Justifying the purchase of a Varavon camera slider
It’s all too easy to get dragged into buying shiny new toys in this game. The impulse to purchase is often overwhelming so you have to keep your wits about you in order to differentiate between your ‘needs’ and your ‘wants’. But, in a creative industry such as this, there’s often a very wide grey area between wanting something and needing it.
I’ve built up a pretty comprehensive DSLR shooting kit over the past year or so. Whilst there’s a few things in there that are definitely ‘wants’ rather than ‘needs’, so far I’ve been pretty much self-contained on every filming commission I’ve come up against. However, there’s been one “grey area” item that’s been missing from my set-up until now – and that’s a camera slider.
I know I’m pretty late to the party on this but on the odd occasion where I believed I really had to have a slider on a shoot I’ve been able to beg, steal or borrow one. Over the last year I’ve had a play with a few different makes and models and been left both hot and cold by the experience. I’m sure some of my less positive experiences with sliders have been due to my inexperience with that particular system but there are definitely good and bad examples out there.
Another thing that I’ve learnt is that sliding, as with every other camera technique, becomes easier the more you do it. I guess I’m really leading up to an attempt to justify my purchase but, if I was going to perfect this technique, I really did “need” to add a slider to my regular kit.
The inspiration to slide
We are all exposed to a constant stream of inspirational examples of video and film production. For a long time now the showcase for works has no longer been limited to just TV and cinema. Video is everywhere – and there are a lot of very talented people creating it. Great techniques and creativity therefore spread quickly and widely around this creative community. Platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube not only help spread these creations around the community but, more importantly, they provide the facility for admirers to pose questions to producers and for them to share how they achieved their masterpiece.
The use of sliders to change the camera’s perspective mid shot is just one of the techniques which have inspired me. Sliders can be used to move the camera closer to the subject too, with or without tracking focus, but the draw for me is the slider’s ability to add temporal parallax to my images. There are some magnificent examples out there and the reason we all love them is that this technique gives us another dimension and depth to our images.
With two eyes set apart we perceive the world around us in 3D. Known as ‘Spatial Parallax’ – this enables us to judge where we are within our surroundings. ‘Temporal Parallax’ enables us to give perspective information to the viewer using the two-dimensional image created by a camera. Instead our two eyes (or two lenses of a 3D camera), temporal parallax is added by a slider by moving the camera along a perpendicular path to the subject and giving the viewer a differing point of view within the same shot.
Adding foreground and background information within the shot adds even more depth information to the viewer. Imagine you are on a train looking out of the window. Anything near the train whizzes past your view whilst items in the distance appear to move by slowly. Your brain takes in this information in an instant, calculating where foreground and background objects are now and where they were a moment ago and from this it interprets depth.
Sliders obviously don’t travel the same distance or speed as a train, but even minor movements can generate the same depth experience for the viewer – especially if you work at including foreground and background information in your framing.
To BVE with a mission
I finally satisfied my slider lust during a visit to BVE London in February. One of my missions there was to look at and price up the current slider options out there and I settled on the Slidecam S 900 from the Varavon range supplied by Proactive in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.
As I mentioned earlier I have tried out a number of other solutions. I’d long since ruled out the various Igus linear rail systems (or even building a DIY Igus slider) because I didn’t have a lot of faith in the aluminium rail construction. With the rails exposed I couldn’t trust myself not to give it the occasional bash and dent. If you’ve ever used a slider with a dent or protrusion you will know what I mean. Everything is magnified through the lens and even the tiniest imperfection can cause your slide to come to a sudden unplanned stop or cause an unwanted jolt in your slide.
Whilst the main body of the Slidecam S is made from the same lightweight aluminium (total weight of the unit is just 2.56 kg), the roller bearings themselves run along much more durable chrome-coated aluminium shafts. These shafts are also protected from external bumps, damage and dirt as they are located within a recess.
The carriage itself has a three-roller bearing assembly which gives very smooth and constant slides. Within the kit you also get a neat little oil applicator which clicks into the shaft recess and enables you to lubricate and clean the path at the same time. And because this is a recessed path you don’t need to worry about oiling getting everywhere.
Atop the carriage you have a 3/8” screw thread with for mounting a flat base tripod head. Proactive have put together a bundle consisting of the Slidecam S 900 with an E-Image fluid action EI-717AH head which comes in at £260 plus VAT. However, if you have your own flat-base head, the Slidecam S 900 can be bought on its own for £225 plus VAT.
There are various mounting screw points (both ¼” and 3/8”) on the main body to attach the slider to tripod/s or other threaded mounting solutions. The slider can therefore be used horizontally or vertically – or indeed under-slung if you have the right mounting grip to attach it. The unit also comes with its own screw-on adjustable legs which attach to each end of the slider for table-top or floor use. Each leg unit has two independently adjustable and lockable rubber feet to help stop the unit from slipping when used on a polished surface.
Varavon actually produce a range of sliders for different payloads and applications. This starts with the Slidecam Lite (600mm and 800mm lengths), then the Slidecam S (900mm, 1,200mm and 1,500mm), then the heavy duty Slidecam EX Plus (800mm and 1,000mm) and finally the super-heavy duty Slidecam ENG (only available in 1,000mm). Whilst an 800mm Slidecam Lite would have probably been perfectly adequate for me with its 9kg payload (and lower price tag at £230 plus VAT with head), I felt that the extra width of the ‘S’ version would offer greater stability when my DSLR was fully loaded. The ‘S’ can handle anything up to 19kg so more than I would ever need with my present shooting kit.
It’s also worth noting that Varavon also produce a unique curved slider, the Slidecam Arc 90. Though I’ve not had a play with this I can see where this product might come in handy. But as yet it’s not made it on to either my ‘want’ or ‘need’ list.
I must admit that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to tripod heads being a proud owner of both Vinten and Sachtler sets of sticks. However, I must also admit that with the E-Image EI-717AH Flat based head you get a lot of product for very little money (£55 plus VAT if bought separately). As both my tripod heads have ball-levelling mounts they are unsuitable for use on the slider without an adapter. These adapters are not a great solution as they tend to mount the camera in a much higher position which, in my mind, could make the whole assembly unstable. The additional E-Image head was therefore a very wise investment for me.
The E-Image screws directly on to the slider carriage and can be roughly tightened using the carriage’s Easy-Mount dial. Whilst this is a handy means of quickly attaching the head to the carriage you will definitely want to tighten the head even further. This is achieved by locking the head’s pan position and then screwing it down further to the carriage until it’s firmly fixed.
The head comes with a slide-locking plate for attachment to the camera which allows you to quickly attach and remove the camera whilst on a shoot. Whilst the head’s optimum payload is somewhat less than the slider itself (6kg), it is still well within the weight of my fully-pimped DSLR camera.
The head has a fluid damping drag system to ensure smooth pans and tilts as you slide. It also incorporates a built-in counter balance system to give you increased control of camera moves – and the ability to lock either or both pan and tilt actions. In addition the head also comes with an in-built bubble level and a really handy telescopic pan bar so you can operate the entire set up from some distance.
Yes you do get all this for £55 plus VAT so it’s not fair to compare it to the likes of my Vinten and Sachtler. It’s simply not in the same league in terms of performance and price but it is more than adequate for use as a slider head. When I first tested the head it had spent a few cold hours in the boot of my car and was as stiff as a board when trying to pan or tilt with it. Though all tripod heads will perform differently under colder conditions operating the E-Image was a real struggle. Brought indoors and warmed up to room temperature it loosened up nicely.
Varavon camera slider Conclusion
Like most other sliders this combination works best when laden. The head is quite heavy in itself (1kg) so with camera on top you have enough resistance to create wonderfully smooth slides along the entire length.
There are some nice little touches with the Slidecam S which are missing from some of the other options out there. For instance, along the entire length of the slider there’s an inch measure gauge so you can note and repeat the distance of travel within a shot. I’m sure it wouldn’t take too much engineering to knock up a means of attaching an adjustable stop of some kind to the slider so you can limit the range of movement more precisely.
The carriage also comes with its own bubble level which is really handy for either ensuring your slider is dead level or even for making it just off level and letting gravity slide the camera downhill. And though it’s never a deal breaker the sliders comes in a neat and robust carry bag.
The thing I like most about this Slidecam S bundle is its robustness. I can be a pretty clumsy oaf at times but I can’t see anything flimsy or susceptible in the construction of either slider or head that would yield under normal use. In this game it’s very hard to come across any product that boasts, “Built to last”, but I think Varavon could quite rightly claim that on this occasion.
I’m sure the Slidecam S will satisfy my needs for some time. However, one of the sliders that I used last year was motorised and I have to admit I really liked that option. Being able to set variable speed to the slide was very handy, especially when you have the slider positioned where you cannot easily move the camera smoothly and to its full extent. Thankfully Varavon have introduced the Motorroid attachment for their straight sliders which I’ve no doubt will be added to my kit bag in the not too distant future.
The Motorroid is available in three kit versions – the L1000 (£295 plus VAT), L1500 (£315 plus VAT) and L2000 (£325 plus VAT). These are all the same unit but vary according to the pulley belt length which is defined by the length of slider it’s to be attached to. The unit comes supplied with AC Adapter and with an optional 12v, 4800mah battery at £45 plus VAT – added to which Varavon are also producing a time-lapse controller called the Timeroid which will be announced soon.
If you are still sitting on the slider fence but really want to add this new dimension to your productions then check out the Varavon camera slider range and get sliding.
Kevin Cook F.Inst.V. (Hon.)
Notes: For further details and specifications please visit www.proav.co.uk. You should also check out this Olivia Tech Video on the Motorroid – www.vifocam.com/oliviatech-motorroid-800-special-edition-28-off/