Taylor Turchick uses the ProAm Autopilot to shoot Tony Antoonelli opening the hood of a 1932 Ford Street Rod. PS: The car is for sale!
DSLR stabilizers have made great strides recently, and the Autopilot from ProAm USA is no exception. Smaller stabilizers such as the Autopilot create smooth flowing images just as stunning as their bigger brothers, often with a much shorter learning curve.
All stabilizers are alike in that the camera must be perfectly balanced or your images will roll and be anything but stabilized. The Autopilot is one of the few that comes already assembled and will support a dSLR or other small camera up to six pounds. The design consists of a camera mounting plate on top; an adjustable shaft with up to eight four-ounce weights on the bottom; and a handle. By grasping the handle with one hand, the operator can gently “steer” by using the other hand to guide and stabilize the shot.
Reading the manual or watching one of the helpful tutorial videos, the first step in balancing is determining the weight of your camera and adding the correct number of counterweights. The manual offers a handy chart that lists various ranges of camera weights with the corresponding number of counterweights needed. Three examples of light, medium and heavier dSLRs are pictured to aid in making your selection.
The next step is mounting your camera on the camera plate using the four side screws to access the camera mounting screw. Once the camera is attached and centered, the balancing act begins.
The forward/backward plane adjustment keeps the camera level front to back so it is not nose or back heavy. Balancing the right and left plane adjusts the camera from tipping to the left or right. Four additional screws control this adjustment.
Fine-tuning the balance takes some time because most of the necessary adjustments are minute. To accomplish this, the length of the handle can be extended or contracted. The last adjustment is with the weights themselves. Simply move them around until your Autopilot is perfectly balanced.
This is a somewhat simplified description of balancing the camera. You may have to go back and forth a bit until you have achieved the perfect balance, but it takes less time than you would think.
My first shoot with ProAm USA’s Autopilot was using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens without the lens hood. The combo weighed in at exactly four pounds. According to the balancing chart, two weights were needed on each side for a camera weighing between 3 and 4.5 pounds.
Watching the very helpful tutorial video and pausing it at the critical moments, I had the camera roughly balanced in ten minutes. With the same amount of time needed to fine-tune the balance, I was ready.
Having the zoom lens set at 24mm or 70mm really changed the balance of the rig. I don’t know why anyone would want to use the Autopilot on 70mm, as the longer the lens gets, the less stabilized the rig becomes. The tutorials accurately suggest using the widest lens available and to stabilize the resulting shots in post for the best possible scenario.
Using the Autopilot myself, I did a beauty video of a pristine 1961 Chevrolet Impala by walking around the car, shooting under the hood, and basically covering every square inch of the car with the stabilizer. For a first-time user of the set-up, the shots looked very good. I was no stabilizer expert and Hollywood would not be calling soon, but the shots looked very good.
I spent twenty minutes doing a two-minute walk around of the car. After that time, I had no feeling in my forearm. If someone wanted to shake my hand, it would have fallen off. I had used muscles I had never even talked to before!
The video I shot with the Autopilot (and a small jib) is currently on YouTube. If you care to see it, the link is http://youtu.be/nwSud62ugkc.
Having one of my students operate the Autopilot on my next shoot, we spent two hours following two actors walking and talking as they went up and down stairs and through winding hallways―the perfect test for a stabilizer. The whole set-up has a very small footprint and he had no trouble creating extremely fluid shots, despite having zero training with the Autopilot. Being more than 30 years my junior, I attributed his stamina to his youth and ability to bench press a small cow.
MORE INFO Product: ProAm USA Autopilot
LIST PRICE: $189.99
My third experience with the Autopilot also involved another vintage car―a 1932 street rod. A student of mine is a frequent stabilizer user, and he mastered the Autopilot on his first shot. Knowing how to handle other stabilizers is a knack that is learned through experience. That knowledge easily transfers to the Autopilot and the shots looked beautiful.
Luckily, on longer shoots, we could access both the battery and CF card slots on the Canon 5D while keeping the camera mounted. Taking the camera off the stabilizer, although easy, does upset the balance slightly. Being able to change batteries and recording media was helpful without worrying about balance.
With four other stabilizing systems housed in our equipment cage, I’m anxious to see how the Autopilot holds up to constant student use. On the positive side, no other system sets up and balances easier, and we’ll make marks on the rig alerting students to the exact camera placement and balance. That will keep the learning curve brief. This is also the least expensive stabilizer I have seen. With a lifetime warranty against defects, I am hoping the unit will be up to the task.
This is an inexpensive option for achieving smooth stabilized shots with any camera weighing six pounds or less.