At long last I finally managed to get my hands on the Movi gyro-stabilized camera system from Freefly. The Movi was announced last year and I already wrote a little blurb on how I thought it could revolutionize cinematography. After my own short time with it I certainly feel more justified in making that claim; as cameras continue to get better and smaller, the Movi can only continue to make more and more sense.
What follows is my first impression from a cold start literally opening up a brand new box to testing with a small point and shoot camera. I don’t own a decent video enabled DSLR so I had to make due with my Fuji X-pro1 mirror-less camera. It certainly doesn’t have the greatest video quality but it worked well enough for all intents and purposes. I used a 14mm lens which has an equivalent field of view of about 21mm in super 35mm. This model of Movi, the M-10, is limited to a gross weight of 12lb. on the gimbal. You can go beyond the 12lb. limit if you attach other accessories like a small monitor and video transmitter to the operating handles. This unit won’t handle the weight of an Alexa, but it could manage a stripped down Epic or Canon C300. I think the sweet spot will probably be found with larger DSLR’s like the Canon 1DC.
Opening the box and seeing what appeared to be millions of pieces seemed very daunting. But truthfully, the rig comes pretty much assembled and includes a basic tool set and some spare pieces. The kit includes the rig, two batteries, a standard 7 channel RC hobby controller, and a basic stand. It’s important to know the kit does not include any sort of video transmitter or monitor. For most cameras, if you want to see what you are pointing at, a small monitor attached to the operating handles is essential. A second monitor and video transmitter will be needed if you want to work the Movi with two or three people performing different tasks…More about that later.
Overall, the build quality is impressive. The entire chassis is made from lightweight carbon fibre and some aircraft grade aluminum parts. Everything is neat and tidy and it has a well thought out appearance that doesn’t give it the feeling that this is some kind of one-off prototype. I don’t like the battery charging process because the wiring is extremely flimsy and unplugging the batteries from the charger is down right difficult without damaging the wires. I can foresee problems arising with lose wires and broken connectors. The kit also includes a handy little stand for setting up the rig but I think it’s just too short to be of any practical use on a real set. One would get pretty uncomfortable working off the floor if there is no table and chair around. I think I’d ditch the included stand and modify a grip stand so I could build at a comfortable standing working height.
When you get the rig out of the box and on the stand, the first thing you need to do is attach the camera and begin the balancing process. I won’t get into all of the technical details about this because it’s a pretty extensive, tedious, and time consuming process, especially for the first time. I’ll just say you have to balance the camera on 4 different axis and it took me more than an hour on my first try. I’m confident I could get it down to about 30 minutes or so with enough practice. The important thing to know is unless you own a Movi, I wouldn’t attempt to rent one without an experienced technician to come out with it. Think of it as any other specialty piece of camera stability product where a technician is included. They can set it up, operate if needed and trouble shoot if any problems arise. In an ideal world, having a second B-camera body being prepped by a separate technician would be the way to go. It’s just not as easy as putting on a camera and playing with some joysticks.
To get the best out of the Movi, it should be more precisely tuned and calibrated through the “freefly configurator” software that is downloaded from Freefly’s website. This software can be installed on either an android tablet, laptop, desktop or android phone which would be the most convenient. There is currently no support for Mac iOS but Free-fly told me it is all coming. I installed the software to my mac desktop and it connects to the Movi via bluetooth which was really nice!
The Movi can be controlled by either one or two people using two different operating modes. In “majestic” mode, the Movi can be operated in a simple configuration by one operator. Panning and titling is done by moving your hands and body and the “lag” and “smoothness” can be adjusted via the software. If you want more precise control over pan and tilt then you have to operate in “remote” mode with a second operator.
In “remote” mode the operator holding the rig is locked out of controlling anything other than physically moving the camera through space. A second operator is then required to helm the RC controls and manage pan/tilt/roll. Depending on the focal length of the lens and f-stop, you could easily add a focus puller into the mix and have a three person Movi team.
Interestingly, the MOVI is controlled with a standard 7 channel radio controlled model aircraft controller. The exact same kind of controller you’d find in any hobby shop. But it is an excellent controller that allows for “trimming” the pan and tilt functions for more precise tuning. You can also vary the speed of both the panning and tilting with two separate controls on the controller. In general though, the main operation of the camera for panning and tilting are simultaneously controlled from one thumb-stick, not two. The controls are inverted meaning to tilt down, you thumb-stick up. I’m sure there is a way to invert the controls but I have not figured that out yet. Controlling is easy and fairly intuitive for me but that’s coming from someone who has had lots of game-pad practice!
The Movi runs off one poly-lithium Ion battery pack that tucks into a little open compartment. Beneath that is an on/off switch to power the rig. Regardless if you want to work in majestic or remote mode the RC remote must be powered in order to transmit what mode the Movi should work in. In other words, if you want to be a one-man-band and operate in majestic mode, you still have to power-on the remote and leave it somewhere within safe range.
I was alone during my brief testing so I could only test the Movi in majestic mode. This mode is the easiest way to pick up and get going. Once my camera was balanced I was literally off and running chasing my dog in the park. In addition to having two handles for operating, it is also equipped with a second “low-mode” handle which is very convenient for doing low-angle tracking or following shots. This handle is definitely one of my favourite features. Looking at playback I was pretty impressed with what I’d shot. My clips were impressively smooth and fluid just as free-fly has advertised. I had a very light payload using my fuji so I wasn’t getting too tired but I can already empathize with an operator loaded with more accessories and attached to a heavier camera. If you are thinking about purchasing a Movi and working on professional sets then you will want to seriously consider getting a few extra accessories for making sure you are well covered.
- Another battery or two as they drain quick and charge slow.
- A small video transmitter and monitor is a must for “remote” operating.
- A better more ergonomic stand for building and balancing.
- A laptop computer or tablet for installing “the free-fly configurator software”.
- A portable table, chair and grip stand or similar for set-up.
During the whole process I was surprised that I never had to contact customer support once, nor did I have one single problem that I couldn’t figure out on my own which I think is more of a testament to Freefly design than my own technical prowess. There are still a lot more details to learn but eventually my team and I will be shooting a more professional demo which I will post when completed. If you are in the Toronto area and looking to rent this particular Movi unit for your project you can contact the owner, Robert Burt (firstname.lastname@example.org) at 416.702.4141 for details.