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Hands On, Handheld: Camera Moves With Freefly Systems’ MoVI M10

For more than three decades Steadicam has represented the vanguard of mobile, off-tripod camera support technology. There’s been little challenge from new technology in the intervening years.

Until recently.

From a company called Freefly Systems, MoVI is a digital three-axis gyro-stabilized handheld camera gimbal. Its key benefit is how quickly an operator can set up a moving shot with it.

Designed to hand-hold camera packages up to 12 lb., Freefly Systems’ MoVI M10 began shipping in late 2013 for $14,995. A smaller model, the MoVI M5, handles camera setups weighing up to 5 lb. The M5 is expected to start shipping this spring.

Features

The versatile MoVI M10 may be controlled in single-operator mode—either one-handed or two—or remotely by a second operator. The Spektrum DX7s transmitter is included with the M10 for dual operator use.

MoVI M10

MoVI M10 provides smooth, adjustable stabilization on three axes with a continuous 360-degree pan range and 180-degree tilt and roll. Slew rates range from 0 to 150 degrees per second. At 3.4 lb., MoVI is lightweight, yet supports cameras weighing up to 12 lb.

There are three control modes: Majestic, stabilized and stabilized slew.

Majestic Mode allows for a single operator to control the pointing of the gimbal by moving the handles without compromising the stabilization of the image. The gimbal takes the operator’s movements and intelligently converts them into stabilized pan and tilt movements.

Stabilized mode requires no operator control and basically operates on autopilot.

Stabilized slew mode enables remote control of pan, tilt and roll axes with the Spektrum DX7s remote controller. A pair of joysticks control separate functions: pan/tilt on the right and roll/pan speed on the left. There’s a two-position switch below each that lets you decide which to control at a given time.

MoVI’s camera platform can tilt up or down—as much as 75 degrees—from a central hub. MoVI can automatically adjust the roll axis to maintain a level horizon line, and can also be preset to a Dutch camera angle. A Bluetooth connection further allows the camera operator to tune and personalize any of MoVI’s gimbal response parameters.

In Use

Think of MoVI as a high-tech sports car—a tool that will wow you when it’s well tuned and disappoint you when it’s not. MoVI’s effectiveness is contingent on proper tuning, which consists of balancing the camera and accessories, then configuring the software parameters of the MoVI.

The first step, balancing the rig, begins with determining the camera’s center of mass for pan, tilt and roll axes. To become buoyant enough to “fly,” the camera’s center of gravity must be precisely determined so that it can be neutralized. Once it’s properly balanced, your camera should remain suspended in virtually any shooting position and at almost any angle.

As this process is quite important to proper function and potentially difficult for a new user to visualize, Freefly engineers have detailed the steps involved in balancing the MoVI in the Quick Start guide, the user manual, and several videos available online. I received some live tech support by phone, which proved invaluable.

Once you’ve balanced the rig, you’ll adjust software parameters via MoVI Configurator software, which is available for Windows, Apple and Android tablets and laptops. (An iOS version is still under development.) MoVI connects to tablet/laptop via Bluetooth.

Adjusting these parameters allows you to tune the gimbal’s behavior for particular shots and camera configurations. The primary parameter that will need to be adjusted is the “stiffness” value for each axis, which adjusts the degree to which MoVI tries to correct for unwanted camera movement.

MoVI helps capture footage of McKayla Maroney for an Adidas Gymnastics campaign.

Your goal is to set the highest stiffness level possible on each axis without creating unwanted vibrations. (When the stiffness is set too high, you’ll feel a high-frequency oscillation.) While 100 is a prime target value for pan stiffness, I only got there once or twice, having to drop to 90 when the MoVI started vibrating.

MoVI Configurator software also provides control of pan and tilt speeds, with attention given to the “smoothness” of their endings. Pan and tilt each get their own smoothness and window levels, allowing users to start a move quickly and then end it slowly and smoothly, or vice versa.

MoVI comes with compact 2.6Ah 14.8V lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries that can power the rig for two to three hours, depending on the configuration. A word of caution about these batteries: they’re quite potent and they’re vulnerable to damage. “As the battery is built to be as lightweight as possible, it does not have built-in safety circuitry and users must be careful to observe correct handling procedures,” according to the Freefly web site.

The intro to the forthcoming Burton Snowboards video series was shot with a MoVI-mounted RED EPIC.

You must diligently monitor the LED battery indicator associated with MoVI’s main motor. Freefly recommends swapping batteries once the charge level drops from three lit LEDs to two, even though it’s possible to continue powering the unit for some time before the charge indicator drops to a single lit LED—a level at which it’s possible to damage the battery if you don’t take it out and recharge it.

I also found the use of a microphone somewhat problematic, as standard shotguns can bump into the MoVI’s handle and bias the center of gravity. Freefly recommends removing external mics, leaving you with only an onboard mic—not a great option if you’re shooting interviews.

Summary

MoVI is a revolutionary camera stabilizing system optimized for compact, “squarish” digital cine-style cameras. It can enable the kind of elaborate camera moves found in high-end productions, but the MoVI system has many moving parts and must be well tuned for optimum results. User instruction is critical and there are some gaps to be filled here.

Once configured, MoVI can enable an experienced camera person to consistently capture a wide variety of creative and fluid shots with moving or still subjects.

Doubtless many producers of documentaries, features and events will try out a MoVI and become hooked on its magical moves. The only problem may be in deciding between the MoVI, a new camera or a modest new car.

Product:Freefly Systems MoVi M10
Score:

Pros: Portable, flexible stabilization for medium-sized pro cameras. Enables fluid tracking, with fast, easy transition to high and low angles, plus fluid pans, tilts and diagonal camera moves. Features a fairly easy learning curve for a broad range of professional camera moves, with great latitude for improvement with experience. Video tutorials are integrated with the operator’s manual.
Cons: Potentially steep learning curve to balance and tune properly. Incompatible with many externally mounted mics. Currently limited mainly to boxy DSLR-style cameras. Perhaps too pricy for many DSLR shooters, except as a rental.
Bottom Line: This Swiss Army knife approach to camera support can replace a jib, dolly, slider monopod and Steadicam when properly balanced and tuned, and with nominal training.
MSRP: $14,995

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