Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Geared Head Skills

Published : 8th September 2003


Howdy all..

I've been thinking of upgrading my skills so to speak and getting my head around using wheels and geared heads, figuring it will come in handy for remote head and maybe for drama..?

I know I can go to a rental house and burrow a head, but there's only so far I'm going to get learning that way, so now I'm thinking I should buy myself a head.

I'm finding it very hard to find out what kind of differences there are between heads though, so I'm hoping I might be able to lean on the experience here.

I have had a play with the Arri heads and they are obviously the nice way to go. I could stretch myself to buy one, but it seems like an extravagant purchase for a tripod..(or so my girlfriend says)

Even a MK1 is $9500US.

Given that I'm not sure if it's a better way to slice bread, am I better off buying one of the cheaper heads that are around such as the Worrall, Moy, Mitchell or Technovision?

They seem to go for a lot less, but all the over here in oz, there are VERY few geared heads around and no-one that seems to know anything but the Arri.

So can anyone summarise the differences, and more importantly what to look out for in a second hand head. Given I'm very likely to be buying from the US, it will be very hard for me to try before I buy.

And if anyone wants to talk me out of getting into what seems to be becoming an arcane skill let me know why....Is it a skill that is useful?

Thanks for your time..

John Brawley
www.viciousmedia.com



John Brawley wrote:

>And if anyone wants to talk me out of getting into what seems to be >becoming an arcane skill let me know why....Is it a skill that is useful..?

Not an arcane skill at all. Nothing beats the smoothness of a geared head for certain moves, and some moves are actually much easier with a geared head than a stick.

As far as buying a head goes, if you never use one it's probably not a good idea to buy the best one because you won't pay it off. I have always liked the Mini-Worall quite a bit. The Mitchell head is nice but can get pretty sloppy if poorly maintained (guess that goes for most). The Technovision is the favourite of quite a few people but will be harder to find and more expensive.

There are a few places in the US, such as Isaia & Co. who service and sell heads and would probably only sell you one in choice condition :

http://www.isaia.com/

If your just buying it for practice, get a cheap one. You'll be practicing movement and wheel rotation, so as long as it moves in the right direction, you'll learn.

You'd be amazed at how much better you'll get just spending a few days with a rental head.

Anders "gear head" Uhl
Cinematographer
ICG, New York


>I know I can go to a rental house and burrow a head…I'm going to get >learning that way, so now I'm thinking I should buy myself a head.

Unless you are wealthy, this purchase will yield a poor return on investment filters and lenses (and cameras) pay off much faster. Try borrowing a head for two consecutive weekends. Use a digital camera, for its viewing screen, or create a "gun sight" of some sort...and simply practice:

Draw a circle, an infinity symbol...or your name in cursive...on a wall and follow the line. After one day you should be at least barely competent. By the end of the first weekend, you should feel reasonably confident.

The second weekend should solidify your skills. When the first professional need arises, get the head a day or two in advance for re-assurance. By that time the skill will be, literally, "a no brainer"…I suggest that in most situations it is easier (though not necessarily better!) to operate with a geared than a fluid head.

My two cents worth.

Jerry Cotts
DP/LA



Jerry Cotts said :

>Draw a circle, an infinity symbol...or your name in cursive...on a wall and >follow the line...

John,

This is good advise, but why not go back a stage in technology...gaffer tape a chinagraph (white) pencil to the head...set it up close enough to the wall, and then sign your name or whatever...

That should keep you out of trouble for an hour or so...for the record, my signature never looked too flash, but I have it on good authority that this method works like a charm. The gentleman who showed me...made it look as easy as pie...trust me, it ain't that easy.

Yours Sincerely,

David Walpole
Cinematographer
Australian CML Moderator
Perth Australia



John Brawley wrote :

>I know I can go to a rental house and burrow a head, but there's only so >far I'm going to get learning that way…

If you're somewhat mechanically inclined, check out:

http://www.rondexter.com/

http://www.rondexter.com/professional/operation/practice_gear_head.htm


He has plans on how to build a homemade practice geared head. It's probably strong enough to hold a small video camera, but it won't hold a Panavision. However, it will be good enough to practice with.

If your only objective is to learn, then this isn't a bad option.

If you still want to buy one, try for a smaller head like the Technovision or the mini Worrall. Remember, at some point, you are going to have to lug the thing, and older Worrall’s and Moy's can weigh upwards of 90 lbs.

I've seen mini Worrall’s being sold for only a little more than an older Worrall.

The Arri heads are very nice, but I would say you should rent one if you need one. Other heads are perfectly acceptable, and you will see very little difference on the screen where it counts.

For a decent price guide check out :

http://www.visualproducts.com

I wouldn't spend more than what they are selling them for, and often if you poke around, you can find them a bit cheaper than Visual Products.

Good luck!

Rachel Dunn

"...you start out wanting to make the greatest movie ever made, and you end up just wanting to live through it."
-Truffaut

http://www.racheldunn.com



David Walpole wrote:

>This is good advise, but why not go back a stage in technology...gaffer >tape a chinagraph (white) pencil to the head...set it up close enough to >the wall, and then sign your name...

Because you'd need a wall that's concave to match the panning radius and tilt radius of the head!

I'd suggest a $5 laser pointer.

The real trick is to write your name on the wall with a marker, and then
trace it with the laser.

Jeff "that's why I shoot handheld, though I've had Worrall heads." Kreines



I think you are doing the right thing wanting to get to know the geared head. I often get asked for operating jobs, especially in commercials, because I have this skill. Also, with the latest technology available a geared head is now very quickly turned into a cheap motion control head that records your moves making it much easier to do multiple passes for VFX purposes.

>There are some things to consider before you buy one, however.You say they are rare in your area, then its worth checking how easy it is to get hold of tripods and the like with Mitchell plates. You don't want to show up with your shiny new geared head only to find that there is nothing but bowl fittings available. Also, if you are used to shooting "one-man-band" fluid head style, remember that both your hands are now occupied with panning and tilting and you should at least have a good AC or 2ndAC who can zoom for you.

This is a skill in itself so is worth thinking about.

As far as training is concerned I veer towards the laser pointer follow the line method as writing your name is following an imaginary object, which you will be seldom asked to do. You will always be following something and have to train your body to follow what the eyes see. The best advice I have had about geared head operating came from the legendary Derek Browne who told me not to think. Don't start counting turns and thinking about what your hands do. See the shot you want to make and let your hands do the work instinctively, this is also true for remote head work.

Finally stay fit and healthy. You can achieve all the shots you want to on a geared head, but you sometimes can land up in awkward physical positions having stepped three times over the boom on a fast turn-around tracking shot and finishing jibbed down on a three minute monologue.

Roger Simonsz
DP/Operator
Paris



Technovision makes WONDERFUL heads! I have one & I love it!

I probably have used just about every style of geared head out there :

Panahead, Super-Panahead, Worrell [full size], Mini-Worrall [owned one], ArriHead-1, ArriHead-2,Moy, Technovision, Mitchell...what else..?

>Anyway, the PanaHead & Arri-Head are also simply wonderful.

Basically, most of the above mentioned heads are pretty similar to each other...the big differences are in the style and layout of the transmission controls and the locking mechanisms. I like to be able to flip the locks on & off during a shot while my fingers are still on the wheels...the Mitchell head is extremely hard in achieving this.

The Arri, Mini-Worral, Pana & Techno head have the advantage in allowing me to do this.

Most of these heads also have built in wedge plates...I really like the Technovision wedge with it's built in stops! I hate having to stick wooden wedges in Panaheads...but I always do. The other big difference is the head's actual drive.

There are also 2 types of geared-head drives : belts versus gears.

Each has it's own pro's & con's.

The belt drives [Pana, Arri, Mini-Worrall [which has a cable drive] and some Technos] allow for very smooth & silent operation, but, the belt must be maintained and tightened periodically. Not a big deal, you can do it yourself, but something to be aware of.

The gear driven heads must be kept clean [repeat: clean!] and the drive must be periodically lubed and checked for tightness. You might also be able to hear the gear drive in very quiet situation...it depends upon the lube of the head.

I like a well maintained gear drive over the belt due to the simple fact that you can tilt a camera way up or down and let go of the wheels! With a gear drive, the camera stays in that position...not sliding back to neutral like on a belt drive.

I know, the simple pleasures in life!

My advice...go to a rental house and play! Slap on a camcorder and practice.

Practice...practice...practice!

Do figure-8's, squares, circles...follow people around the room, pan with cars, etc....No one is born with this talent, you must practice to achieve it!

But once you learn the art of the gear head, you will LOVE IT!!! Nothing is better to operate! You'll then find out why Panavision made the medium sized eyepiece extension!

Remember, you really NEED an eyepiece extension [with levelor] for this toy!

Cheers,
Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
[3 time gear-head owner!]



>Do figure-8's, squares, circles…follow people around the room, pan with >cars, etc....

Good advice.

I teach an operating class on occasion and the technique we use is having a subject (person) make a fist and with their arm fully extended, make a circle - both directions and progressively faster (starting slow), and then a figure 8.

The student keeps (or tries) the crosshairs on the fist. This way you learn to follow action as well as developing dexterity on the wheels, and you learn to adapt to subtle changes and variations.

Then we do the stand up, sit down with a vocal cue from the subject. Then a stand up, walk in a circle around the chair, and sit back down, again at varied speeds and with vocal cues. This teaches frame line composition and trimming, maintaining consistent headroom, etc.

The "don't think" advice is dead on. If your brain freezes remember, pull toward you and the lense comes toward you (left), push away and the lense moves away (right), pull up and the lense comes up, push down and the lense goes down. Don't hold the wheels too tightly, cradle them in your hands gently and always try to keep your body physically relaxed.

Don't force the head around with your body or arms, let the wheels do the work. When starting out, shift gears frequently and get a good feel for them, try to use the slow gears as much as possible, they are smoother and give you more control.

> No one is born with this talent, you must practice to achieve it!

Absolutely. But it's amazing how some take to it so quickly and other will never get it. Temperament and attitude make a world of difference.

Anders "all geared up" Uhl
Cinematographer
ICG, New York



I'm a big fan of the Mini-Worrall gear head.

It's about half the size/weight of most older gear heads so it's a LOT more comfortable to use. Also, if you shoot 16mm or use an older Arri 35 cam, the shorter extension eyepieces work well with the smaller head. The Mini-Worrall still has the same range and features as other geared heads, although I always miss that swing-away tilt wheel on the Arri-head. Maybe I need to go on a diet.

Mitch Gross



Anders Uhl wrote:

>No one is born with this talent, you must practice to achieve it!

I don't agree, some of us took to geared heads like ducks to water some can be 'born ' with it.

I have taught students and a technique I use is to mask both handles with a cardboard box so that students cannot see their hands.

All this stuff about writing your signature sounds like 'old boy's lore ' to me.

I booked out the geared head on the first drama I ever shot. The first shot was a long tracking shot through two rooms at high speed on a 100 ml. I think "diving in the deep end" is an appropriate cliché.

The answer is not to interfere just follow the action you want to follow the way you want to follow it. Thinking about it freezes the brains amazing instinctive ability to perform deeply complicated functions.

it's the same rule that is used in many sports particularly pro tennis.

Mike Southon BSC.



Mike Southon wrote:

>I have taught students and a technique I use is to mask both handles >with a cardboard box so that students cannot see their hands.

I'll have to try this....... when nobody's looking!

I'm very much from the "like a cat to water" as opposed to a duck. I can't even pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time (unless I've 'had a few').

As the concentration levels go off the top of the scale the likelihood that I pan right instead of tilt down, or point the camera at the ceiling when I mean to pan left...My one area of expertise is drawing a staircase instead of a diagonal pan.

Tom Townend,
Cinematographer/London.



Here is how I learned.

It did become second nature for me and, if I can dare to say, I smoke on the wheels. However, this is how I learned.

My daughter, a toddler at the time, and I developed a game. I had borrowed a Worrall from the local rental house and parked it on my coffee table (on a Hi-Hat). I took a paper towel tube and taped it to the head on some foam core stilts. This put the "finder" at a comfortable height. As I sat on the couch I could see my daughter through the tube.


Then the fun would begin. She would run, hide, jump and in general try to avoid my eyes gaze through the paper towel tube. Shortly after I had mastered the wheels in a "Zen" mode. Also my daughter (now twelve) thought it was the coolest thing ever. All the other advice is equally sound, especially the advice regarding return on investment. I own allot of gear and as much as I would love to own one, but, I have not been able to rationalize it.

In closing try to not think or calculate. You will find that it will become second nature.

As an Aside –

>I think I use my O’Connor 50 the most. Much more than my Sachtler.

As such the above may be invalid

Best

Scott (always just a little geared up) Mumford SOC.



Mike Southon blasts me :

I wrote :

>No one is born with this talent…

He responded:

>I don’t agree, some of us took to geared heads like ducks to water…

Yes, that is true…

I had a particularly weird experience once when I was running the 'wheels' on a Hot-Head [CamRemote] system...we had just gotten back from lunch when I grabbed the wheels to start a re-frame…when I suddenly had to look down at the wheels to try to figure out what the heck I was doing!

I have always been one who can operate the wheels with out thinking of it…if I stop to remember which one does what…I completely loose it!

Well, here was a situation where my instincts had seemingly suddenly left me!

I tried again...and again the camera moved in the complete opposite direction.

I took my hands off the wheels and stepped back away from the controls. Suddenly I heard the gaffer & key grip laughing. Apparently, during lunch, they had flipped the little toggle switches that change the control's directions!

Funny guys..

I flipped them back and then went back into my 'mindless' operating...

Question : why the hell function do those friggin switches serve? LOL!

Cheers,
Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.



Here's a guess about that switch. Probably it is possible to have the camera flip upside down when operating - or perhaps the camera could be mounted in such a way that the controls would be reversed, like the camera held from above instead of cradled from underneath. Then, you could flip that switch and you'd be back in the game.

Eric Schmitz and I designed and built the pan tilt for the TITANIC shoot, I'll ask him sometime if he thought about a switch that would reverse. I remember that Mike Cameron wanted the wheels to have resistance (we put disc "brakes" on them) and Jim wanted it looser, so poor Eric was caught in the middle between these guys. Eric actually got to go down on two dives, but later, when they shot some hi def 3D video with an ROV!

Douglas Underdahl, Long Valley Equip
www.longvalleyequip.com
www.filmschoolconfidential.com



>Question: why the hell function do those friggin switches serve? LOL!

Jeff

I used to tech Cam Remotes. Those switches are there so we can screw with the operators! Actually, the system controls are the same for a wide variety of remote units. The Cam Remote and it's brethren can be used with a joystick controller and some people like to "fly the controls" like an aircraft joystick, others don't. The biggest complaints I used to field were about the wheels being at 45 degrees and not at the standard 90 degree gear head configuration. (Unless you ordered the additional wheel unit)

The same basic control "guts" work with the remotes, mini motes, and even the Vector-vision Lear systems. I used to spend long days, waiting for my shot to come up, with the witness camera pointing forward and practicing with the wheels.

Kent Hughes
DP SoCal



I bought a used Mini-Worrall, and I love it. It's an excellent way for someone to own a head without spending a fortune - so if you do decide that buying your own head is what you want to do, it's a great option.

One thing to look out for when buying one used is the condition of the belt. The pan belt on mine was worn in one spot, which of course results in uneven movement.

Fortunately some CML members were able to direct me to a source for a replacement belt, and the head is now working great. So it's not an insurmountable problem, but definitely something to be aware of!

George Hupka
Director/DP, Downstream Pictures
Saskatoon, Canada