Best Brushless Gimbal for Your Documentary Filmmaking Kit – Letus Helix Jr

I go through a lot of new and exciting gear, but only once in a while something comes along that completely changes my entire approach to documentary filmmaking.

letus-helix-gimbal-documentary-steadicam

The Canon 5D mark II disrupted the filmmaking industry. Aerial video with DJI Phantom quadcopters continues to be a game changer. Brushless gimbals were slated to be the next huge thing, but none of the dozens of manufacturers have got it quite right for it to be a mass hit. Until now.

Enter the Letus Helix Jr.

letus-helix-jr-with-sony-a7s

My Video Dads partner and I travel to shoots every other week – across Alaska and all over the lower 48 states. We have a very structured system of packing, so we don’t have to use hard cases that add up in luggage cost. And once we arrive at the location, we have a very fine tuned system of shooting everything we need for a short documentary in under 4 hours.

We’ve done this hundreds of time, so believe me, uprooting our system to add one more piece of gear is like pulling teeth. That’s where the Letus Helix Jr. shines – we don’t have to change anything. It’s so small, simple, and just works – that it’s as much additional headache as adding another lens to our kit.

letus-helix-gimbal-helicopter-alaska

But the kind of footage you can get with this gimbal – in all kinds of remote documentary settings – is simply astounding. After receiving it only a few months ago, we have used it on every shoot, in cars and busses, on a helicopter and planes, on a boat, on remote miles-long hikes and up a mountain, to many simple walking shots indoors and outdoors in just about any weather.

Most gimbals are heavy and need additional support rigs to keep you from getting tired

Most gimbals are heavy and need additional support rigs to keep you from getting tired

Here’s a video we shot for Princess Cruises – 2 days of running around capturing the start of commercial salmon fishing season in Cordova, Alaska, and on a journey up to Denali National Park. The Helix Jr came with us everywhere, ready to go at anytime.

 Okay so you’ve probably seen gimbal or steadicam footage before. Why is the Letus Helix Jr. the gimbal that stands out as a game changer? There are lots of great 3-axis gimbal models out there, including Freefly Cinema Movi (correctly spelled “MōVI”) M5 and M10, Defy G2, G5, G12 (and now the G2X), BeSteady One, several Came-TV gimbals, the DJI Ronin and now the Ronin M. There are also lightweight gimbals made particularly for tiny cameras, like the Nebula 4000. And of course before brushless gimbals there were plenty of non-electronic stabilizers or steadicams.

Here’s why the Letus Helix Jr. rises above the crowd to become something truly game changing:

  • First and foremost, balancing the camera is a breeze. That’s because you don’t need an accessory stand – this is a huge deal – so you can balance the camera on any flat surface. You also don’t need any additional tools.
  • Because you balance the camera body, you can now change lenses and zoom in and out without having to rebalance. If the lenses weigh significantly different, then a quick shift of the bottom z-axis (to move the camera forward or backward) is all it takes.
  • You hold the rig close to your body, in a comfortable position, unlike most gimbals that wear you out within minutes of use. I can carry and shoot with the gimbal for hours a time without any additional support system (and I’m a pretty small/weak guy).
  • The Letus Helix Junior can use both lightweight cameras as well as heavier ones. The fact that I can use my A-cam (the Canon C100), which has autofocus, makes this a lot more attractive than having to carry a separate small B-camera just for gimbal shots.

documentary-brushless-gimbal-letus-helix

Those are the big differences between the Helix Jr and other gimbals or stabilizers. Mostly it’s just easy and simple to use, and I’ve used lots of gimbals. Many of them require you to put aside everything else you’re doing and just focus on gimbal shooting for hours, even with secondary operators focusing for you with expensive remote monitor systems.

Some gimbal rigs you would just never use on a documentary shoot

Some gimbal rigs you would just never use on a documentary shoot

Here’s a few other stand out benefits:

  • The Letus Helix Jr is durable yet small. It folds into the size of a large book for travel, rigged up and ready to use at a moment’s notice. Most other gimbals you have to take apart to pack them in large hard cases, along with their accessory stands.
  • You can hold the camera low to the ground with one hand (in what they call “briefcase” mode), follow someone’s feet as they’re walking, and then lift up and rotate to two-handed operation – while keeping a steady shot.
  • Modifying the speed of the pan/tilt is easy with the included software. You can use a computer, Android smartphone or tablet, and now an iOs app on your iPhone or iPad (or iPod, if you still have one of those). Sometimes you want slow and graceful movement, and sometimes you want faster, more reactive pans and tilts.
  • You can tilt up and down just by rotating the right handle. Much more natural and eaiser than having secondary operators or using a throttle.
  • All gimbals get out of whack and go crazy if they’re touched or mishandled. At the least you would lose your shot and have to start over, at the most you would have to stop and rebalance for 20 minutes (using the accessory stand…sigh). The Helix Jr recovers from going out of whack in a second or two – even as I’m moving inside a bumpy car.
Me holding the Letus Helix Jr with a RED camera at NAB 2015.

Me holding the Letus Helix Jr with a RED camera at NAB 2015.

Basically it just works. It’s the gimbal for the masses. It does cost $3000, so it’s a stretch for most video producers. But it’s also something that changes your game completely.

Especially if you’re a documentary shooter who doesn’t have time to deal with the heavy, complex gimbal systems that need a dedicated operator on set. If you just want a few steady shots when you’re in a car, walking around, moving from place to place – then the Letus Helix Jr. is your solution!

Letus Helix Jr and C100 on two Alaska shoots from Video Dads on Vimeo.…

New Video for Princess Cruises

We got the call about a week ago – could we do a 2-day shoot and turn the edit around in a day? We’d be following the journey of the first salmon of the season, from ocean to table . . . via helicopter.

Uh, yeah.

The Best Video Fluid Head for Flat Base Tripods is only $190

varavon-815

Good, dependable fluid heads are easy to find for video tripods that use a ball mount. For flat head tripods, they’re nearly impossible.

In this previous post I wrote about my two favorite tripods for run and gun video production – the Gitzo 2531LVL and the very compact Gitzo 1542T – both of which are flat base tripods, intended primarily for photographers over videographers.

The only tripods I've ever loved - Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

The only tripods I’ve ever loved – Gitzo GT1542T and Gitzo GT2531LVL

Video producers don’t like to admit to shooting on photo tripods. Most shooters advise others to get heavy, dependable video tripods – which are great for studio work and light car travel, but in my opinion are way too much tripod for the typical run and gun shooter using DSLR or similar sized cameras.

But funny enough, at NAB I saw more Gitzo tripods being used by video reporters than any video tripod. Especially the older version of the Gitzo GT2531LVL, which has a built in leveler.

gitzoGT2531LVL

 

(By the way if you’re looking to get a light weight traditional video tripod with a fluid head, I recommend the Miller Air Carbon System over the cheaper, more popular Sachtler Ace M, which in my opinion is too complicated for quick use in the field).

But the question of fluid heads continues to be a big problem for us video producers who like flat base tripods. There are simply no obvious solutions. I own and use a variety of flat fluid heads, including the Manfrotto MVH500AH, several Manfrotto 701HDV heads (which are now discontinued, so you have to find them used), several Benro S4 heads, and a variety of other heads I’ve tried over the years.

While small and very easy to travel with, the 701HDV and the Benro S4 are not that smooth. Neither is the Manfrotto 500AH. They’re fine for wide to medium shots, but with a telephoto like the Canon 70-200mm, I have to do several tries to pan and tilt until I get a usable shot.

varavon 815 fh

But then I heard about the Varavon 815 FH. It’s small, it’s cheap, it’s very simple to use, and it’s very, very smooth. The weight limit isn’t very high, but I use my C100 on it, even with the Canon 70-200mm, and it’s fine. Not perfect like a head weighing and costing 10 times more than the Varavon, but better than the Manfrotto heads.

But they’re hard to find, keep running out of stock, and nobody else talks about them. I wondered if anyone else was using these heads? Then at NAB, I started seeing them everywhere, including the photo at the top of this post. At the Blackmagic booth, all their cameras were mounted on the Varavon 815 FH. Crazy.

So there you go, apparently other people have discovered the Varavon 815 FH. I hope this post helps you discover it too.

 …

Think Tank Photo Airport Helipak Review on Newsshooter: The Perfect Way to Carry Your DJI Phantom?

thinktank_open_bag

I’ve got a new review up on newsshooter.com today – check it out: http://www.newsshooter.com/2015/05/11/think-tank-photo-airport-helipak-review-the-perfect-way-to-carry-your-dji-phantom/

The Think Tank Airport Helipak is a really great deal! You get not only a carry bag for your Phantom drones, but it’s usable as a general bag for just about any of your gear.

NAB Panel on Real World Shooting

To my luck, I had the pleasure of working for newsshooter.com again during this year’s NAB. And I also got to participate in this great panel on real world shooting, and how documentary video producers have transitioned to corporate work.

Check it out:

NAB 2015: News Shooter "Real-World Shooting" Panel from Teradek on Vimeo.…

Video Dads Demo Reel

Big day today – I finally put together a short video production demo reel (or is it a promo?) that shows what Video Dads is all about. Take a look!

Introduction to Video Dads from Video Dads on Vimeo.…

Harmoniums for everyone

New episode of Indie America out today. This one had a lot of “nat” sound in it.

Really nice write-up from OETA

Chase Harvick, the Communications Coordinator at OETA in Oklahoma, has penned a very kind and thorough article about our PBS video production trainings. He breaks down the day-by-day and what they learned, and it feels great to know that some people are taking away new video skills and understanding from our training. Thanks Chase!

Check it out here – http://spiblog.pbs.org/2015/01/oeta-gets-crash-course-in-digital-video.html

oeta-blog-post

 …

New Indie America episode

First episode of 2015 – looking forward to a big year for Indie America!

A Drone for All Seasons: DJI Phantom 2 Tips for Aerial Filmmaking Gold

Despite all the controversy about consumer quadcopters/drones – and whether or not people will actually be allowed to use them in the future – as of today they’re the #4 holiday gift this Christmas season.

There are a gazillion drones coming into the marketplace, from independent Kickstarter inventions to GoPro-produced versions rumored for 2015. But right now, DJI rules the game.

dji-phantom-2-vision-plus-2

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ – the friendliest drone for hobbyists

If you want to start droning right away – or gift someone one this Christmas – and don’t want to mess with a bunch of complicated additional purchases, then you can stop reading and just get the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+.

For $1099, it has everything ready-to-go, including a camera, a remote first-person-viewer system so you can monitor the flight from your smartphone, and it has a 3-axis gimbal to stabilize the camera. And with the Phantom 2‘s easy flight controls, battery life, and tons of other users sharing tips and tricks on Youtube, it’s a no brainer.

(There’s an updated version that has a few upgrades, for a total price tag of $1299. Still a good deal, but the original Vision+ is good enough). And even though there are cheaper older versions of the Phantom, they are not as fool-proof.

If you don’t want to go with this simple (but limited) drone, here is the drone system that I believe is currently your best bet for aerial filmmaking. There are of course more complex, bigger and more expensive models, as well as drones that are coming out eventually but not available yet, but this is a system you can start using right away.

1. DJI Phantom 2 / GoPro Combo – the affordable drone for filmmakers

video-dads-glacier-drone

For more dedicated video producers who want a better image out of the camera – and don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty with accessories – it’s a better idea to get a DJI Phantom 2 (not the Vision+ model with a camera included), and add a GoPro to it. The Phantom 2 is under $800 right now, and with a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition ($400), it’s a pretty affordable combination for 2.7k stabilized video. (You can now go for the 4k GoPro 4 for not much more).

I’ve been shooting with this combo since early this year, and it’s been a hugely fun (and educational) experience. We’ve shot in all sorts of conditions, even holding the drone handheld out of a car sunroof or inside an office.

But unlike the Vision+ model, this combination requires a few important accessories and tips to really make it work. And after spending too many nights trying to navigate RC Forums for tips and tricks, I’ve learned a few solid lessons that you can benefit from (without spending the countless hours).

2. Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis Gimbal

DJI-zenmuse-H3-3D

First and foremost, make sure you get the Phantom 2 model that comes with the Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis gimbal, rather than the H3-2D 2-axis older version. It works wonders, even in bad wind. And it’s really durable – after a couple crashes in trees, my gimbal column was bent and the horizontal axis was off, but it just took a little hand force to bend it back, no problem.

See that little plastic, black strap down the middle? That holds the GoPro to the gimbal. But if you happen to use your GoPro for anything apart from droning, then screwing and unscrewing this plastic strap can get annoying (especially if you lose the little screws while you’re out in the middle of nowhere). So just use a couple rubber bands to hold it in place, it’ll be fine.

gopro-zenmuse-rubber-band

A couple other tips for the Zenmuse gimbal: the standard white rubber dampers are fine, don’t worry about trying to fit a standard or skeleton housing on the GoPro (just fly it naked), and in the photo above you’ll see a GoPro lens protector. Don’t get that. You’ll need the following on at all times.

3. GoPro Neutral Density Filter

nd-filter-on-gopro

I wish the Polar Pro Neutral Density Filter Frame 2.0 would just come standard with a Phantom 2, because it pretty much lives on the GoPro. If you don’t use it, you’ll have jello-cam – or jelly-cam, whatever you prefer. Even on cloudy days, even with no winds, even with a 3-axis gimbal, without the ND filter, your video will wobble.

And no matter how much stabilization you apply in post-production – with Warp Stabilizer, FCPX, Lock ‘n Load – you won’t be able to really get rid of the jello. So do yourself a favor and get two of the ND filters, in case you lose one or break one.

I could go into the mechanics of how the ND filter slows down the GoPro’s automatic shutter speed so it doesn’t record tiny little motion (thus the micro vibrations), but there’s no need. Just get it.

quarter-on-zenmuse-gimbal

Because the ND filter will add a little weight to the gimbal, you might want to velcro a couple quarters to the side and back of the Zenmuse. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

4. Phantom 2 and Accessories Hard Case

dji-phantom-2-pelican-caseAlthough I normally prefer soft cases for my filmmaking gear, to better move things around as needed, having a single case for all your drone stuff is a godsend. So unless you plan to hike somewhere with only your drone (and leave the camping, eating, clothing stuff at home?), a drone backpack isn’t really necessary.

The Go Professional Case for the Phantom 2 ($200) is perfect for keeping everything you need in one, ready-to-go kit that you can check at the airport, carry for long walks, or throw in the car. There’s enough room to hold a few extra Phantom 2 batteries – and I thoroughly recommend carrying at least 1 spare, preferably 2 with a second charger, all of which fits in the case). Each battery is good for about 20 minutes of flying – with a safe amount of power leftover to return home.

I also recommend getting a simple $20 power inverter, so you can charge the Phantom batteries in your car in between destinations.

The case also fits some of the bits and pieces that come with the Zenmuse and Phantom – so you don’t leave anything behind when you travel. I keep an extra microSD card, and an extra GoPro battery and charger – though that’s not as important, since the Phantom battery actually provides power to the GoPro when it’s connected (cool huh?).

5. FPV transmitter/receiver/monitor – a complex techie addition (but a must have for aerial filmmaking)

flysight-fpv-dji-phantom-2

The final piece necessary to make the Phantom 2/GoPro combo shine is an FPV – a first person view system. Without it, you never really know what the GoPro is shooting. But the complicated nature of this system (you have to solder something? what?) is why many first-timers go for a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ model that has it all built in and works with your smartphone. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple for the GoPro users.

I actually flew without an FPV for about 6 months – partly because I wanted to get good at flying before adding another piece of tech to distract me – but also because it’s simply difficult to know what the heck to get. There are lots of different transmitters, receivers, and booster antennas, which work with all kinds of quadcopters, RC helicopters, sending a signal to all kinds of monitors, goggles or TV screens. And there are lots of kits that supposedly have it all packaged together (for a premium price of course).

Let me save you the headaches and recommend the FPV pieces of an affordable system that works for the Phantom 2/GoPro combination…no soldering necessary.

antenna-on-drone

DJI AVL58 transmitter ($95) – you don’t have to get the full Avl58 transmitter/receiver package because the monitor you’ll use already has the receiver. This transmitter connects between your Phantom 2 and the Zenmuse/GoPro, so it’s powered by the Phantom battery, and sends whatever the GoPro sees to your screen down on the ground.

DJI iOSD Mini ($69) – although this piece is optional, I recommend it. It adds flight information on your monitor screen, such as your flight height and distance from home, how much battery the Phantom has left (so important), whether you’re in GPS mode or not, and horizon level. Just knowing how high you are (remember to fly under 400ft), and how much battery life you have left makes this piece a must have.

DJI Phantom 2 FPV Cables and Hub ($13) – these are the cables and little circuit board that connects everything together – no soldering necessary. You can clean everything up by taping electrical tape over exposed parts, or keep it all exposed, up to you. Just try to avoid flying into water.

phantom-fpv-system

FlySight Black Pearl 7″ monitor with built in battery ($229) – this monitor works out of the box as a receiver/monitor for this particular FPV system. It’s nice in that you don’t have to invest in another portable battery system, but if the battery goes dead (like mine did eventually), you have to get a specific replacement battery.

Cloverleaf Antennas ($80) – although the Black Pearl monitor has a built in receiver and antennas, their reception is pretty poor out of the box. You have to get better cloverleaf antennas for both the transmitter – one on the Phantom itself, connected to the AVL58, and one on the receiver/monitor. I chose this FatShark set because each antenna can be used for either transmitter or receiver (so I can’t mess that up). The monitor has two antenna connections actually, so you can also add a second receiver antenna for a better diversity reception, but I just keep the original antenna on one side and it works fine.

Monitor bracket for the DJI Phantom remote – there are lots of options for mounting the Black Pearl monitor to the Phantom remote, and this one is a cheap and popular option. The dumb thing is, you’re supposed to bring a screwdriver and screw in the monitor to the bracket every time you take out or put away your drone – it won’t fit in the case if you leave it connected.

cheeseplate-on-remote-2

So as a little bit of a DIY solution, I screwed on a cheeseplate to the top of the bracket, and attached some heavy duty velcro to that and the back of the monitor. And now the monitor, sunshade, and remote (with the attached cheeseplate) all fit into the case.

flysight-fpv-on-remote

What else? There is a huge community out there with lots more options for gear, tips on flying, post production workflows… too much for this post alone. You can experiment with carbon props or prop guards, various gimbal settings, different remotes, all kinds of GoPro settings (I use 2.7k / 30fps / Wide or Narrow view / ProTune and manual white balance / max 1600 ISO)…

But with the pieces listed above, I think you’ll be set for a long time of flying. At least until it’s outlawed. Good luck and have fun!…