By Brady Betzel
In the last five years, content creation and distribution has exploded. Every person with a smartphone has the ability to create outstanding content. Think about it… everyone with an iPhone has a fully capable 1080p video camera in his or her pocket at all times. So once the explosion of random, and frankly terrible content settled (or is currently settling), viewers were looking for quality not just quantity.
YouTube has been instrumental in content distribution; the amount of content is truly amazing if you allow yourself to get lost down the YouTube rabbit hole. So the question becomes: How do I set myself apart from the other million YouTube content creators? If you’re a kid who wants to make skateboard videos, how do you go beyond the now standard “crazy” GoPro angle? Or how do you save time in post by not having to stabilize every piece of footage you film? Well, it comes down to equipment, and in the skateboard video maker’s case, the ability to film fluidly on the cheap. As a content creator you may want to achieve a fluid cinema style without having to render Adobe After Effect’s Warp Stabilizer or FCPX’s stabilization.
Luckily for you, ProAm USA has built the Autopilot Stabilizer.
The Autopilot Stabilizer is essentially a Steadicam (the name Steadicam is owned by Tiffen, so think of the word Steadicam much like how Kleenex is used to describe a tissue). The Autopilot Stabilizer allows you to mount almost any type of camera up to 8lbs. Basically, you can mount anything from a GoPro to a prosumer camera, like I did with my Canon T2i DSLR. To get started I watched the 12-minute balancing video, and paused as needed. It instructs you on how to properly align your camera and distribute the weight.
For my test I used my Canon T2i DSLR, the standard 18-55mm kit lens and a Rode VideoMic Go (found at http://www.rodemic.com/microphones/videomicgo, which I will be reviewing in the future). The DSLR, lens and VideoMic Go weighed in at around 3lbs. So like the instructional video showed, I used only one weight plate at the bottom of the Autopilot Stabilizer to complete my balancing. You may be wondering why I didn’t mention how I put the Autopilot together; well it is shipped assembled so there was no tough building of equipment before balancing. So within 15 to 20 minutes I had my stabilizer more or less balanced, and it really was pretty easy.
The mounting plate on the top of the Autopilot has dozens of mounting holes for all sorts of cameras using ¼-inch or 3/8-inch mounts. In addition, there are thumbscrews to easily adjust the mounting plate forward and backward as well as side-to-side. While most stabilizers or Steadicams I’ve played with have thumbscrews, they aren’t always easy to use. The Autopilots are easy to use (and more importantly don’t hurt). ProAm USA has put together a very tough-yet-easy to adjust stabilizer. It is machined with aluminum and can stand up to some pretty heavy abuse — very important for someone like me who doesn’t always put his equipment in a Pelican case between setups.
Moving down the stabilizer, the handle is wrapped in an exercise machine type of foam, and while it does have a decent enough grip I feel like after dozens of hours of use I would have to re-wrap it. It might be nice to have some R&D on a better handle grip, but it’s not a deal breaker (this type of grip is common to most stabilizers so it’s not just the Autopilot Stabilizer with this issue). One little bonus tucked under the handgrip is its ability to be mounted either to a harness to distribute the stabilizer’s carrying weight or while balancing to a light stand.
If you have an extra light stand around, definitely use it to help balance and save your wrists. On your way past the three-axis bearing gimbal you will find the weight plates as well as the telescoping extension to help with the load balancing. Finally, underneath the weight plates are some little rubber “spikes” that allow you to place the stabilizer on a tabletop without worrying about it scratching, a very welcome bonus.
As I mentioned earlier, the Autopilot Stabilizer comes assembled so all you have to do is watch the quick 12-minute set-up video and you will be ready to run. In the past I’ve tried other stabilizers and it’s sometimes hard to get proper balance fast and without getting frustrated. ProAm USA seems to have dialed in the Autopilot because I was balanced fast and I didn’t need any extra tools! I placed my T2i toward the center, adjusted it side-to-side, forward and backward, removed some of the weight plates because my camera was pretty light, and even angled the weight plates easily to help with counterbalance. I picked up the stabilizer, double checked my thumbscrews, as I didn’t want my T2i to fly off into the avocado orchard, and told my son Atticus to RUN!!!!
Telling my son to run was probably not the best thing to do without stretching but I was excited and so was he. A tip to anyone trying out a Steadicam or stabilizer for the first time is to visualize how you will move and where you will move while keeping your center of gravity low. While a stabilizer is amazing, the more the camera operator anticipates movement and lowers their center of gravity the better your shots will be.
To use the stabilizer properly you must also have a light touch to the center pole in order to properly frame your shot as you are moving, not an easy task to properly execute without practice. I am by no means an expert or would even consider myself intermediate (I tested it using flip flops), so for an in-depth discussion of stabilizer techniques and info check out www.thesteadicamforum.com where you can search for tips on Steadicam-like aesthetics and even get some newbie advice. As I said in my past GoPro TiffenTweets Steadicam Curve review, it takes a long time for people to get comfortable with a stabilizer. It’s a true art form and craft that takes dozens of years to get your head around (that’s why really good and experienced stabilizer operators get paid buckets of money). With enough practice you will be able to create some magical sweeping shots with the ProAm USA Autopilot Stabilizer for $189.99.
After running around with my son for about 30 minutes I quickly realized that I was way out of shape from sitting at my edit bay all day during the work week and need to start getting in some more exercise. That also brought up a concern for how the Autopilot Stabilizer (and many other similar Steadicam-like products) operates by putting a strain on the wrist. It isn’t easy to run around holding the stabilizer for a long period of time, and it can in fact really get painful if you don’t do wrist exercises. So take care of yourself, stretch and move a little before attempting. One solution to wrist fatigue is to look into another product: the Glidecam Body Pod. It helps to distribute the weight from the stabilizer around your body using a harness, unfortunately it’s just $10 shy of the total cost of the Autopilot, but it may be worth a look.
For visual reference I’ve made a video on my YouTube channel that pretty clearly shows the difference between using and not using a stabilizer when filming running shots. I tried to be as novice as possible so that you can see how much or how little work you would need to put into training yourself to run a stabilizer properly. I would say that in under five hours of total practice you would start to see some decent results, not a bad return on your investment considering how much better your shots will look.
In the end, if you are interested in creating your own independent masterpiece with a limited budget you will definitely want to invest in the ProAm USA Autopilot Camera Stabilizer, the results speak for themselves. With an awesome lifetime warranty and a history of making great products, the ProAm USA Autopilot Stabilizer is a great purchase whether you are using a GoPro Hero 3+, a DSLR or even a Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera — it will pay for itself in no time with ultra-smooth shots that won’t need hours of stabilizing in post.
Brady Betzel is an editor at Bunim Murray Productions, a reality television production company. He is one of the editors on Bad Girls Club. His typical tools at work are Avid Symphony, Adobe After Effects CC and Adobe Photoshop CC. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @allbetzroff.