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SMOOTHEE!!


12/22/10 (Updated 2/9/11)


AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT,

we are fortunate enough to have become the proud owner of one of the very first production units of the Steadicam Smoothee, a 1-pound stabilization rig made by Tiffen and released in its final form just hours ago.


Ours is Serial number ...0000031.


At this moment, we have owned it for less than an hour. But we can speak to the idea because we have been shooting with prototypes and pre-production units for the last ten months.


(Update after six weeks: Nothing negatory to report. Just read on.)


A week ago, we got a chance to briefly use one of the very first actual production units and were immediately impressed at how much more refined they were compared to our prior experiences with the prototypes.


The Bottom Line


If you own an iPhone 4 or 3GS (or an iPod Touch with a video camera) and want to use it for shooting video, the Steadicam Smoothee will be the difference between night and day for you.


It’s one of those items that belongs under the headline


This Changes Everything


Hand-holding a cell phone—no matter whose you own—is an exercise in shaky-cam image gathering. Shooting with a Smoothee lets you float the camera smoothly (hence the name) and move through environments with real Steadicam®-like image stability. Because it uses real Steadicam technologies, refinements and design thinking from the outset.


In a professional Steadicam, the magic comes from the principle of Newton’s First Law Of Motion. 


Objects at rest stay sleep until you shake them awake.” Or something like that.


Added to that is the Law Of The Pendulum:


To swing, you need to dangle.” Or some variation.


The center of gravity of the entire rig a fraction of a millimeter below an absolutely friction-free gimbal that pivots about a single point in space. Because the pendulum is so short, the mass of the entire rig makes its period very looong and slooow.


To make this work for stability, the weight of the bottom part is j.u.s.t  b.a.r.e.l.y heavier than the top, where the camera is positioned. The gimbal is sooo precise that Isaac Newton would have wanted one, just to show people how right he was.


Your iPhone, and the whole rig, stays where it’s pointed until you intentionally point it to a new framing. Caveat: a puff of wind can push it around. It’s that friction-free. Sometimes you need to intervene with a feather-puff of fingertip pressure.


Get A Grip


You hold the rig with what looks in pictures like a pistol grip. Atop the grip is the gimbal, permanently attached to the Smoothee body. Onto the body, a separate model-specific camera holder clips into place. It’s all pre-balanced for instant use.


Get a call while shooting? It has happened to me. You unclip the camera holder and talk with the iPhone and camera clip up to your ear. Or use the speaker phone.


When shooting, you hold the grip in one hand. Either one. At this point the rig is floating free. Use your other hand to level it, and when you let go, it stays where it was pointed. Balance knobs let you tweak tilt or pitch.


When you are in still air, you can use your non-grip hand’s fingers to steer the camera head via a short collar above the gimbal.


Some, like me, use a single-hand technique working with thumb and forefinger to do the steering. Two-handers use one hand for support and the other to steer, generally getting the best results, so I recommend practicing that way at first. It’s something in the mind, I’d wager, about dividing the support and steering duties to different sides of the brain, but I digress.


If you start the camera panning—even quite slowly—and let go of the collar, the whole rig continues panning until microscopic friction slows it down. If you arc your hand with the pan, it just goes on forever.


Two balance adjustment knobs (red) let you tweak where your camera is pointing. One levels it side-to-side. Dutch Angle shots are easy to create. The same goes for up/down angles. A rear knob lets you set the to/fro angle to taste, and that angle stays until you un-do it. The whole rig stays where you put it, so you can move around making dolly, trucking, booming and tracking moves while maintaining level or angled settings.


It’s actually easier to tweak than my Steadicam Merlin.


You can see what we obtained shooting with the prototypes and pre-production units by clicking this text.


Featured shooters in the two most-recent videos include Jillian Arnold and Michael Craigs. Jillian is a cinematographer and she never saw a Smoothee until the day before she worked with it on camera in this video. Michael Craigs works at Steadicam and gets to play with one any time he wants. You see him all over the LA Car show video.


How hard is it to learn the Smoothee?


It’s a new universe. Forget everything you’ve learned about hand-holding a camera. You can twist and shake your mitt under the camera and barely anything will show in the shot.


You can jerk your hand forwards and back, side-to-side and the camera will stay where it started without tipping or swinging.


You FLY the camera over objects, around obstructions, through doorways as you walk and there is no pendulum motion to the shot.


It stays stable until something upsets the rig. Only then will a very sloooow pendulum effect be seen. Outdoors, wind can upset a free-moving camera, but a bit of effort from fingers touching the collar above the gimbal can control this.


The experience level of these cinematographers is not zero, but my estimate of how long it takes you to come up to speed with the Smoothee is this: not long.


Most people “get it” in a minute or two. Learning to frame, follow subjects and get well-composed shots can take longer, but that’s true of any camera system.


If you have a good appreciation of what to frame and why, the Smoothee can be mastered in less than an hour. Experienced videographers and HDSLR shooters will take to it like America to snacks.


Sensational Disconnect


Chances are that whatever you think it feels like to work with a Smoothee —or any real Steadicam, for that matter— is wrong.


People tend to shoot their eyebrows skyward when they handle it for the first time. It’s the complete opposite of a solid grip. So where’s the steadiness?


If you look at any hand-held iPhone 3CS/4 video, you will see that it ain’t in your hand. Steadiness is in Newton’s First Law: No upset = steady.


Your grip hand is completely DIS-connected from the rig. For once, none of it is in the wrist.


No amount of describing that sensation here is going to do it justice. I can talk till I’m blue in the face about what to expect before handing it to someone, and they still do the skybrow trick in the first three seconds of holding it. So will you.


The shock is amplified when you translate the rig sideways. The entire thing stays completely upright. You can jerk it quite violently sideways and the camera stays where it was pointed (unless you had started it panning beforehand).


Fly On The Wall


During the design and manufacturing stages of this project, I’ve been permitted to see it unfold as both an outsider and insider. Refinements were being made at every step of the way. Aesthetics and functionalities were worried over and polished right up to the last possible second. I could feel the improvements in mere moments in my first flight.


Shooting with a Smoothee results that are better than good. Once you master panning, framing on the fly, booming over subject matter, walking while the camera is rolling, making feather-touch adjustments and going for shots only a Smoothee can deliver, your use of the iPhone’s video will go from a Worst Case Scenario to a First Choice. Your video will look professional. You’ll never look back and wish for hand-held shooting again.


And with the camera clip on a tripod, you can shoot time-lapse shots. The one here used the 99¢ App, iMotion, to make this continuous shot ->


If you own an HDSLR, you will begin lusting after a Steadicam Merlin. Buy a piggy bank. Every time you pass it, dump in all your pocket change. By July you can buy the Merlin. In the mean time, all that experience with the Smoothee will be directly applicable. I’m just saying.


Probability is high that the Smoothee will win prizes and possibly an endorsement from Steve Jobs. (Note to Steve: Just TRY it!)


What About Software Image Smoothing?


Technology never sleeps. There are software approaches to smoothing-out shaky shots. Apple has just such a feature in both iMovie and Final Cut Studio. Their specific approach is called Optical Flow™, a technology Apple acquired a decade ago. For PC editors, there’s a program called Virtual Dub for free, and others that seek to achieve the same thing: steadier clips.


When software is asked to do stabilization, whole new problems, compromises and disappointments rear their ugly heads. Optical Flow in Final Cut is extraordinarily complete, allowing you to tune lateral, rotational and zoom factors separately. But it doesn’t understand how to deal with rolling shutters. So far, only iMovie 11 makes an attempt to iron out the distortions caused by rolling shutters.


Virtual Dub is a tad complex to set up and inelegant to work with. iMovie 11 is straightforward, but only available on Macs and like all the anti-shake software, it takes a lot of time to analyze images before letting you see how they look, tweaked.


On Apple’s site, you can find a link to a Swiss program for OS X called—get this—”Smoovee” which was released in 2009.


Smoovee takes the longest. Its interface is pleasantly simple, but you could process a 4 minute scene for an hour. iMovie 11 did the same type of analysis in about 12 minutes. Smoovee maintains contrast, color, brightness and detail very well, but suffers from minor frame tearing. Plus, it fails to work correctly on OS X 10.6 without bombing. Losing you that hard-won hour of computer processing. Right now, the makers have pulled it from distribution. It also exacerbates rolling shutter effects. And as you can see from the biker example link, sometimes it’s just not all that smoov (though often its maximum setting is better than similar settings in iMovie 11).


None of the software stabilization options deliver an image stabilized at the source, as does the Smoothee. If you wish, you could always software-smooth a Smoothee scene to iron out extreme conditions...


Score: Software 0; Smoothee 8.


Long Story Short


I had the Smoothee, disassembled for carry, with me when I went into an Apple store about ten days ago to make a purchase. The salesman asked me What’s That? after finalizing the sale, so I showed him. A direct quote: “OooOOoo!”


Then ALL the salesmen wanted to see it. In the middle of Christmas Rush, the Smoothee became the Big Buzz through the entire sales staff. They wouldn’t let me go until all of them tried it for a few seconds. I’ve never seen anything so instantly infectious.


The Bottom Bottom Line


Put your order in NOW! Avoid the crush. Avoid the mob scene. Avoid the back-orders. Avoid the delays. Try Amazon. Tell your friends about this page.


—Peter iNova




Steadicam™ SMOOTHEE®

        What you really wanted to know:

  1. The gimbal above the grip is Steadicam Merlin (Signature Edition) quality. Meaning way smoother than anything you could ever fabricate for a DIY stabilizer.

  2. No DIY “steady cam” can compare to the real deals. Not exaggerating, but you will know it when you touch it.

  3. iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS camera clips are now available.

  4. A Flip camera holder is in the works.

  5. So is one for the iPod Touch.

  6. iPhone 4 HD images are far better than most people appreciate.

  7. Especially on a Smoothee. Watch.

  8. It’s all in the lack of a wrist. The Smoothee removes your hand from the hand-held equation.

  9. All camera holders have the exact same center of gravity and weight when loaded.

  10. Meaning they are instantly interchangeable without adjustment.

  11. The Smoothee can be re-leveled and intentionally tipped side-to-side or front-to-back with adjustment knobs.

  12. Meaning Dutch angle shots, up and down shots can be instantly set.

  13. The camera clip has a perfect tripod screw. Meaning tripod for iPhones!

  14. Extra clips are available separately. Under $40.

  15. An optional belt clip can hang the Smoothee from your waist.

  16. Less than a pound. Less than 0.45 kg. Less than a freaking POUND!

  17. Under $180 including one camera clip.



 
Special Steadicam Page
Personal experiences with the cream of the crop of hand-held camera stabilizers.

We bought our Steadicam, same as you might. Then we met the folks at Tiffen/Steadicam and started talking. This has blossomed into a series of experiences that every HDSLR owner and/or iPhone 4 owner should be aware of.



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