Building an ergonomic camera rig

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In the past two years, I’ve been obsessed with building an ergonomic camera rig. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned about designing such a rig for greater comfort, flexibility and, of course, capturing great footage.

I resisted just buying a pre-built rig because I wanted to figure out the ergonomics myself. By assembling it in a modular and piecemeal way I’ve learned much more than I would have from a turnkey purchase. That’s not to say I haven’t spent some money, but because I love to make things and understand how they work, I opted for a combination of DIY hacking and carefully researched purchases.

The biggest milestone in my ergonomic journey came last year, when I stumbled across a video by David Leitner about his own struggles to build a comfortable rig for documentary filming using the latest generation(s) of DSLR and digital cinema cameras. It’s long, but well worth watching the whole thing if you’re on an ergo-journey yourself.

The essence of his argument is this: a camera should sit on your shoulder, be well-balanced fore and aft and side to side, and need only be held with one hand so that the operator’s other hand is free to focus, adjust camera settings, drink a cup of tea, and fend off rowdy concert-goers. As Aaton camera designer Jean-Pierre Beauviala put it, the camera should sit “like a cat on the shoulder.”

I took this as my gospel, transforming the two-handed rig I had purchased two months before into a one-handed rig.

Now at this point some of you might be thinking, ‘two hands are better than one! With a two-handed rig, as purveyed by industry leaders like Red Rock and Zacuto, I can get more stable footage than with just one handle!’ This argument neglects a few important factors. In my estimation, most of the commercially available rig kits are built with fiction filmmaking in mind — especially the ‘flying’ ones that are designed to be held in front of the operator with two hands and no shoulder rest — and many of the rigs on the market have poor or zero counter-weighting. On a film set, the operator of a two-handed rig is responsible for framing only: an assistant camera person is pulling focus, adjusting iris, etc. Experienced camera assistants will build and adjust the shoulder rig as needed for different types of shots, making sure it’s well-balanced and comfortable. Lastly, shots in a movie are relatively short and you get to put down the camera frequently.

Documentary filmmakers and event videographers need to be up and shooting continuously, sometimes for hours on end with very few breaks. Who else has to shoot in conditions like that? News videographers. What do news/ENG cameras look like?

Panasonic HPX370
Source: Panasonic for Business

Shooting 2012 World Maker Faire for the New York Hall of Science, I used the Panasonic GH2 and a Zeiss cinema lens on a two-handed Red Rock rig. Although it had a good-sized counterweight on the back, the lateral imbalance of the left hand grip and monitor on the crossbar resulted in some real contortions when I needed to change focus or iris — after a couple hours of running around outside, shooting the many wonders of Maker Faire across NYSCI’s sprawling grounds, I was struggling with numb, cold, tingly sensations in my wrists and hands. Notice how my bicep is flexed, working to support the lopsided rig:

Shooting at Maker Faire 2012
Shooting at Maker Faire 2012

And here’s a shot from a documentary project for the Cancer Research Institute in 2012. Notice how my hand is on the knob of the follow focus (hidden behind the monitor), not the left handle.

Shooting for CRI

In the past couple years, for those who’ve been paying close attention, there’s been a promising trend of smaller companies developing ergonomic and beautiful one-handed rigs. In the David Leitner video above, he devotes a large portion of his talk to the importance of the shape and features of the handgrip, singing the praises of carved wooden handgrips with a protusion that extends over the meat of the thumb. (I won’t reiterate his argument — if you’ve read this far, you’ll want to watch the video.) I set out to find a wooden grip and, thanks to bumping into shooter Dustin Lane on 14th St in September 2013, found out about Ray Thomas and his new company KinoGrip. I ordered a grip from Ray and have been using it happily on many shoots since then — in fact, I recently sent it back to him to have a start/stop trigger installed and it should be back in my hands this week. (Ray also kindly offered to reshape/shave down the grip to make it fit my hand better, after I mentioned it felt a bit too large for me.) If you’re going to invest in ergo-customizing your rig, don’t settle for a straight cylindrical handle — it’s worth it to get or make your own moulded grip. I’ve added links to several wooden grip makers at the bottom of this post.

In addition to Kino Grip, my rig includes parts from these other wonderful small companies: Wooden Camera (cage and exquisite EVF mount), SmallHD (DP4 monitor), Kamerar (follow focus), and CoolLCD (rail clamps).

One challenge I’ve faced since getting the wood grip is how to counter-balance the SmallHD monitor and Wooden Camera EVF mount, which exerts a small but significant lateral/downward force on the rig. Over the holidays, I enlisted my dad (and his heavenly garage workshop), and together we made a rig extension that relocates the grip from the right side of the rails to directly underneath the center line of the lens. I’ll have pics of that setup when the grip gets here — until then here’s how it looks on the rig with a wooden half-sphere (part of a lacrosse pouch stretcher found at a sporting goods store!).  See first pic in this post for the rig with triggered wooden grip, plus a closeup of the grip + extension below.

Extension on the rig

 

Note how the monitor is directly in line with and slightly below my eyes, keeping my neck in a neutral, comfortable position. Here’s the piece by itself:
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And here are its proud makers.
The proud makers
Not including shop and design time (Dad worked pro bono), it cost less than $79 — a quarter the price of this functionally equivalent CNC-routed piece from Shooting Machine.

To sum up, I’ll quote Albert Maysles at a recent DCTV event: “the proper place for a camera is on the shoulder.” Get it up there, get it balanced, get a moulded grip, and keep it as light as possible.

Future plans: lead diving weights zip-tied to the rear ends of the rails. Leaving off the Wooden Camera cage whenever it’s not needed to shave off weight. Making great documentaries. More thoughts and pics as plans unfold.

Wooden grip makers:

Current rig parts (2014):

  • KinoGrip wooden hand grip with start/stop trigger
  • Wooden Camera Quick Cage, top handle, and 15mm DSLR base
  • Wooden Camera EVF mount V2
  • SmallHD DP4 monitor
  • carbon fiber rails (bought on eBay)
  • CoolLCD rail clamps
  • Zacuto shoulder pad
  • Kamerar follow focus
  • Opteka counterweight
  • Smallrig T-rosette (part of the piece we built)* see update below
  • Panasonic GH3 and lenses, of course

Current rig parts (2016):

  • KinoGrip wooden hand grip with start/stop trigger
  • Wooden Camera Quick Cage base (I usually leave the top handle and upper cheeseplate off to save weight)
  • Wooden Camera EVF mount V2
  • SmallHD 501 monitor
  • carbon fiber rails (bought on eBay)
  • CoolLCD rail clamps
  • Zacuto shoulder pad
  • Kamerar follow focus
  • Opteka counterweight
  • Smallrig T-rosette (part of the piece we built)* see update below
  • Panasonic GH4 and lenses, of course

N.B. Dad and I were completely stumped trying to find Arri rosettes — the raw hardware, not attached to anything else. In the end we went with the Smallrig piece from Amazon as it was the cheapest thing-with-a-rosette-on-it we could find. We originally meant to remove it and mount it directly on the aluminum bar, then decided to mount it as-is. Somebody needs to jump in this market gap and start selling rosettes at $5 a pop!

Update: Russell Hawkins wrote to let me know that Smallrig have started selling individual rosettes (on Amazon, too), as well as a bolt-on version, which I’ll probably get to space the rosette off the square tube. Thanks, Russell!