Over the Shoulder: This unique rig is a price-effective support solution.
By Jay Holben
As the Digital Revolution continues to barrel forward like a run-away Mack truck, higher-end cameras are getting smaller and smaller. This isn’t really an issue if you’re working from a tripod, dolly, crane, jib or if someone else is operating for you, but if you’re handholding these smaller cameras for any length of time — the fatigue factor of the weight solely on your arms adds up very fast.
Along comes an interesting price-conscious alternative, the Atlas Camera Support System (seen above), invented by independent filmmaker Michael Knowles. The Atlas starts from the point where most inexpensive stabilizers fail: taking the weight off the arms and distributing it to the body. The heart of the system is a lightweight body harness comprised of nylon fabric and polypropylene webbing that can fit a belt size from 27" to 47" (extenders and custom alterations are available for larger or smaller sizes). The body harness secures around the waist and stomach and then around the shoulders and chest in a six-point configuration. In the padded back of the harness is a narrow channel-slot into which you slip a piece of PVC tubing and, into that, a flexible Fiberglass rod. This sticks out of the harness like an antenna, straight up the user’s back. At the top of the fiberglass rod is a heavy-duty pull ring, to which a nylon strap with a dog clip at either end is attached. The user wraps the top handle of their camera with a heavy-duty hook-and-eye (generic Velcro) strap with a D-ring sewn in. The D-ring clips into the second of the two dog clips on the nylon strap and, suddenly, the camera is hanging off the Fiberglass rod in front of the user like a carp snagged on the end of a savvy fisherman’s rod.
When I first received the review unit from Atlas I was impressed with the packaging. The red nylon case, which holds everything for the rig, is well constructed and well-thought-out. Inside, nearly all of the components have their own pockets or slots to fit in and keep organized. This is already leaps and bounds above most of the inexpensive products I’ve reviewed, and it’s obvious that Atlas not only thought about how to create their product, but how users will use the product in the field.
The heavy-duty option package, which I received, comes with two different sizes of PVC tubing and two different sizes of fiberglass rods for cameras weighing up to 30 lb.
My first time trying on the rig was a little awkward. Although it’s fairly intuitive, the designation of which rod or sleeve to use is a little perplexing. Sometimes you use a 17" 1/4" PVC with the brown fiberglasss rod, sometimes you use the 43" 1/4" PVC with the brown rod, or the 17" 3/8" PVC with the black rod. But wait, there’s more! In fact, there are six different configurations of these four components and I found myself having to read and re-read each configuration multiple times before I was clear about which combination to use.
Once you get the rig on, it feels quite awkward to have this tall pole sticking out of your back and dangling a camera in your face. Panning was extremely easy with the rig, better than many inexpensive tripods I’ve used over the years, but tilting was a bit of a challenge as you’re fighting gravity to tilt up or down.
Although the rods come straight up the center of your back, you need to swing the rod over your shoulder to operate the camera and this puts the rod at an awkward angle on your back. I’d rather see the channel put into the harness at an angle (maybe two channels for operators who prefer it over their right or left shoulders). The weight is not really distributed to your hips, as it is in the case of a Steadicam, but rather to your shoulders with a bit of it being taken up in your chest and stomach area. Still, for smaller cameras, it’s better than just having it on your arms
I tried the Atlas with the JVC GY-HM100 (4 lb.) and the Panasonic AJ-HPX500 (15 lb.). I initially spent a couple hours getting used to the rig on my own, primarily with the HPX500, before taking it out into the field and testing it practically.
I designed a shot that had several different aspects to it, multiple heights, walking backward, leading and following talent and settling into a precise composition. I’ve been operating cameras of all sizes for more than 23 years. From small palm-sized cameras (like the Sony PD150) to ENG-style shoulder-size (like the Panasonic AG-HPX3000) to full 35mm motion picture cameras (like the Panaflex Platinum).
I’ve also, over the years, tried on a full Steadicam rig and a full Glidecam rig once each, to relatively disastrous results. In both instances, after 15 minutes or less, I was completely exhausted, covered in sweat and I could not operate the camera anywhere near as well as I could handheld. Both of these systems take considerable training and practice to master.
Unfortunately, I had a very similar experience with the Atlas (with a little less sweating). I did the test shot twice handheld with the JVC100 and twice with the HPX500. Then I went back and did it twice with the Atlas rig with each camera. In both cases, my handheld operation was considerably smoother, more controlled and less fatiguing than my experience with the Atlas. I would say, like any stabilizer, this takes some practice and getting used to. Don’t ever expect to open the package and start shooting brilliant footage with it immediately.
The truly most impressive aspect of the Atlas Camera Support is its price. Starting with the basic package at $299 and going up to the heavy-duty at $395, there’s no other option on the market that takes this kind of approach to an affordable small camera stabilizer anywhere near this price range.
Atlas Camera Support and Stabilization System
PROS:Well-constructed, works with a wide range of cameras, takes the weight of smaller cameras off your arms.
CONS:Awkward to wear, a bit confusing to get the hang of the configurations, considerable learning curve to master.
BOTTOM LINE: Great support option for the price.
MSRP: $299 - $375