware problem, it's a problem with the laws of physics and they aren't changing any time soon.
The best thing you can do with the Smoothee is plan your shots. That, obviously, means that you might not always get good spontaneous shots. Don't get us wrong, the Smoothee is easy enough to pick up and use at a moment's notice, but you'll occasionally end up with a shot that looks rubbish.
However, with a little practice you can iron out most common mistakes, and produce shots that are surprisingly good.
Once we'd spent a bit of time with the Steadicam - we've had it for a couple of months - we soon learnt how it was best used. There are plenty of lessons still to learn if you want to shoot professional footage with it. Our demo video below will show you the sort of footage we've been able to capture, in a controlled environment.
As you can see, there is so much to think about. Not getting reflections of you and the camera in the shot. Not casting shadows over everything. Keeping movement smooth and fluid. It all makes for a tricky process. But the fluidity of this video proves that, used in the right way, the Steadicam Smoothee can produce some really impressive results.
And, it's important to remember that you shouldn't use a Steadicam where a tripod would be better. Long, static shots just don't work on a Steadicam. It's tedious for the operator to support it, and it just results in a shot that's a bit too "bouncy" for a locked-off segment.
The Smoothee might not be the easiest thing in the world to use. But with some practice, and careful planning you can create some lovely video.
We'd caution you against buying the Smoothee if you think you're going to pick it up and instantly produce amazing video. You'll find, especially to start, that your video can look as bad as without the Smoothee. But learn how it works, and you'll get tracking shots that really do make the camera look like it's flying through the air.
The cost is modest for a Steadicam, but given it will be bolted to cameras that cost between £200 and £300, it's a lot of extra cash to splash. But with that said, if you want to shoot some amazing video, this is certainly one way to do it.
And with Steadicam operators earning up to £1500 a day, any investment and practice you put in now, could pay dividends in the future!