VariZoom FlowPod Stabilizer
VariZoom DV Sportster Stabilizing Arm and Vest
By Barry Schmetter for DVXuser.com
Independent film isn’t what it used to be—and that’s a good thing. Low budget independent filmmaking which blossomed in the 1960’s and 70’s put basic, but high quality tools in the hands of independent filmmakers, but there was limit to the sophistication of the tools available. The standard advice used to be—lock down your camera on a tripod for most shots. Rebellious filmmakers often ignored this advice and shot handheld with mixed results. On one hand, handheld camera work introduced immediacy into the language of film that static camera shots often lacked. On the other hand, dizzying, shaky handheld footage became the cliché of independent film.
Flash forward to twenty-first century independent filmmaking and what was standard practice 30 years ago now seems archaic. Film is an evolving language and that language now includes smooth handheld camera work that wasn’t even possible 30 years ago. In 1976 cinematographer Garret Brown invented the Steadicam camera stabilizer and introduced fluid mobile camera movement to filmmaking and television. For many years, the Steadicam remained an expensive and exclusive piece of equipment, far out of reach of most low budget independent filmmakers. Only within the last 10 years have lower cost camera stabilizers been available independent filmmakers and only recently have there been low cost stabilizers with a high degree of technical quality and sophistication.
VariZoom (http://www.varizoom.com) has been steadily expanding its product line of camera supports and stabilizers and in this review I examine both the FlowPod Stabilizer and the DV Sportster Stabilizing Arm and Vest.
Varizoom FlowPod Stabilizer – A combination camera stabilizer/monopod
Both still photographers and filmmakers have long valued the monopod as a stable, but highly mobile camera platform. The Flowpod’s unique design combines the monopod with a camera stabilizing system. My first impression of the FlowPod is the excellent build quality. The FlowPod looks like a durable piece of gear with its beefy construction and good fit and finish. With its gimble system locked, the FlowPod is a high quality monopod. I particularly liked the thick foam-padded handle which helped give a very comfortable and secure grip while shooting. The quick-release style leg locks allow the FlowPod to telescope out to its working length quickly and easily.
The FlowPod in Stabilizer Mode
To put the FlowPod into stabilizer mode, you adjust two knurled metal knobs under the handle until the lower end of the handle releases, thus freeing it to float on its top gimbal.
The FlowPod should be contracted to its shortest length when used as a stabilizer. Once in stabilizer mode, the camera must be balanced using the top mounted x-y plate. If you’ve ever used a handheld stabilizer, you’ll realize that the most critical aspect is the delicate balancing of the camera on the stabilizer. Improperly balanced—the camera will pitch and yaw and generally make it impossible to get a decent shot. Holding the FlowPod in my hand, it took me 20-30 minutes to properly balance the DVX100. The camera is balanced by adjusting it in the x and y axes of the mounting plate. The FlowPod also includes three ring-shaped counterweights that can be added to the FlowPod as necessary depending on the weight of the camera being mounted. I found the DVX required two of the counterweights to properly balance the camera. Unfortunately, only after balancing did I realize that I had forgotten to mount the battery pack to the DVX. The camera is balanced so finely, that it must be in the exact shooting configuration while you perform the balancing procedure. So, the LCD screen should be flipped out in the position you use it and any accessories should be mounted to the camera before balancing. Even adding an extra filter will completely throw off the balance.
So I mounted the battery pack and fortunately I found one of the best features of the FlowPod. A little secret weapon called the VZ-FPB Balancing Plate.
The balancing plate looks like a simple machined slab of aluminum with a C-clamp, but it allows the FlowPod rig to be balanced while mounted to the edge of a table. With the FlowPod mounted to the balancing rig, it literally took me 3 minutes to rebalance the camera with the battery pack. The balancing plate is one of those simple, but brilliant ideas and makes the difficult and tedious procedure of balancing the rig very straightforward and fast. In the field, you should be able to find some handy surface on which to mount the balancing plate.
My one suggestion for VariZoom is to offer a quick release plate for the FlowPod. Mounting the camera to the top late of the FlowPod requires the removal of three side screws with lock washers in order to remove the top plate. Not only is this time-consuming, but it makes it more likely that the camera needs rebalancing after mounting. I found I could add some pencil marks to the mounting plate in order to replicate a previous balance adjustment, but I still like quick release plates on all my camera supports for speed in the field. For now, I’d suggest buying a third party quick release mount to add to the FlowPod to streamline the mounting procedure.
Using the FlowPod as a Stabilizer.
Once balanced, the Flowpod was a pleasure to use in stabilizer mode. With one hand on the comfortable handle and the other gently guiding and stabilizing the rig I was able to get acceptably smooth short camera movements with very little practice. Like any stabilizer, it does take some time to get comfortable with the FlowPod and expect to put in a lot of practice hours if you want to master extended or complex moves. There are no shortcuts to using any camera stabilization rig, so plan on rolling up your sleeves and putting in some solid practicing time if you expect to get the most out of your FlowPod. Fortunately, if you get tired, you can put the FlowPod in monopod mode and let gravity do most of the work.
The FlowPod also offers and addition accessory Low Mode kit that allows you to mount the camera to the bottom of the FlowPod in order to get smooth, fluid low to the ground shots. There’s nothing cooler than a shot with the camera gliding a few inches above the ground, so the ability to quickly modify the FlowPod for this type of shot is a real plus. Imagine a dogs-eye view shot in your next film and you can start to think about the possibilities of using the FlowPod in low mode. Thoughtfully, the low mode kit includes an attachment to add an LCD monitor to the top of the rig.
VariZoom DV Sportster Stabilizing Arm and Vest – A rig for the rest of us.
Handheld stabilizers like the FlowPod are great tools for getting fluid motion shots, but even with a relatively light camera, your arm can tire quickly from supporting the weight of the camera plus the rig. The DV Sportster was designed in order to integrate the FlowPod, Varizoom UltraLite (another VZ stabilizer), Stedicam Jr., or Glidecam handheld stabilizer into a fully supported wearable stabilizer system. The DV Sportster rig consists of a vest with an aluminum armature and a spring-loaded arm that accepts handheld stabilizers which act as camera sleds.
The vest works to distribute the weight of the camera and the stabilizer rig across your back and hips, while the spring-loaded arm helps balance the camera and absorb the shocks associated with operator motion (walking or running). Examining the DV Sportster rig, I was once again impressed at the overall build quality and finish. This is a well-made and nicely finished professional piece of equipment. It takes all of 5 minutes to adjust the vest to a snug fit and the Velcro and quick-release buckles ensure that the vest goes on and comes off quickly and easily. I liked the DV Sportster vest because it does an effective job of transferring weight to the torso, but is fairly light and compact. There are some other reasonably nice stabilizer rigs out there, but for the most part they’re heavy and bulky rigs that are awkward to put on and take off. The DV Sportster occupies a unique niche because of the price point and size of the rig.
The spring-loaded arm isn’t double articulated like the more expensive stabilizer rigs, but I found it still did a good job of dampening operator movement and floating the camera. Even though the spring arm isn’t double articulated, there is an additional pivoting arm that acts as a moveable bridge between the vest and the spring-loaded arm. The arm bridge gives the DV Sportster a great range of movement, although without quite the vertical dampened range of a dual-articulated spring arm. Overall, I was happy to accept the tradeoff for the reduction in size and weight of the rig.
Using the DV Sportster/FlowPod combination, I was impressed at how well it dampened the motion of normal walking and how I could pivot my body to get sweeping pans around the room. My first attempts were shaky and uncontrolled, but within 30 minutes I was able to get passable, if not perfect, moves. Using a camera stabilizer like the DV Sportster requires a serious investment of practice time if you have plans of doing extended shots that even begin to approach the quality of professional Steadicam work. So don’t expect to be running down the street with this rig unless you put in some serious practice time. My biggest gripe is that the DV Sportster doesn’t come with an instructional DVD, although there is a short streaming instructional video available on the Varizoom website.
One cool trick I learned is that the FlowPod low mode kit can be used with the DV Sportster so you can get gliding low to the ground shots and have the advantage of wearing the rig.
Custom FlowPod and DV Sportster Cases
Available separately as an inexpensive add-on or in one of the several FlowPod kit configurations, the FlowPod case is worth noting because of the nice design and construction. A well-designed case is essential for storage and transport and nothing is more irritating than a company that either offers a poorly designed case or no case at all. I suspect that the VariZoom people are case junkies like me, because the FlowPod case is so nicely made. With a long strap so the case can be worn like a quiver, the case is neat and well-padded and contains a roomy extra pocket for accessories.
The DV Sportster case (included) is even nicer and is well padded with plenty of accessory pockets. It easily fits the entire DV Sportster rig with room for extra camera accessories. I immediately noticed that it would make an excellent case for the DVX100 or similar camera, so if you need a spare location camera case, the DV Sportster rig could be fitted into something a little less fancy for transport.
The Bottom Line
I found both the FlowPod and DV Sportster to be excellent, professionally constructed camera stabilization rigs for small form factor cameras like the DVX100. Both the FlowPod and the DV Sportster are designed to be flexible in terms of stabilizer configurations.
I really like the fact that the DV Sportster accepts a wide range of third part camera stabilizers, so if you already own a Glidecam or Stedicam Jr., you can easily fit it to the DV Sportster for a complete body-mounted stabilization rig. Having used the Glidecam, I’d definitely recommend getting a body stabilizer like the DV Sportster if you want to do extended shots without fatigue.
A quick release system would be a welcome addition to the FlowPod and an instructional DVD would be a great aid in getting up and running with the full rig. Expect to put in some serious practice time if you want to get the most out the system, but simple moves are possible straight out of the box. Overall, both of these pieces of gear would be great additions to your bag of tricks.
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