Buying a Field Monitor for guerilla film making

I took the step yesterday of looking at various types and models of ‘field monitors’, researching for the Nth week in a row. Again. After receiving my Glidecam I felt like the next logical step was an external monitor. The basics of this are mainly because trying to get fine focus and framing using a tiny screen on the back of a DSLR isn’t adequate. If something isn’t right on the cameras tiny 3 inch screen, you’d sure as heck notice it on a 46 inch screen. Imagine it on a full sized cinema screen. Need I say more?

As usual, I researched a bunch of monitors and even wireless systems. And every time I was drawn back to monitors made by Lilliput. Some people have opted for 4 inch monitors but I personally don’t feel the step from a 3 inch up to a 4 inch is worthwhile though I understand weight is a factor here. Lilliput have a range of 7 inch monitors that looked of good build and quality, however I had read from several reviews this can be hit-and-miss. One person has reported knocking their Lilliput monitor and it breaking into several pieces making it indistinguishable from being an actual monitor.

I first came across Lilliput monitors when I worked at Bloomberg. Almost every desk had one below the computer screens so everyone could see the output of the live channel they were working on:

A Lilliput monitor seen on a Directors desk at Bloomberg

These caught my eye and sent me on the search for the right one. I’d read about sync issues between cameras and the monitors which meant that when you pressed the RECORD button on your camera the monitor would flash to a different input before flicking back again which could take up to three seconds. I also read about issues with aspects being stretched. However, for all the set-ups I’d used my camera and rigs for the three second delay wasn’t an issue. The streched aspects might be.

I use Magic Lantern with my Canon 550D. This “add-on” is a bit of software that works alongside your camera (although not endorsed by Canon) and gives you additional tools such as on-screen audio monitoring and waveforms. An experimental addition was the ability for items on your screen to have a red outline showing when things are in focus and zebra patterns for when parts of your shots are blown out and over exposed. Lilliput have taken this idea to another level by adding some of these abilities directly to the monitor itself. The version that interested me was the “Lilliput 5D II IO P”, which indicates it’s designed for working with the Canon 5D II, has an HDMI In and Out throughput (so no need for an HDMI splitter if you want to send the signal on to another monitor), and the ‘P’ indicates the Peaking tool which highlights image problems. I therefore opted for this version.

Lilliput 7 inch monitor with HDMI in and out, with Peaking 32V3H-H6AThe monitor can run from the mains supply or from a battery pack that slots directly onto the back of the monitor. Lilliput, and several knock-off manufacturers, have designed several adapter plates that fit onto the back of these monitors so you can use consumer batteries that you may already have. For example if you already own Canon DV cameras you may have an abundance of Canon batteries. Therefore the Canon battery plate is ideal for your situation. Thankfully most of the deals on eBay come with a battery and compatible plate and a charger, as well as an additional plate for a different manufacturer of battery. There is also an external battery you can charge and plug into the 12v socket if having the battery on the back of the monitor causes a weight issue (such as having a field monitor weighing too heavily on the front of your steadicam system).

When my parcel arrived I ripped it open and cupped the monitor and battery in one hand to gauge the weight. It felt not too bad, but attaching the monitor to the Glidecam became difficult with the cheap hot shoe adapter the monitor came with. The bottom plate was now simply too heavy. I tried adding more weight to the top but it became increasingly difficult to balance. Noticeably more so because the hot shoe adapter was so flimsy the monitor could slip or droop, which threw the Glidecam out entirely.

I can either go with a different adapter to fit the monitor onto the Glidecam bottom plate, or find some form of clamp that will attach the monitor to the central pillar.

To see a ridiculous-but-genius two-camera DSLR rig with a field monitor attached, have a look at this video:

Glidecam XR 2000 Update

Last week I smugly ordered two quick release mounts with plates from eBay which would allow me to remove my camera from the Glidecam system and mount it on my Weifeng/Fancier 717AH fluid head that’s on my Glidetrack and tripods. The idea was to have kit that was all compatible with each other. Unfortunately for me the quick release mounts are not compatible with the Glidetrack. Why, I hear you ask? Well, the quick release mount has a safety button on the side which stops the plate from sliding out completely should you not have the lever tightened and it tip forward. But the diameter of this safety button is larger than the height of the mount itself.

717QK front view by Mercian Media

This means the mount would not sit flush on the top of the Glidecam system. And the trigger catch isn’t adjustable, so if it did sit flush you wouldn’t be able to lock the plate into place. Also, the mount does not have the usual screw holes in the bottom. Instead of one 1/4 inch hole (standard to a lot of tripods and kit) it has a hole in each corner which did not line up with the pre-drilled holes on the Glidecam plate.

EI717QK bottom view by Mercian Media

So these EI717QK mounts and plates will be going back on eBay as they are no use to me. Such a shame, considering all the hands they went through to get them from New York to the UK.

After a bit more research (I did lots already) I decided upon the Manfrotto 577 quick release mount with 501 plate. This is perfect for the Glidecam. It sits flush with the Glidecam plate and the quick release mechanism is moveable so that it doesn’t interfere with the camera or the Glidecam plate. It can lock and loosen within 90 degrees. Perfecto!

Manfrotto 577 quick release on a Glidecam XR 2000 by Mercian Media

Manfrotto 577 quick release on a Glidecam by Mercian Media

However, this means that in order for me to stick to the compatible-with-all ideology, I now need to purchase Manfrotto tripod heads that are comptible with the 501 plate!

Using a Glidecam XR 2000

I decided to get a Steadicam system after being inspired by several short films (see end of the post). I already had a Hague Mini-Motion steadicam system, but it had severe limitations. Anything heavier than my Canon 550D and the kit lens (18-55mm) made it useless. So that’s going up for sale. Eventually.

I had a choice of Glidecam systems; 1000, 2000 or 4000. But it also comes in an XR series, an HD series and a Pro series. So that’s 8 different types of steadicam system (because there isn’t a 1000 Pro). Basically the 1000 version is for smaller camcorders, the 2000 is for D-SLR cameras and the 4000 is for bigger heavier cameras. Sort of. The XR is the original series and has a trickier top plate to calibrate, whereas the HD has a newly designed top plate and is quicker to calibrate. The Pro system seems to be older in design.

So I bought the Glidecam XR 2000. It seems the right style for my Canon 550D and the lenses I have. It was also within my budget, with the HD system costing over £100 more (which is basically for the top plate that’s easier to calibrate, and a different style bottom weight plate).

Within a day I was running around the house, pretending to film people walking through doors and around the place. I could flip the camera from one side of the room to the other with ease. But. I initially had a problem with the camera swinging back and forth in a pendulum motion. The term ‘pendulum’ is splattered across several forums, so I understood I wasn’t alone and that there must be a fix.

The answer was that the bottom section was heavier than the top. So I added one of the washer-type weights to the underside of the Glidecam top plate by putting it on the screw holding the camera onto the top plate, just to give it a little extra. The final addition of a quick-release plate may negate the need for that weight in the future.

Overall it works really well. A lot of forum posts have had people complain about the balancing and use of the Glidecam, and the answer to the majority of those posts is that you’ve either not balanced it properly or you’re not using it properly. Taking the time to balance it properly is a must, and if you’re serious about using this thing on a shoot make sure you assign time for calibration. Regarding ‘not using it properly’; small gentle touches are required. Not jerky sudden stops and flicks (unless that’s deliberately the look you’re after of course).

For some examples on balancing a Glidecam have a look here and here.

Here’s a peek at one of the many great videos that helped make the final decision:

Business. As usual.

I really thought April 2012 was going to be a quiet month. Having only been freelance for seven months so far I don’t have the full years worth of experience I would like in order to guage the busy and quiet periods. I guess it depends on your remit of work. In my industry of News and Politics, Christmas and New Year are busy. Mainly because so many people want the time away from the studios to be with their families. That means double-time freelance pay on certain days. It seems with Big Brother back on the cards, summers will be busy too (and I don’t mind that).

When Celebrity Big Brother ended in January I had no other work on the horizon. I did the odd day here and there with Sky News and continued on my search contacting studios and other companies. Bloomberg took me on as a contracted freelance Director for their Asia shows in January and I was keen to get my teeth into it all and learn their studio ways (as each place seems to have their own technical workings and language). I’d been doing that, but it still felt quiet.

Thankfully for me, an overnight Director with Bloomberg London had a baby on the cards. And the little one appeared at the beginning of April 2012. Joy and happiness all round. They start a family, I got over two weeks of freelance work.

With Big Brother seemingly on the cards till the end of 2014 I can’t help but have twiddling thumbs, waiting on the text/call/tweet/FaceBook-message asking if I am available. And I wouldn’t say no. I couldn’t say no. I dream of being in the Big Brother house! In fact not too long ago I had an actual dream of being in there and rushing into the previously-locked bedroom area and seriously debating at lightning speed which bed I would take (furthest from the toilet and the main door so less noise?) whilst making sure the other housemates weren’t going to steal the bed I wanted…

But for now, it’s Bloomberg for another week. Business. As usual.