AS PRICES FOR HD video cameras have dropped over the past few years, the number of people making more professional, more cinematic and more inspiring films has risen sharply. Sometimes it seems as if the only thing holding an aspiring filmmaker from greatness is the cost or availability of equipment.
Filmmaker Zander Hartung ran into this problem working on a documentary about professional freefall videographer, Phil Roberson. “I couldn’t afford to rent a gyro-stabilizing camera mount to capture aerial shots looking vertically down from a Cessna 206,” Hartung says.
Screenshot from film by Zander Hartung.“I built a homemade camera mount for our Panasonic HVX200a out of 2x4s and metal supports. We were able to roll up the side door and fasten the mount directly to the edge of the door. This way, the camera would be outside the aircraft, looking directly down at the ground. It worked perfectly. I spent about $150 on the DIY camera mount whereas renting one would have cost me around $6,000.”
While Hartung’s piece of equipment is very specialized, the philosophy behind his DIY is simple: I can do that and I can do it cheaper.
One of the most useful tools in the cinematic arsenal is the steady-cam. How many travel videos do we see where the filmmaker is wandering through the streets of some beautiful location, only to have their footage marred by the nauseating effects of camera shake? Here are a few cheap and easy example of how to keep your camera steady while moving around.
Shoulder rig made from cutting board and pipes
A lot of travel is about how you get where you’re going. This easy setup has potential way beyond sticking it to cars. Ever want to do a time lapse of a train trip through the alps? This is your rig.
Another great way to limit camera shake is to construct a dolly. Dollies range in size and type from duct taping a camera to a skateboard and rolling it down the street to the elaborate rail systems that look like they belong in a mine scene in an Indiana Jones movie. This video shows an inexpensive rail system that has the versatility to track over some uneven terrain.
Panning Time Lapse Rigs
Time lapse has become huge in the last few years. I love watching things zip by at many times their normal speed. Of course, anyone can set up a tripod and hit the shutter every few seconds for an hour. What really pushes the awesome-factor in time lapse, however, is introducing camera movement to the scene.
This video inspired time lapse filmmaker Jeff Handlin to order up a motorized telescope mount to convert into a panning time lapse rig.
When he got the telescope base and began to tinker with it, he discovered a couple of big drawbacks. “First, this contraption is incredibly heavy and awkwardly shaped,” he says. “It doesn’t lend itself to backpacking, which is what I was hoping to do with it in the first place. Secondly, I had problems with the horizontal motor. I’d set up my camera to shoot for an hour or so and come back only to discover that the motor had stopped moving or hadn’t moved smoothly.”
Sometimes, even DIY set-ups often need some DIY. Handlin says, “I figured a way to solve my problems by turning to my good ol’ trusty hacksaw. I cut the housing down around the vertical motor. Then I bolted on a 1″ diameter PVC pipe cap and used it to mount the motor sideways on my tripod. It looks pretty ghetto; it has some wires hanging out and a motherboard rubber-banded to the outside of the housing. But it’s about 1/3 the size and weight of the original set-up.”
Of course, there are other even more cost-effective ways to build a panning time lapse mount, as this video shows.
Like dollies, a slider is meant to move the camera smoothly from point A to point B. The difference is that a slider is motorized and geared to move slowly enough to work with time lapse. “I’ve been daydreaming about how to build a DIY time lapse slider,” Handlin says. “I’ve come across some pretty cumbersome looking home-hacks on YouTube as well as some manufactured ones that are basically cost-prohibitive for anyone other than a professional movie production.”
Due to the complex nature of building a slider (and builders’ propensity toward time lapse itself,) most of the videos out there showing how to build sliders are time lapses of people building them without audible instructions. This video, however, gives a detailed description of the parts and inner workings of the unit.
Jib or Camera Crane
While the jib has been used on movie sets for years, it’s just recently made its way into the action-sports video scene with films like Life Cycles using it to great effect. These units not only pan side to side but up and down as well, adding a lot of creative control to your video. Most of the DIY jibs use parallel arms to keep the camera’s attitude constant. This video shows how to build a jib that can also orient the camera any way the director chooses.
Underwater Camera Housing
Consumer-level underwater housings can range from several hundred to a few thousand dollars to get your camera safely under the waves. For most non-pros, that’s the end of the line.
“I would never consider making a waterproof case for my camera!” says Matador editor Josh Johnson. When it comes to the rough and tumble world of DIY, however, your camera’s safety is often secondary. For those who are willing to risk their camera’s life to get that perfect below-the-surface shot, this filmmaker makes building a submersible rig look deceptively easy.
Roll up your sleeves and grab that hacksaw, cause now you have no excuse to not have that specialized piece of rigging that you have always wanted. Is there a DIY rig that we missed? Post a link in the comments to your favorite DIY camera rig video and spread the guerrilla filmmaker love!