The quest for stable footage, it’s like the one for the holy grail isn’t it? On and on it goes probably without end. Whether you’re in TV, film or advertising world-wide or corporate video production in Hampshire. There are a few tried and tested industry staple stable solutions that we all use, and in this blog I am going to focus on the slider – how do you best use it, and what are a few tricks to get the most out of it and bring your footage to a new level?
As I was scrambling my way vaguely upwards in the world of TV we had two types of footage – tripod and handheld / shoulder mounted. Steady and shaky. The tripod was the go to solution, if you can get it off the tripod get it off the tripod. But you’re ultimately quite limited in movement, and God forbid you actually want to move position with it. In the last decade or so we’ve seen stabilisation grip, technology and techniques gather all kinds of new powers and momentum. So, let’s be clear the slider is one of a few go to scenarios, but it’s such a staple and actually deceptively tricky to get right I had to put pen to paper…
The quest for stable footage might take you via some of these alternatives:
- Gimbals – there’s your obvious one. Takes a bit of setting up, is more pricey and batteries can run out. But is super stable and you can get a lot of great shots and angles quickly.
- Handheld. You can get even more great angles even more quickly! With no set up and no batteries. But you can’t move the camera far, it’ll always have the most wobble, and so it’ll probably have to be in slow motion. Oh, and it takes a great deal of practice and technique to get it looking good. This one is a blog in itself. But the weapons in your armoury here are image stabilisation on the lens, camera IBIS (in-body image stabilisation), and grip top support the camera itself.
- Shoulder mounted. Now I have gone down this route, and it’s pretty good for a long, fairly continuous documentary style shoot. It’s mobile, stable and provides masses of endurance. And thus the reason why it is the default setup for many a TV rig. Your shoulder can be a very stable point on which to anchor the camera, and it’s a great height for interviews and documenting people talking to people. But people doing stuff, and objects – not so much. As soon as you have to move down you either tilt down which looks pretty rubbish, or off the shoulder the camera comes.
- Track and dolly. Can we go there? Not very often it has to be noted, probably best reserved for high end TV and film. I’ve been there and it is a lot of fun, but with incredibly limited use in my field of corporate video production. Well it did have a use, and then along came a slider…
- The slider. I am excited just writing ‘the slider’. Because it can be so good, effective, professional looking and slick. And not break the bank. But I have gone through many trials and permutations to get it anything like right. It’s relatively quick to set up, the most stable movement you’re going to get – so you can achieve macro moves with it, so stable it’ll never draw attention to itself in the edit, and uses no batteries. Or might not. More on that later. The buts are it’s not as nimble as a gimbal, or handheld (by a mile), and you’re movement options are somewhat limited, or should I say it’s applications are fairly focused.
OK – so what are these ‘fairly focused applications’? When’s a slider good and not so good?
The slider is really a mini version of the track and dolly of the film industry, with us since the dawn of time/film/cameras.
We can generally thank Alfred Hitchcock for this invention. It was first used in his 1927 film “The Lodger: A Story of London Life”, but then along came sound and cameras were wheeled off into sound proof rooms, only for the dolly to re-emerge with a vengeance, again courtesy of Hitchcock in “Vertigo” in 1958. And if it’s good enough for Hollywood and Hitchcock.
The slider is great for slow and highly controlled movement, for b-roll – objects inside and outside, wide establishers outside, time-lapses, entry into and wides of rooms, and for interviews. You can set up a motorised slider for an interview that will track back and forth, and even slowly pan whilst staying focused on your subject. Horror films – love a dolly. Sports – see the dolly tracks around running tracks, perfect use of it.
Documentaries – pretty useless and inappropriate as too time consuming and cumbersome. And once you have real people randomly moving around anywhere, then maybe leave it alone.
So the first slider I ever bought was unsurprising not the one I use today! It was 2 metres long, for which I needed two stands – one on either end. I thought if I’m going to slide, I’m sliding as long as I can. Go BIG:
Which took about 10 hours instead of 2, that’s why it’s moving back and forth.
But the longer slider is a specific tool alright. I recently edited a wonderful show on impressive UK homes for an American TV network, and everything was done on a 1 metre motorised slider. They also shot nothing wider than about 24mm, which didn’t do the room justice and the network (rightly) went a bit bananas about, but the short slider thing was a revelation.
In most situations 1m is enough to enable a move round a revealing object (wall, door, etc) or show a bit of foreground movement. And the 1m thing is absolutely key to a couple of things: manoeuvrability, portability, stability. Approximately a couple. A short slider means that a sturdy tripod is capable of keeping it steady without bowing or wobbling at either end of the slide. Using a tripod instead of two stands means you can literally up sticks and move around far, far more easily. Plus a tripod means angling the slider itself is so much easier.
Make sure your equipment is sturdy. Sturdy tripod, sturdy slider. Stable shot. But wrapped up in that, hand in hand, must be to make sure it is still portable. It could be made of cast iron, but after a shot or two you’re going to run into problems. So if you can afford it, carbon fibre rails have proved the best bet. At that length it’s all you need, or for a bit longer, a bit more money and a lot more rigidity you could go for stainless steel. At the expense of weight, it’s over double. I have ended up spending good money on well established brands, and what I finally have is a stable, reliable slider rig. I use a very good Sachtler tripod (but they don’t come cheap), and a 24″ Rhino slider.
You can actually even ‘oil’ or grease the carbon rails with silicon lubricant, such as the Pro-Power sold by Hague. Is it essential? No. Does it help? Enough.
Then there’s the flywheel from Rhino. It’s essentially a heavy wheel to add inertia to your slide. To cut out those dreaded micro jitters. Does it work? Yes it does. And is it worth it? I believe it is. If you’re investing in the Rhino, just lump that little thing on too. On the caveat that you’re happy with hand powered slides, i.e. not motorised. And more on that later…
How do you set it up?
The idea is of course to get a really solid setup going on so there’s no wobble as you move. And there are a few tips to help achieve this:
- Firstly, you need a screw-mount fluid tripod head. Screw that onto the slider carriage, and mount the camera on that to adjust and position the camera angle. For my money a bigger head will get you greater stability as the carriage moves, whilst a smaller light-weight head might cause less flex on the slider it’ll allow more bounce especially if you’re using any kind of heavy lens or camera. A solid slider can easily take the bigger head.
- Attach the slider to your tripod via a mounting plate. The larger and studier the better, I use the standard Manfrotto mounts. But place your tripod plate along the same axis as the slider, not at 90 degrees. So it looks sideways compared to a normal camera/tripod mount. That way the plate is spread along the main tilting force and angles of the slider, and has the best way of countering it.
- For a longer slider, use stands at either end, or even two tripods.
- Anchor stands and tripods with sand bags or weights.
- Use a mirrorless camera or DSLR, or even the Sony FX6 or FX9 if you’re lucky enough. They’re smaller and lighter and feel less top heavy to me, which for me is part of the puzzle.
Image stabilisation with a slider
Image stabilisation is great, in fact essential – for handheld footage. You can find it either on the lens, labelled as IS for Canon or OS for Sony and Sigma, or in the camera body, known as IBIS in the Sony. Now Sony’s digital IBIS is hands down fantastic, so good at adjusting for movement that it will in fact adjust for your slider movement too if you’re not careful. So turn it off!! Yes be very aware – turn off your in body stabilisation. Lens stabilisation I have found not to be such an issue, and I leave that on to help remove micro jitters.
How do you operate the slider?
We’ve talked about the weight and the setup, but what’s the best technique to push smoothly?
- You can push the carriage with just one or two fingers, push via the fluid head handle, or you can hold the whole camera and lens if you feel it helps stabilise it. Just don’t grip any of it too tightly, don’t change your grip during the slide and don’t push down and along, just push along.
- Walking along with the slider is tricky to get that motion even. So if your slider is short enough, just stand in the middle. Try not to get the movement from your arms, rather from your legs. Your arms end up relatively still, while either your legs sway on the spot, or your whole body pivots. At the most take one well judged, controlled step. Try not to take actual steps, and only use your arms to finish off the movement.
- Watch the start and ends. Here’s where the biggest judder occurs. Now they may never use these parts of the shot in the edit, but take extra care to start and stop smoothly.
What makes a good slider shot?
What are the best tips and ideas for its actual use?
Put an object in the foreground, it can be out of focus, it just needs to be there to show the slider movement. For example, the final shot on a film I did for Brighton Marina many years ago used a time-lapse-slider, but my error was not putting anything in the foreground. And you’d never know it was a slider. Just a nice sunset time-lapse.
So that’s how not to do it.
Reveal your subject
Try revealing round an object, such as a wall or door
Focus pull whilst tracking. If you’ve got the skills – and this means practice it first! A lot. Focus pull from say the wall to the subject, or from foreground to background.
The Dolly Zoom
Push in instead of side-to-side (tracking dolly shot). For this you’ll need to either:
- Set it at a low angle pointing up to frame out the rails. Definitely needs foreground or side elements to the frame to show movement.
- Use a shallow depth of field – remaining at a constant focus will reveal your subject as dolly focus pull.
- Tilt the slider itself down at an angle and tilt the camera head up. So you slide in and down from above the subject.
Try a tighter focal length for a different effect. Though the more standard wide focal length will you get an easier display of movement, especially parallax movement.
Rotate your subject whilst moving slider, using a motorised turntable or lazy Susan. I use the SY0025 turntable from Syrp
Use the slider as a jib. Mount the camera and head at the end of the slider. For this movement you do not actually do any sliding, but you use it as an arm and rotate the whole camera and slider using the tripod, effectively orbiting a subject like a jib.
Change the point of view
Point the camera head directly up and slide along, so viewing the subject from underneath.
Hang the slider upside down between blocks, or mount upside on stands at either end, so the camera can move along only just above the ground.
Or mount the whole unit very high up and point the camera straight down.
Add handheld pan or tilt motion
Angle the slider on a tilt, and move the tripod head as you push the camera in, either as a tilt or a pan and tilt movement.
So whilst you can pan it yourself, it is admittedly tricky to pull off very well, and impossible of course on a timelapse. So there are a couple of solutions here:
Mechanical panning in real time
So for me, adding a pan into the slider movement, or at least into some of them, is pretty essential these days. The straight push in can stand up on its own, even tracking side to side has its place. But probably a good fifteen years after the slider started to sweep the planet, most of our shots on it need something in addition to that one slider move, it’s often no longer enough. It could just be the focus pull, but adding that pan can be really effective:
Which is actually all pan, no slide. In this film there are a couple of slide and pan time-lapses:
There does exist a self panning slider, courtesy of our friends at Hague. The Camslide has a third rail which turns the carriage mount attachment to the tripod head and camera as the slider carriage moves. This third rail can be set at an angle, and the greater the angle the greater the degree of pan movement. Now it’s not expensive, in fact very reasonably priced, so we can’t be too picky here.
But…I watched a review of the unit before I bought it, and was assured that there was no judder or jitter resulting from this mechanical panning process. Well, from my perspective there is. I have not been able to get a super smooth pan as I slide along. What a shame, but it might still be the best way to get a reasonably quick slide and pan shot.
The build quality is great for the price, and it’s a credit to them, but the solidity and rigidity of the bigger investment alternatives just is not and I suppose can not be there.
Motorised Sliders and Time-lapses
Here’s the ultimate stable slide tool – the motor. Plus you can build on it and get it to pan, and or tilt at the same time. Cons are that it costs quite a lot to do so! It adds an element of setup to a job.
The real time motorised slider speed isn’t that quick, or my Syrp Genie days it maxes out at about 25 seconds for 1 metre on their website. In practice I’ve found it can actually go at around 15 seconds over a metre. Whilst the Rhino high speed motor tells me it get you up to about 8 seconds over that same distance. So the Rhino wins the race at about twice the speed.
Back to that original slider I bought (DigiSlider). It was specifically for timelapse, so I could connect it to an intervalometer, and it could creep along with the best of them. But woe betide ye who might want to achieve a manual slide. You could not do so without crazy amounts of friction and therefore judder. So beware, do you want a manual slider or a timelapse slider? Or at least make sure it is not time-lapse specific.
But for a timelapse motors are a must. And in the case of Syrp I wanted something which I could interface with a day to night intervalometer (the Timelapse+ in my case).
Mechanisms of timelapse sliders
I went with the Syrp setup, and it serves me really well. I have a Rhino slider and the Syrp motors, which use ropes to pull the carriage along. The native Rhino motors use a teeth on a third ‘rail’ or belt which is neater and easier to set up. More pros for the Rhino is you can get your pan and tilt in one unit, the Rhino Arc 2, so you don’t even need the fluid head. And in respect of all that the Syrp gear gets quite high and slightly unwieldy, whist the Rhino just squashes it all down to that one unit so it’s that much more efficient – easy to carry and to set up.
Brands of motorised sliders
So why did I go with the Syrp? Just price, it’s that much more affordable.
At the time of writing:
Arc 2: £1200 ($1400)
High Speed Slider Motor v2 £280 ($250)
High Torque Slider Motor £330 ($300)
Genie One £360 ($400)
Genie Mini 2 £240 ($300)
Answers on a postcard why they’re cheaper in the USA, painful reading from this end. But as you can see you can get the same results for £600 vs around £1800. OK, not quite the same, as the Rhino gives you the tilt option. And is twice as fast. FYI Syrp Lab is a Kiwi company that was bought by Manfrotto parent company Vitec in 2019. Rhino are based in the US and are the big boys of slider stabilisation. But thus far the Syrp motors do what they need to for me. It takes a bit of setup and looks a bit unwieldy, but it gets the job done reliably.
One word of warning – I’ve found that the Syrp units turn on during charging and remain on after you unplug, whilst there is no auto time-off. Point being, unless you remember to turn off each unit after charging it’ll probably run down by the time you try and shoot with it. I’ve been there! Its wi-fi stays on forever searching for a phone or tablet to connect to. At present this is the latest firmware, and I intend to contact them for a solution and will update this point.
Go small, go sturdy. Don’t overload with big cameras or long lenses. Spend the money on a good brand and model, and tripod and fluid head.
Turn off in body stabilisation.
If you can motorise it, and you’ll get great timelapses. And even real-time shots if you spend the big bucks on Rhino gear.
Yes the slider does still have its place alongside gimbals, it’s no longer an essential but it will bring another dimension to your footage. But it’s developed over the years and the simple slide is rarely enough alone – so pull focus, pan or tilt – something else generally needs to be happening.
But in conclusion sliders are good. They are fun. Just be aware of what you are buying, and that there’s a good deal of knowledge and technique to actually get good quality footage. They are not quite as simple as they appear!
If you have any questions or feedback, or if there’s anything you feel I have missed or would be useful to know do let me know.
Or if you simply want a quote for video production, in Hampshire, Dorset or beyond, feel free to get in touch.