Gimbals – Are they terrible and overused or a valuable storytelling tool?

Dec 26, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Gimbals – Are they terrible and overused or a valuable storytelling tool?

Dec 26, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Gimbals can be a wonderful filmmaking tool. They’ve become quite popular over the last year or two, very popular in fact. But are they becoming overused? That’s the argument put forth by Jakob Ownes from TheBuffNerds. He feels that gimbals are overused and take away from not only the story being told, but the storytelling power of gimbals themselves.

YouTube video

The video was made in response to being asked why he didn’t use a gimbal to shoot a recent short film. Instead he chose to go handheld. The short answer is that a gimbal didn’t allow him to tell the story he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it. The long answer is the video above.

Jakob cites the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan as a perfect example of when a gimbal would detract from the story. Handheld with the shutter speed cranked high, you get that feeling of being immersed in the scene laid out before you. Like you’re a part of it, experiencing it as the people in it do. Using a gimbal to shoot the same opening sequence would create a very different feeling. It would separate you from the experience. You’d simply become an observer and not feel like you’re in the thick of the action.

I completely get where he’s coming from. I felt exactly the same way about drone footage. As do many others. For a couple of years everybody was shooting everything with drones, every chance they could get. The first few videos looked awesome. Looked awesome. But they didn’t tell much of a story. Then everybody else went on to use their drones to make shots that look awesome, but also don’t tell much of a story. Ultimately leading to quite a lot of visually pretty but very dull videos comprised solely of drone footage.

Now that drones are just another tool people have in their kit, the “newness” of them has worn off a bit. We’re actually starting to see interesting drone footage that advances the story. We’re seeing them being used less frequently in productions. That is to say, we still see them used in many productions, but the entire thing isn’t shot on a drone, just small clips that add to and enhance the story.

The same is happening now with gimbals. I got my first gimbal a little over a year ago, a Zhiyun Smooth-C. Every time I used my phone to film something, I used that gimbal. I’ve also used several other gimbals for phones, mirrorless and DSLRs since then, and just recently I received a Steadicam Volt (review coming soon). Whichever gimbal and whichever phone or camera I use, the footage always looks great. but as time has gone on, I’ve gone back to shooting handheld or from a tripod or slider far more often, and a gimbal doesn’t come out as often now. I still use one, but only when the shot demands it.

So, if you have a gimbal, want a gimbal or use a gimbal, feel free. But, remember. It’s just another tool in the box. Don’t overuse it. Ask yourself each time you look at it, sitting in its case, is using it going to add to the story you’re trying to tell?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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6 responses to “Gimbals – Are they terrible and overused or a valuable storytelling tool?”

  1. James Fogg Avatar
    James Fogg

    Overused compared to what? Shakey-cam hand-held or boring panning shots on tripods? Resource-heavy dolly glides? Camera stabilization matters, how you do it doesn’t matter.

    1. Darkness Avatar
      Darkness

      I think it’s in terms of how much it’s used as opposed to why. The camera is a story as told from the writer’s/director’s perspective, which is usually a POV of outside looking in. As you know this can take on many, many forms, including first perspective.

      Look at both the original and last Blair Witch films. They would not have had as much of an effective asthetic if all the scenes were on sticks.

      A lot of audiences actually got motion sick watching those films, shaky handheld crap footage projected on a huge screen is the worst, but I would venture to say that was part of the asthetic that helped the story feel more like a documentary, run and gun style film and create it’s mystery. It generated a lot of suspense and tension for it’s time, just as Saving Private Ryan.

      I remember when I first saw SPR in the theater, I really felt as if I was experiencing this horrific battle scene myself. It must have been a truly terrifying experience. I honestly don’t think I would have felt that immersed had it been a stabilized shot. It was almost VR like.

      It gave me the perspective of being an 18-25 year old, terrified, wading through waist high water full of barbed wire and land mines, lunging towards certain death or dismemberment by mutilation. Nothing smooth about that experience.

      Up until this point in film history, most war films took a more heroic and sterilized approach, with typical industry-standard POVs.

      SPR forced you square onto the battle field. It’s not hard to see why so many soldiers that survived came away with major PTSD. Known as “shellshock” then.

      The DP’s dilberate choices in the handheld and perspective lines played a huge role in accomplishing this, which was ultimately to tell the story of war without glorifying or trivializing it. And to make you become part of the film rather than look upon sterily from outside looking in.

      That being said, I think most footage in most applications should be stabilized. I think a lot of modern filmmakers use shaky handheld footage to introduce tension into a scene that’s not tense enough to call for it. It’s about the art of restraint and American cinema seems to struggle with this concept the most.

      I still believe the best, most used tool in my kit is my tripod.

  2. Rafael A. P. Maduro Avatar
    Rafael A. P. Maduro

    for me, if the camera work doesn’t interfere with the story then is a great job, but if the camera works is noticeable then you fail as a filmmaker, tools are there to ensure that we tell the best possible way our stories, if gimbals are in demand these days doesn’t mean they are overused just that the prices became available to the low-end tier of filmmaking, same as drones for the last few years, is just more in your face because is not a million bucks budget that can only afford them anymore.

  3. Rob Avatar
    Rob

    I’d say that we’ve come full circle. Not that long ago, it was the hand held look that was way over used–to the point where the motion detracted from the story or made you motion sick.

  4. Darkness Avatar
    Darkness

    As with any fad the masses are going to flock to it and overuse it typically in a regurgitated manner, then eventually reject it wholesale, (because everyone’s doing the same thing) then find ways to actually use it as a thought out and creative tool that carries actual function. The same could be said for handheld, or heavy-handed color grades, or shallow depth of field, or cinescope, and on and on.

    If you take a real deep look at the industry, only about 10% of it is original. Part of this is based off our nature to want to fit in within our communities. The other part is not many ppl posses a high degree of creative genius and enginuity. There are a lot of craftsmen and technicians in this field.

    Originators are often scolded and laughed at until society mentally catches up to their genius, or our communities give us validation to embrace change.

    Establishing landscape and top down tracking shots have existed for a very long time in film, but never more than now, as before drones you had to hire a helicopter and pilot and use incrediably expensive mounts. The high cost and complexity of operating this method kept these types of shots in check.

    Now, when you can have this ability to achieve the above for $2,000 or less, of course everyone is going to jump on it. We all want to experiement with tools that were inaccessible to us previously. The unfortnatue side of this is that originality takes a nose dive.

    Motorized gimbals have just hit the scene, relatively speaking, and we’re still in that stage of neat tricks, rather than asking ourselves what does this gadget imply as a storytelling tool.

    I had a recent director request a drone shot which could have been handled better and cheaper by a simple crane shot. I asked her why she wanted a drone shot and she said “Because it’s cool. Everyone’s doing it these days.” I responded by saying that’s not a good enough reason, why are we making this film, to look cool amongst our industry peers, or tell or coherent and compelling story for an audience?

    I would have loved the opportunity to use my Mavic, but it wouldn’t have best served that shot and ultimately the story. She eventually agreed.

  5. pincherio Avatar
    pincherio

    Gimbals aren’t a fad. They’ve been a film making tool for decades. It’s the odd “shaky video” film that is more of a fad, ala “Blair Witch Project.” Content will always be king, so no matter how smooth your shot is becomes irrelevant if you have no story to tell but, given the same subject matter, if I had to choose between watching a smooth video shot and a shaky video shot, I’d choose the smooth video shot 9 times out of 10.