Bang for Buck, a winner

We bought our PoleCam starter pack on a zero percent finance deal in April 2012. Both ourselves and our accountant love zero percent, ‘free money? Grab that whenever you can!

A new acquisition outside the normal camera paraphernalia always creates a debate in our office. The Polecam was no exception and if I’m honest I was probably the most resistant to it. Needless to say the debate was more heated than normal. I don’t always like to admit it but I am overly pragmatic at times, however as any good company would admit, differences only serve to make you stronger. Having been won over, ( meaning I lost the argument ), we ultimately bought it to service the ill fated, ITV’s Lets Get Gold, an ‘X-factor’ for sporting teams. We needed to find a way of filming things like Parkour and Acrobatics that was ‘new’ and different and ultimately the Polecam gave us a brilliant tool.

One of the real selling points from a production point of view is the sheer ‘bang for buck’ screen value you can achieve. In our case we coupled it early with the Canon C300 which made us one of the first to do so. That means a minimal up-spend for a days shooting if you’re shooting with a C300 kit, all it adds is a 1770 pelican case and some weights to the van.

With that in mind when we were approached to shoot and help create the visual signature in series one of George Clarkes Amazing Spaces there was obvious and immediate value. Now, I’m a little older and generally a little wiser but, ( and I am making excuses here when I say 2012 was a blitzkrieg year for Base Films ), normally I test my kit before I set out with it on a job. In my first ever shoot with the Polecam ( on Amazing Spaces ) I didn’t get the opportunity. The result was one of those horrible shooting days where nothing worked properly, nothing at all and having done the whole, ‘you won’t believe how cool this toy is’, routine to the client I was left trying to look calm while effectively wrestling with a 15ft nightmare. As it was I later found out that one of our actuators had failed due to a faulty batch, later replaced on-site at Polecams HQ swiftly and FOC.

I’ll be straight upfront here as I need to be fair, I am the biggest convert to the Polecam and I genuinely think it brings a quantum leap in production value when its utilized properly. We’ve had some absolute ‘wow’ shots with it and I’m yet to get bored of getting it out of the box, however you cannot get it out and shoot without knowing what you’re doing. I found that out the hard way.

With what can only be described as abject failure on my first outing I couldn’t have had a more different experience on my second. I took my time setting up, ensured everything was levelled at every point in the process, had all the balances where they should have been, and crucially had fully functioning actuators.

Like any piece of kit it needs a bit of practice and understanding to know how and where to make all the appropriate tweaks with regards to balance and location. Its not rocket science but you do need to plan things out. Having ( properly ), setup to shoot a circus acrobatic team doing ring work, the Polecam was the most delicate perfectly weighted and balanced thing imaginable. I took to it very easily achieving some lovely results.

The great thing about the starter pack which comprises of three lengths of carbon at 3ft each is that the back end, the counterbalance, is relatively light, swinging over about 25kilos on a stripped bare C300. The joy of that is that once you’ve got your confidence you can fly the camera at some fearsome speeds nailing some genuinely dramatic shots.

Needless to say it was at about this point when I remember calling over the director not to worry, ‘we can shoot everything off the Polecam’, and in fairness we could have. Retrospectively I cannot imagine any other way to have filmed the acrobats. Where we got the camera and how the shots turned out was simply on another level.

At the risk of boring you all to death I don’t want to go into too much detail but it is surprisingly quick and painless, typically taking 15 minutes to go from the box to being ready to shoot. We marry ours with a C300 which resulted in a lot of disbelief from operators last year who’d been point blank refusing to accept it. I think we’d had three series on the PoleCam under our belt before people started to believe us. We’ve also added an HDMI cable to our loom so operating a 5d becomes ‘monitorable’. The obvious benefit here is that if you are already shooting on the C300 and you have a decent tripod and monitor, you already have the majority of the necessary kit.

If you were going out with it as a standalone piece you’d have the PoleCam itself, a tripod, monitor, batteries and camera, ( 5 cases not including weights ).

Confidence is a word I’d use a lot with regards to operating the PoleCam. I personally find being more assertive with your moves yields better results but that confidence can only be derived from nailing the setup, and that setup has to be methodical unless you want to either catapult your camera like a slingshot or fly it straight into the floor.

PoleCam also offer up a wire extension kit allowing you to get out to 8m. Initially it’s a surprise on two levels to run out at that reach. Visually it becomes more imposing, more grown-up and operationally it’s a lot more hefty, adding a lot of weight to the counterbalance. That means you have to consider your movements more carefully. Trying to fly it as you do at the shorter 6m can result in throwing you off your feet as you try and arrest the swing of 50 odd kilos at speed. What can I say, I learn all my lessons the hard way!

Its a highly useful studio tool and we’ve used it to great effect shooting links for James Mays ManLab. James’ Lab is full of workbenches, tools and hanging inventions so it very much takes on a Steadicam feel. It’s not the only time we’ve used it in studio but it really does shine especially when rigged onto a rolling spider. Being as lightweight as it is, re-sets become fast and simple.

We’ve also been lucky enough not to get done by wind over the time we’ve had it. I was recently on top of a three story building filming the climactic ending of a new Diversity series, ( think StreetCrew but grander ). Again it proved its worth as I had to clamber up several ladders and a 12ft high riser on top of the building. Getting up there was awkward to say the least but the speed that we did it under time pressure would have been impossible with a jib. While rigging up, clipped in at that height with not a lot between me and the freshly paved Stockton town square below I was more than a little grateful it wasn’t windy.

In fact portability and versatility are the standout points of the PoleCam. Earlier this year in Mayrhofen at SnowBombing I had to get up early and drag it 2000m up a mountain in chairlifts before a facing 1000 yard march through snow to get what could only be described as an epic piece to camera. It was an opener to an MTV special and it was absolutely worth the march. You know you’ve got something special when you’re ‘wowing’ the shot before the client. If any of you have ski’d Mayrhofen you’ll know the view I mean,

The point is like a lot of the kit we acquire, the PoleCam opens up a massive range of creative options at a great price point that’s portable, versatile and well; fun actually. It is one of those bits of kit that I enjoy working with as its never let us down.

So far our only significant drawback has been pulling focus and zooming, ( although I’ve never been a fan of zooming on a jib shot so I don’t actually consider that a penalty ). While I’m looking forward to finding the time to testing the new focus unit from Hocus Focus, it really hasn’t been a big deal and we haven’t been in a rush to add that feature but at minimum it will be a welcome addition when shooting Presenters links.

There’s always a delicate balance for me when shooting as I tend to switch from 5D’s to C300′s to minicams to lighting to other A-cams. Kit has to be useful and simple enough to operate quickly without getting fussy. Sure if you’re operating a full length PoleCam and that’s your only role for the day then a few minutes adding additional tools makes total sense but if you’re doing a couple of shots then cracking on with the next task, avoiding over-complications is wiser than a wise thing with a degree in wisdom from the town of wise arse.

That said after 18months with our PoleCam I have to say I’m still surprised at how simple it goes together so I’ll update you on just how complicated the additions become as we test them.

Having visited the Polecam HQ it looks like a bright future for the guys there. One of my minor bugbears is the loss of signal you occasionally experience if you use the short BNC hop from the cradle to the camera. It’s purely a monitoring issue, ( definitely don’t record that signal ), but Stephan looks like he’s got an upgrade in the works which will solve that. I’m also trying to convince him to create a heavier duty version using three carbon lengths in a triangular shape so with the trend for small heavy cameras such as the Sony F5/55 or Red we won’t get left behind with the C300 down the line.

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