How to Use A Shoulder Rig: Filmmaking Tutorial
Visit Cinemecanix to learn more about their shoulder rigs
We’ve also written another article about the best shoulder mounts for DSLR cameras.
Hello and welcome to the Lights Film School video tutorial on the use of shoulder rigs.
A shoulder rig is a dynamic piece of equipment that moves with the camera operator. It allows you, the filmmaker, the flexibility of movement, which can really help increase efficiency during production.
Let’s take a look at a side by side comparison of a shot that uses the shoulder rig with a shot that doesn’t. Notice the shot on the right is much more stable and controlled. The aesthetic looks as though you’re filming with a heavier camera even if you’re not. However, on the left, where the camera is being held in the operator’s hands, the shot suffers from noticeable shake and jitters. The use of a shoulder rig gives you a much more stable and professional look.
Since many of today’s video cameras are incredibly light and not very ergonomically friendly for handheld work, using them without some type of stabilization system can render many of your shots unusable do to unpleasant camera shake. This camera shake draws your audiences’ attention to the camera, which breaks the 4th wall and the illusion of reality, which as a director, you’re trying so hard to create. You’re looking for gentle movements that have a sort of “feather” quality to them and you’re not going to achieve that look by holding the camera in your hands while shooting. Smaller cameras are incredibly sensitive to movement and a shoulder mount helps ensure that these movements are not communicated to the camera.
Why use a shoulder rig?
As with any type of camera movement, the decision to use a shoulder rig will be determined by what type of story you’re trying to tell. A shoulder-mounted camera helps filmmakers create a sort of visual metaphor for something happening in the narrative of the film.
Shoulder mounted camera movement places the audience in the scene and let’s them experience the scene as a sort of voyeuristic participant. This style of camera movement can also be used to give the scene a frenetic feel, full of energy, and can even help visually punctuate a chaotic moment.
What shoulder rig is best for your camera?
Not all shoulder rigs are built for the same reasons or for the same camera. So before you invest in a shoulder rig, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
First and foremost, you need to consider what shoulder rig is best suited to the camera you will be using. Lights Film School uses the Cinemacanix pro rig shown here because it satisfies all of our camera needs. If we’re shooting on a larger camera such as the Sony F-3 we can place the camera on the top plate. Or if we’re using a DSLR we can use the DSLR plate. Cinemacanix has a entire line of shoulder rigs suitable for documentary and fiction filmmakers. The one you see in the video tutorial here is called the “pro rig”. You can learn more about these shoulder rigs by visiting Cinemanix.com
Adding accessories to your Rig
Having a rig that allows you to use ad-ons is important. Let’s start by adding a camera, after that you may want to add on an articulating arm… a monitor… a follow focus… and a matte box. You may also want to add lens support, microphones, a battery pack, handles and so on.
Here we have an example using the rig for a larger Sony F3 camera. Now let’s change around the rail system and add a remote focus.
Having a rig such as the cinemacanix pro rig that allows you to adapt it to your camera as well as build onto it is a huge convenience.
Balancing the Rig
Next, you need to consider how much weight you’re going to be putting on the shoulder rig. This is arguably one of the most important considerations of any shoulder mount system. A shoulder mount needs to be balance properly. You shouldn’t feel like you’re supporting the weight of the camera up with your arms. Let’s take a minute and watch as we balance a cinemacanix pro rig.
Let’s take a look first at an unbalanced rig. Notice when the camera operator put’s his hands to his side the camera remains front heavy and tilted to the side.
The camera operator is forced to support the weight of the camera with his arms. He’s using his arms to fight gravity and push the camera up to his eye level. This is not an ideal setup. Not only will this not produce ideal footage, but the operator is now straining his back and because he’s supporting the camera with his arms, he’ll find shooting all day exhausting.
To fix this problem you’ll need to start by putting weight on the back of the rig to counter balance the front heavy equipment you’ve put on. So let’s do that now. Because we’re using an eyepiece and our camera is placed on a side-plate this makes our setup a bit side heavy as well. The first weight we put on here will help us re-center the rig so it should not hang to the right or left. Next we’ll add a weight and battery pack to help us weight the back of the rig to counterbalance the front heavy equipment. There that’s much better.
The cinemecanix pro-rig gives the added benefit of having a center of gravity that is actually below our shoulder. This combined with a very large shoulder contact surface diminishes camera shake greatly. This rig is so balanced that you can actually go hands free with it, which allows you to pull focus while you’re shooting.
Checking your comfort
Once your rig is balanced the first thing you should check is your comfort. The rig should be able to rest on you without you having to hold it. Once you’re balanced and comfortable you’re ready to start shooting.
points of contact
A should rig is further stabilized by having more points of contact than by simply holding the camera with your hands. Here the cinemacanix rig wraps around the operator’s shoulder acting as one large point of contact. Next the operator will raise one hand introducing a second point of contact. Then his other hand, making three points of contact. And lastly as he presses his eye to the eyepiece we have our 4th and final point of contact helping to further stabilize the camera.
Operating a shoulder rig:
Operating a shoulder right requires gentle hands. If the rig is balanced properly you shouldn’t need to muscle the rig to get it to do what you want it to do. Here you can see the camera operator can follow the action and quickly, but gently find the focus and slowly move his hands around the rig without any major disruptions.
On the other hand, here is an example of what not to do. Notice now the camera operator is fighting with the rig to get it to do what he wants.
Walking with the shoulder rig
Okay, so now you’re balanced, you’re comfortable, you have your 4 contact points and you’re being gentle with your movements. You are now ready to start walking with the camera. The key here is to walk softly, bending at the knees slightly and rolling on the ball of your feet rather than stomping. It’s also important to take small steps rather than large steps.
It’s important to be aware of your movements and your surroundings so you can be on the same beat as your subject. Your goal is to synchronize yourself to the energy of the action in front of you.
The shoulder rig in action
Here is an example of our camera operator following our subject. Notice the image isn’t as smooth as a steadycam shot. A shoulder rig is not intended to be as smooth as a steady cam shot. Shoulder rig shots have a movement to them, which as we’ve stated before, put you, the audience, into the scene as a sort of voyeuristic participant.
Further stabilizing your shot
If you would like to stabilize your shot even further you could always use one of the filters that come with most editing systems. Here’re we’ve used the “smooth cam” filter in final cut pro to take some of the movement out of the edges of the frame. It’s important to note however that these filters cannot salvage poorly shot hand-held footage. It’s important to try to capture as strong of footage “in camera” as possible using a shoulder rig or other stabilization device.
There may be times when you will be walking in Challenging terrain such as on rocks or in forests. If this is the case it’s even more important to be aware of your surroundings and to practice walking gently with small steps.
However, when you’re walking in rough terrain it’s important to take extra precautions and to lift your feet further than you would normally lift them. You’ll still be taking small steps and rolling on the balls of your feet, but rising your knees up higher will protect you from tripping hazards
How it looks on screen
Now let’s take a look at the footage that the camera operator was able to capture even while walking through challenging terrain.
That concludes this video tutorial on shoulder mounted cameras. To see more video tutorials visit our blog at lightsfilmschool.com/blog or to learn more about cinemacanix shoulder rigs visit their site at cinemacanix.com
Best of luck with your filmmaking efforts!
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