Steadicam Merlin2 review
It's hard to overstate the effect that Steadicam has had on camerawork. Football is given a new edge by cameras that can move around on the pitch without any of the traditional shaking that comes with shoulder-mounted cameras. Movies that use steadicam can get viewers closer to the action, and feel more involved, than almost any other type of camera operation.
The Merlin2 is designed to give the big movie Steadicam look to any camcorder. It's thousands of pounds cheaper though, and smaller and lighter too. So how does it compare? We spent some time with this new device - which replaces the original Merlin, with some slight tweaks - to find out.
What is the Merlin2
Like the Steadicam JR, Smoothee and original Merlin, the Merlin2 is a hand-held stabiliser. What that means is - unlike a TV or film Steadicam - you don't mount it to your body via a vest and arm - although, there is an option to do so, if you want to spend a lot more money.
Instead, the camera mounts on a detachable plate. This locks on to the top of the Steadicam - this is called "the stage" - and keeps your camera in place, while giving you some easy adjustments to get the whole thing in balance.
From here, the Merlin2 is divided in to two areas, which the Steadicam people call the "upper spar" and "lower spar". To keep the Merlin2 portable, it folds in two, with both the spars folded next to each other. A folding caliper hinge makes this happen, but there's a lot more to this hinge than just allowing the Merlin2 to be folded in half.
At the very bottom of the Merlin, you'll see there's a place to attach a weight. There's another, similar, mounting point on the front, at the caliper hinge. These areas are crucial, and it's how you're eventually going to get your camera balanced.
There's no built-in screen on the Merlin, as there was on the old JR, and the pro systems. Here, you use the inbuilt monitor on your camera. You do need a monitor though, as using a viewfinder will defeat the purpose of an isolation system like the Merlin2.
The idea of the Merlin2, like all Steadicams, big and small, is to help you shoot wobble and judder-free tracking shots. It does this by isolating the camera operator from the camera - to some extent with the Merlin, as you still have to hold on to it - and by moving the centre of gravity away from somewhere inside your camera to a point just above the gimbal of the Merlin2
Why is Steadicam important?
It might sound a bit like pretentious film waffle, but what Steadicam adds to a film echoes most closely what we, as humans, see. More often than not, a Steadicam shot is eye level - although there are some crucial uses where it's not - and it therefore gives you a human perspective.
And that's why filmmakers fall in love with Steadicam shots. They echo the way humans see, so shots using the various versions of the hardware feel more natural when viewed back. It doesn't work for everything, and no Steadicam operator worth his salt would suggest using one where a tripod, dolly or crane could do a better job.
But, take Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and you'll see a shot that couldn't be done with a traditional camera set-up and look as dynamic. And, things are even more impressive these days with the improved professional rigs that offer so much more flexibility than those used in Rocky and The Shining.
If you need further inspiration, then check out this video from the movie Ong Bak.
What you see there is action and camerawork that are perfectly choreographed and a clever bit of cinematography that takes you into the story, along with the main character.
Upgrade with an arm and vest
If you've got extra money, the Merlin2 is capable of working with an arm and vest combination. This is how the professional rigs operate because it helps to distribute the weight much better, and gives far smoother results.
Of course, the incredible Steadicam arm doesn't come cheap, and the vest is handmade. Together, they cost an extra £1300. That means, for both, you'll pay nearly £2000. That's quite a bit of cash to spend.
But, more important is the fact that at this price you're only £1500 or so away from getting the Steadicam Pilot, which is a fully-fledged system, designed in the same way as the professional rigs - it has a post, rather than the hinged spars of the Merlin2. If you're planning on doing a lot of work with this equipment, the Pilot is by far the better buy.
However you look at it, the Merlin2 is perhaps most sensibly considered as a handheld system, and forgetting there's even the option of the wearable system.
We need to talk about your weight
One thing we noticed with our camera, a lightweight Panasonic camera that shoots on SD card, is that, if anything, it was slightly too light. Of course, when it comes to supporting a camera on your arm, you'll want light, but when it comes to stabilirty, a bit of weight is quite important.
What lightweight cameras suffer from, is a slight "flightiness". Because the camera is light, you put only a small amount of weight on the bottom of the Merlin to balance it. This means that it's a little more prone to wind and inertia. Tiffen does sell an adaptor that allows you to add weight to the camera, so if you're using a very light system, it might be worth thinking about.
The problem, of course, is that if you have a heavy SLR - we tried the Canon 5D III - then supporting it on your arm is going to get old very quickly. And for every pound of camera weight, you have to balance the Merlin2 at the bottom, with more weights. So this isn't just about carrying the weight of the camera, but about the counterbalance too.
Setup and balance
We've used the Steadicam Smoothee and the higher-end Pilot, Flyer and Scout rigs in our time, and it has to be said, the Merlin2 is by far the hardest to set up. There are a lot of reasons for this, but you do need to be very patient to get your balance right.
What's more, no matter how many times you look at the manual, watch the supplied instruction DVD or search the net, there is no one who can tell you how to set up the Merlin2 properly. It is the very definition of trial and error.
For a start, there are quite a lot of adjustments it's possible to make. For example, the two spars move away from each other, when you twist the adjustment control on the hinge. For light cameras, this needs to be set so the bottom and top of the Merlin are close together. For heavier weights, set the two as far apart as possible.
Once you've got that sorted, then you need to work out roughly where you camera's centre of gravity is. You then mount it on the plate so the middle of the plate is roughly over the camera's centre of gravity. To find the CoG of a camera, it's easiest to put a pencil on a desk and move the camera over it until you feel that it's roughly in blance. You need to mark here, on the camera - use a crayon - and then attach it to the plate. Then, once all that is done, you need to add weights. There's some maths to this. But cameras of 2lbs or so need one large weight. We used just one, and that was the only way we were able to get the Merlin balanced. At this point, you should be getting to the point where the camera is pointing in the right sort of direction. Unless you're lucky, it will be pointing either to the ground or to the sky.
You can move the mounting plate around a bit here, and this will help you get the whole thing balanced. Or you can use the trim controls. We found that our camera needed to be pushed right back on the top stage to achieve any balance at all. The trim controls are very handy too, and you'll use them a lot when you forget to insert your SD card, or fold out your screen during setup. It's amazing how much out of balance the camera will be if you don't have it set up exactly how you operate it when you balance the Steadicam.
We found that the Merlin would list a bit too, this seemed to be because we never got the centre of gravity quit right. The trim controls, on the bottom of the stage, allow you to move the camera around slightly, and get it in balance.
The last control is above the gimbal. This is the part of the Steadicam that you hold - well, more specifically it's the bit that sits about the handle, which you actually hold. You don't touch the gimbal usually. This last control is a ring, and by loosening, or tightening it, you can get the camera into balance.
To make sure you're set up right, you'll need to do what's known as a "drop time" test. The drop time is the period it takes the camera to "right" itself when you hold the bottom spar at 45 degrees, and let go. Aim for about a second or so here, and you've got a Steadicam that should be quite well set-up.
Do you see what we mean? It's an involved process.
None of this is made easier by the fact that Tiffen doesn't supply the table-top stand with the Merlin2. This is an optional extra, but it's one well worth considering, as it will help you to get set up a lot easier. The good news is, once you're set up, the Merlin should need only minor tweaks in the future to get going again. Unless you change cameras, or add an accessory.
A bit costly for most
You'd have to be pretty keen on smooth tracking shots to fork out for a Merlin2 though. At £750 - although you can get it for less online - it's probably more expensive than a lot of the cameras you might mount on it. At that price, it's more than a lot of SLRs that can record 1080p video.
What you get for the money, though, is a device which has been made to the highest possible standard. The Merlin2 is pretty much all metal. The hand grip is plastic, but there's no real disadvantage to that, and metal wouldn't be so comfortable to hold.
Certainly, everything feels like it's been made to the highest standards. That said, there are a few little things we didn't totally love. First, the trim controls are a bit stiff, and the one that controls left/right trim is a little inaccessible. You use this quite a bit too, so it could be a long-term frustration.
We also found that the mount for the lower weight was loose. It never once gave us any trouble, but we were surprised by it even so. It means you can just pull out the mount for the bottom weights, if you give it a good tug.
Not as flexible as a full rig
It's a bit silly to say this, perhaps, but the Merlin misses some of the important features of the bigger Steadicams. Of course, it's a fraction of the price, but it still affects the outcome.
One striking omission is the ability to use low mode. For Steadicam, low mode gives you a smooth tracking shot that is close to the ground. Because the Merlin2 can't be inverted, there's no way to get it low to the ground. And if you hold it normally, it's too hard to control if you're trying to operate it hunched over, or with your legs bent.
As there's no vest and arm, you'll also find it a bit harder to keep shots level. On the professional Steadicams, leveling can be fixed, and changed when you need to boom up and down - going up a kerb, for example, requires you boom down, to take out the difference in height - but with the Merlin, your arm sets the height, and it can fluctuate.
Neither of these issues is a big problem, for most types of shoot but we think it's worthy of mention. If you need low mode, do what Garrett Brown did in The Shining, and sit on a trolley, while someone else pushes you around after a child on a tricycle.
The Merlin is certainly an impressive too. Its construction is brilliant, and every component feels like it's been made to last.
Operating it can at times be quite frustrating. But this is the story of Steadicam anyway, it takes patience and skill, both of which you'll get in spades once you start to look at some of the results you get.
Our shots, in the demo video, you may notice have a sort of rocking motion to them. This is down to a rig that's not completely set up as it should be. Perhaps we were a little bottom heavy, or perhaps we just don't quite have the knack yet. But, one thing's for sure: the footage in that clip is about ten thousand times better than the stuff we recorded on it to start with .
You certainly can get some amazing shots with the Merlin2, and it brings out a whole new way of making videos. If you're a keen amateur or you're doing wedding videos or corporate work, then the Merlin gives you one more trick in your arsenal that most other operators don't have. That can be useful, and profitable.
The Merlin2 is hard to set up, and can be quite a challenge to operate and support.
But none of that matters when you see your first successful, smooth shot. Tiffen says that you can get "professional" results on the Merlin2. That's almost certainly true, but you need to practise, practise, practise to get there. But if you're motivated, you can do some amazing things with the Merlin. It also teaches you a great deal about the bigger Steadicams, and is a great starting point from which to take your operating further.
As with most film and video tools, part of the skill of a Steadicam is knowing when to use it, when not to use it, and when to lock off your shot. Planning, therefore, is a really important part of using the Merlin2. Think about your shot in advance, and it will look a hundred times better.
We loved the Merlin, and in the time we spent with it we got happier and happier with our results. If we had more time, we're confident we would improve even more. We're certainly sad to see this lovely bit of equipment go back to Tiffen.