Without them, you're stranded, but which tripod is best for your camera?

Tripods are the unsung heroes of video and film production. When they work as they’re supposed to, we take them for granted. When they fail, everything grinds to a halt. “It’s like the tires on your car,” explains Gary Baum. “You don’t often talk about them, but when you have a flat, you’re in bad shape.” Baum is DP (director of photography) for the television show Gary Unmarried.
You may dream of an ideal tripod that weighs just a few pounds, yet is fluid even when panning a heavy camera. Unfortunately, there’s no ideal tripod for all situations. As with cameras and lenses, you have to choose the right tool for the job.
To make the choice even more confusing, there are two contradictory trends influencing tripods. On the one hand, tripod legs and heads are becoming more specialized. Advanced materials and a new generation of hybrid cameras are helping to drive tripod design in new directions. On the other hand, economic pressures are forcing camera operators to become one-man-bands. You may be expected to wear several hats simultaneously and perform various functions using a single tripod or support platform.
Seeing RED
The RED ONE and its expected still-and-motion hybrid sibling, the RED DSMC (Digital Still & Motion Camera), are driving the trend for lightweight tripods with high-quality pan heads. Sachtler’s SOOM 4160 TriPod System (seen above) is especially well-suited to this new generation of video cameras. It looks like a standard medium-size fluid-head tripod, but it can be quickly changed into a monopod or baby legs configuration. Just as some cameras are becoming jacks-of-all-trade, look for other tripods to adopt the SOOM’s unusual Swiss Army knife approach.
Not all RED cameras find their way onto the street. Greg Milneck is president of Digital FX, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based production company with its own post-production facility. "We primarily use O’Connor heads, although I have used just about everything over the years," he says. "My favorites are Sachtler and O’Connor. I have four Sachtlers that I use regularly for lightweight stuff, but for the REDs, I primarily use the O’Connor 2575 and 2060."
Why favor O’Connor heads for the RED? "We use a lot of different DPs, and generally we’ll ask them what they want," Milneck explains. "And 99 percent of the time, it’s the O’Connor, especially the 2575. That’s really more from the film guys who have transitioned over to the RED, because the RED is similar in weight to the [Arriflex] 435. You really need a beefy head for the RED configured in a film style."
Because his productions tend to be studio-based, consistency is more important than weight. "We do very little run-and-gun stuff, where the 2575 would be way too much," says Milneck. "You know that no matter what the temperature, or weight you put on the head, it’s going to perform the same. That’s important. You want a head that gives you the performance. And if that means you have to have an extra guy to carry it, so be it."
Paul Basta recently worked as the cinematographer on The Wonder of It All, a documentary about the Apollo moonwalkers. “I remember one of the things that was important to me in the setup was to have a tripod with a collapsible spreader on it and a choice for either spikes or rubber, depending on the terrain I was shooting in,” he says. Basta is a founding member of the Society of Operating Cameramen. He won an Emmy for his work on the television show Family Ties.
When Basta shoots on location, he prefers either Sachtler or O’Connor. "I would choose a Sachtler over a Mitchell plate, unless I’m using a gear head, because it’s so quick to level the camera," he says. "Time is money in my business. The faster the camera can be set up and be ready, the less the wait time will be."
He especially likes Sachtler’s fluid control and dampening. "There’s nothing worse than being on a longer element camera-wise, and then having a sticky or non-fluid damp head." He prefers O’Connor heads for special effects. "O’Connor has a sturdier way of locking itself off and having much sturdier legs for a lock-off effect," he says. "Say it’s a lock-off where I’m not even touching the camera or tripod for a special effect, such as a matte. The O’Connor legs have little attach points for S hooks. The S hooks then combine with a grip chain that’s drilled into the platform, and they ratchet it tight as a drum."
Gary Baum began his career as an assistant on television shows such as The A-Team and Magnum P.I. He moved up to become DP on Will and Grace, The Class and Gary Unmarried. He favors Ronford tripods for location work. “I prefer them because they’re lightweight and extremely sturdy,” he says. “You can put them in water without their being affected at all. They’re in constant use. All we do is basically wipe them down.” They also quickly lock, set up and breakdown. “We like to move fast.”
While Baum has used Ronfords for almost 20 years, they haven’t completely replaced traditional wooden tripods. "I still use the babies," he says. "The old Mitchell babies are probably from the 1940s or 1950s. I think they’re made out of maple or oak. Every now and then, you just smooth them out with a little bit of fine grit paper."
Head of the Class
Will Holowka, a Manfrotto product manager for Bogen Imaging, expects to see substantial growth for even lighter weight tripods, aimed initially at still photographers, that are becoming increasingly video-friendly. "The Canon 5D and Nikon D90 are starting to venture into video," he explains. "We’re looking at coming out with a head that will work for both photo and video."
Gitzo, Manfrotto’s sister brand, moved into this territory last year when it introduced its redesigned tripod legs featuring new lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum materials. This year, the company is focused on heads. David Fisher is the U.S. product manager for the Italian-manufactured Gitzo brand. According to Fisher, Gitzo has developed a ball head system that’s half the weight and double the load capacity of the company’s previous ball heads.
"All the ball heads on the market feature a cast ball that rides along on bushings, Teflon rings or something that gives it the movement," explains Fisher. "The cast balls are solid and full." Gitzo wanted to make the ball hollow without decreasing the ball’s strength. "The ball head is nothing more than an egg in a shell, with the egg being the ball, and the shell being the casing that holds the ball in place," he says. "We spent a few million dollars to develop a CNC (computer numerical control) mechanism for machining the ball." Instead of the ball being full, it’s now hollow or, more exactly, circular. "Each one is perfectly round, because a computer’ run system produces each of these hollow balls," Fisher says. "It’s about a third of the weight of a full ball, but the overall ball head itself is half the weight. You still have to add in a locking mechanism, housing and top platform for screwing down the camera."
Gitzo also figured out a way to increase the load capacity. Some tripod heads use a hydraulic lock, though most use a tension lock to squeeze Teflon bushings onto the metal ball. The more you tighten, the tighter the Teflon is pushed against the ball. Teflon against metal doesn’t give a true lock. As a result, there’s a creep factor or drift angle where the ball head might shift as much as a few degrees. For its latest generation of heads, Gitzo created a spring-assisted double lock.
"It’s still a metal ball resting on Teflon rings, but the last half turn when you go from that last bit of rigidness to locked, instead of using the Teflon rings, it uses a spring to engage a high-friction metal plate," says Fisher. It’s similar to disc brakes on a car where you essentially lock metal against metal. "The drift angle, while still there, is limited to 0.03 degrees- less than three hundredths of one degree. That doesn’t impact the composition of the image."
Looking forward to next year, Fisher expects to see a rebirth in fluid three-way heads. "This is going to be a huge issue in 2009 because of HD video in DSLR cameras," he says. "These guys are shooting video on a Nikon D90 at 8,000 ISO and not even bringing a light with them because they can ramp up the ISO and not have to worry about noise. Well, that’s great, but you can’t pan handheld."
Bring Your Boat Anchor
George Mooradian is the DP on the television show According to Jim. He has had a long career working in both film and television. “I dream of a do-all tripod for when I travel,” he says. “It would let you go down to a baby legs position and up to six or seven feet, rather than my having to take along two fiberglass cases with standards and babies.”
For location work, Mooradian brings a complement of devices that cover a wide range of situations. "I would always have a standard tripod, baby legs tripod, high hat, low hat- which is about half the size of a high hat- and rocker plate," he explains. "As far as heads go, I would always ask for a gear head, either an Arri head or Pana head. We called them boat anchors, because they came out of Navy gunnery in World War II."
His preference in fluid heads has shifted over the years. "I’ve evolved from the old O’Connor to a Sachtler to a Cartoni to now O’Connor’s Ultimate," Mooradian explains. "That’s a great head. Some older heads wouldn’t let you tilt beyond about 70 degrees up and down. This one tilts 90 degrees. It lets me get a little more extreme on my angles."
Mooradian might bring a Dutch head to perform what he refers to as Dutch moves. "Gear heads and fluid heads let you pan up and down, as well as left and right, but a Dutch head will let you go down on the right, up on the right, down on the left or up on the left," he explains. "It’s a three-axis head." The additional axis can enhance the story line or character. "I’ve used it in a movement where I went from a balanced frame to an off-balanced frame. It can be either subtle or very extreme. It definitely evokes an emotion."
Speaking of his tripods and the capabilities they offer, Mooradian sums up the relationship with the following words, "Give me a tripod, and I’ll photograph the world."
Without A Net
Stabilizing the camera is the key function for any support system, whether it’s a tripod, pedestal, dolly or Steadicam. Now imagine the challenges George Mooradian faced when he agreed to shoot a 94-minute fictional movie in a single take. "It was tricky- we had flashbacks, day sequences and rain sequences- but it was all done in a continuous shot from four in the morning until about ten minutes to six," he explains.
No problem, you say? Just choreograph all the action to move in and out of the frame, much like a play. That would be too easy, "This wasn’t a movie with just two characters in a room," says Mooradian. "We were all over- in underground bars, screening rooms, hotels and apartments. We were going through the streets of Hollywood on a golf cart following cars."
The movie was released in 2005 as The Circle. Mooradian and director Yuri Zeltser settled on a Sony DSR video camera because it could handle a 120 minute cassette. "It killed me not to use a higher-end recording device, but we didn’t want to fake out the audience with wipes and dissolves," he says. "When you’re working with a Russian director, you want to be very pure."
After a series of test shots, they settled on a Steadicam rather than opting for handheld, because the Steadicam produced smoother transitions. "We did a 10 minute portion of the script, and from that we determined which way we were going to go," says Mooradian. "With handheld, I was able to do more dynamic compositions- higher, lower and stronger compositions. But the transitions over 90 minutes weren’t acceptable. It was like being on a boat in a storm-tossed ocean." The Steadicam operator was Michael A. Johnson. "We designed rest points throughout the story where he could stand or sit in a wheelchair device we would push," he adds. "We had areas where we were infusing him with liquids to keep him going."
After a month of rehearsals, they had five days for the actual shooting. “We had hoped to do 10 movies- one each day before lunch and one after lunch,” Mooradian explains. “Out of all that time, we had maybe two or three complete passes. And basically there was really only one to choose from.” – D.E.