Austin Taylor of Midwest Movi is helping lead the game of stabilized camera movement in Chicago. This week he generously wrote up a history of where his craft started and where he thinks it's heading.
When Stanley Kubrick requested the floating camera levitating inches above the floor in The Shinning (1980), Garrett Brown and his newly invented Steadicam rose to the occasion. For a long time, these rigs were reserved for Hollywood's upper crust. These days though, they can be found amongst amateur videographers and travel bloggers. But how did gimbals get to be such an accessible technology?
The Gimbal v. Steadicam argument is a tiring one as each has its function under the right circumstances. The prototype of a Steadicam was demoed in a 1975 sizzle reel by previously mentioned cinematographer and engineer, Garrett Brown. This exhibition attracted people like director John G. Avildsen who utilized an early model in Rocky (1976). Filmmakers continually pushed Brown's engineering prowess until he added features like low-mode, a second gyroscope for extra stabilization, and eventually seamless onboard power. This adaption and innovation ultimately led us to the consumer Glidecam and the invention of the modern, motorized gimbal.
Freefly Systems claims to have released the "world's first three-axis digital handheld stabilizer" in 2013, the Movi M10. The M10 looks fairly rudimentary in retrospect. Three motors act to counterbalance the x, y, and z axes of movement while the camera (max. 12lbs) sits in a cage below a crossbar with two handles. The Movi M10 paved the way for further gimbal innovation after hitting the market. DJI, the well-known drone company, decided to jump into the gimbal game in 2014 when they introduced the DJI Ronin. The DJI Ronin physically resembled the Movi M10 but expanded upon some of the shortcomings. For example, DJI integrated all the wiring within the gimbal body instead of the M10 that would often resemble a ball of unkempt yarn. The first-generation Ronin also included incremental tally marks along the cage to quickly identify where you're balancing your axes. Freefly responded with their Movi M15, a slight upgrade, but nothing revolutionary. However, Freefly did return to innovation when they released their Mimic system— allowing a second operator to hold a replica handle of the Movi with a wireless transmitter attached and control the camera's orientation! The Mimic system is still a widely used accessory as operators find it easier to pull-off camera moves with the Mimic's tactile experience instead of a remote controller and a Galaga-like joystick.
These two gimbal giants continued to leapfrog off of each other's releases until we eventually arrived at the steering-wheel-shaped gimbal we have today. The robust and angular crossbar design of older generation gimbals is replaced by a sleek ring on both the Movi Pro and the DJI Ronin 2. This ring allows operators to place their hands wherever they please around the gimbal. Accessories from Freefly and DJI (along with third-party vendors like SmallRig and Wooden Camera) are also continuing to push the envelope of camera movement potential. These relatively lightweight gimbals can easily be attached to cars or affixed to the head of a crane or jib to serve as a remote head. While every operator has their preference, the Movi Pro and the Ronin 2 can achieve similar shots. We've also seen gimbals become smaller and lighter to carry more compact cameras for prosumer or amateur videographers. GoPro has led the charge in the field of micro-cameras and dipped their toes in the pool of gimbals as well, but only with proprietary compatibility.
On the other end of the market, we see what I believe is the future of Steadicams and gimbals. The Arri Trinity is the perfect harmony between the Ronin & Movi technologies. A complete 360º motorized head is attached to the sled of a Steadicam allowing the operator to achieve razor smooth operating and seamlessly go from a standard horizon to low-mode without disrupting the camera's orientation. This technology is currently only available to those who can afford its $80,000 price tag. Still, if the past 40 years of gimbal innovation have taught me anything, the Arri Pocket Trinity is just around the corner.