Varavon camera slider review

Varavon camera slider

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.

Temporal Parallax

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.

Varavon Slidecam S 900 with DSLR rig
Varavon Slidecam S 900 with DSLR rig

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.

Protected slide shafts on the Varavon Slidecam S 900
Protected slide shafts on the Varavon Slidecam S 900

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.

Legs and attaching points
Legs and attaching points

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.

Get a-head

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.

The E-Image EI-717AH Flat Based Head
The E-Image EI-717AH Flat Based Head

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/

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Video Artisan – a year in video film production

Video Artisan’s 1st birthday slipped past me unnoticed at the beginning of Feb. The fact that I’ve only just realised is testament to how busy, absorbing and enjoyable my first year back in video film production has been.

There’s been some significant milestones that’s for sure but none more so than picking up my first corporate video production commission derived purely from my own marketing efforts.  Having been into fishing in my youth part of the satisfaction comes from knowing you’ve set your bait out attractively enough for the fish to bite.  What comes next, the fight to land the fish, was satisfying in other ways.  Winning new business has the same stages – you attract, you engage and you land.

Video Film Production awards

Another significant milestone was winning an IOV award – funny enough for the film that I produced for Supadance which was the aforementioned first video production commission. Having been involved in organising these awards in previous years, and witnessing how much the award winners appreciated and benefited from the accolade, to be amongst the winners in my first year of business was amazing.  To add even more gloss to this I also picked up second place in the Documentary category for my Bees & Wasps short film.

IOV Award Winning Film - Best Open 2012
Left – IOV Awards Presenter, Philip Hilton – Right – IOV Executive Member, John De Rienzo

Throughout the year I’ve been shooting a film on the work of Eiger Safety, a rope access company who specialise in installing and testing a whole range of height safety systems. You’ll get a better picture of Eiger Safety, the original brief and the musical short video production from my previous blog here.  I’m also working on a longer-form interview based documentary about them at the moment too.  To convince the client that this was a good idea I shot a proof-of-concept interview with the MD and roughly cut it together for them. We’re going to shoot this for real soon but the proof version worked well and demonstrated the need.  It’s not publicly available, but as you’re interested you can see it here – using the password ‘ginger’.

Another year in video film production

There’s no sign of things slowing up for me at the moment. Right now I’m in the middle of two films – one for a commercial investigation company (Robertson & Co – which is still in the shooting stage) and another for BT Global.  The work for BT is ongoing, and so far I’ve been involved in three films for various divisions within BT Global.  I’ll be writing a longer blog about this work next week so keep your eyes open.

So, all in all a brilliant first year back in video production. I can’t help feeling that I should have done this years ago. My only regret is that I should have put a reminder in my Google calendar to celebrate my first year. Not a bad regret I guess?

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Eiger Safety promo video goes live

After a year in the making I was really pleased to get the Eiger Safety promo video signed off last Friday.

The making of this musical-short promo video

The brief for this promo video was very simple…. Create a 3-minute video, cut to music, that visually represents the range of services and products offered by Eiger Safety – which will be used as the opening audience-settler within sales presentations.  That sounds easy enough on paper – as does most other promo video briefs – but there were a couple of unusual challenges with this job.

Firstly, the very nature of Eiger Safety’s work would mean that I’d have to film pretty much wherever they work.  Whilst I’ve never knowingly suffered from vertigo I wasn’t absolutely sure how I would handle filming under these conditions.  I knew it would be safe, but it was clear I’d have to film over the edge of some pretty impressive buildings and structures.

Working on the edge for a promo video
Working on the edge for a promo video – walking the chains at Clifton

The second challenge was picking the right locations and activities that would accurately convey what Eiger Safety do.  Whilst some of their work involves regular testing and certification of height-safety systems (such as window cleaning eye bolts, latchways, roof hand & guard rails and abseiling points), the really impressive stuff is usually one-off installations and annual inspections.  This meant we were never going to be able to shoot this in one hit but rather spread the filming out to capture a typical year of Eiger Safety’s work.

Costing the Promo Video

Whilst we had a plan of around six sites and projects that Eiger Safety MD, Paul Jaffe, wanted to include he also knew there would be other projects that would come up over the year that he would just have to have captured on film.  However, by the time we had it in the can we’d covered fourteen different locations, some of which were visited more than once.

Corporate and business-based films are never easy to cost but this one was almost impossible to give an accurate total cost from day one.  To overcome this we agreed a daily filming rate along with an understanding that each filming day would increase post production time too.  We also agreed a significant initial payment with interim invoices to be issued when needed. This worked for both of us – giving him control over the budget and keeping me in pocket whilst the project progressed.

Filming at locations all over the UK
Filming at locations all over the UK – The Eden Project

Location, location, location
One thing I have learnt over the past year is that Eiger Safety get to see things from a very different point of view – literally. There are very few people who have access to the parts on buildings that they have to access in order to do the things they do. Sometimes they are working in places that have not been accessed for many years – sometimes since the building or structure was first constructed.

Whilst we are all at the mercy of the weather, when it came to filming this project we was more reliant on good conditions than others. There were some locations where we were prohibited to work if there was strong winds or icy conditions atop the structure.  The wind conditions are especially important and as we all know these can change quite rapidly and are almost impossible to predict.  This did result in a couple of abandoned filming days – in particular the footage shot on the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  When we did actually get to film there we had a brilliant couple of days but still had to constantly check wind speeds to make sure we were operating within the bridge authority’s regulations.

Whilst Clifton Suspension Bridge was certainly the most dramatic location, some of the most spectacular views for me were those that the guys at Eiger Safety get to see almost every day.  As the regular rope access company for many of London’s top hotels, office developments and structures, they get a view of our capital city like nobody else. There were some locations where I could have spent a whole lot more time just taking it all in.

Filming over the edge at the Dorchester Hotel
Filming over the edge at the Dorchester Hotel

Feet back on solid ground

With the short musical promo video now complete I’ll be turning my attention to a longer-form documentary version based around a studio interview I’ve filmed with Paul that will give the viewer a much better understanding of what they do and the requirements of those working on rope access.  This wasn’t part of the original brief but I think it’s a story that needs to be told and maybe of interest to a much wider audience.  I hope to get this out there in the next month.

But this is definitely not the end of my video work with Paul and the guys at Eiger Safety.  There will be other must-have projects they’ll need filming in the coming years – and I’m also certain they’ll want alternate-edit versions of the video to match the needs of prospective clients.   I’m also helping them to set up a new website with a blog and vlog to capture and share the more unusual views they experience.  I’m sure this will be something that will get a good social network following from those interested in views from height.

So…. not the end – not even the beginning of the end – but perhaps the end of the beginning of my work for Eiger Safety.  A big thanks to Paul and his main men, Illya (L) and Nasco (R), for putting up with me and my numerous retakes!  Thanks chaps – it’s been a privilege working with you.

Eiger Safety
Eiger Safety – Height safety systems & services that protect lives
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Filming in London – a rooftop view from Corinthia Hotel

We couldn’t have picked a nicer day for the final day’s filming in London for Eiger Safe atop one of the city’s most prestigious hotels –  the Corinthia. With sleet coming down sideways and almost freezing temperatures, I guess this illustrates that Eiger Safety work in all conditions to ensure safety of their clients – not to mention that Video Artisan work in all extremes to get the shoots that tell the whole story.

Corinthia Hotel
Filming in London atop the Corinthia Hotel

The job at hand was capturing the installation of a handrail systems which are installed on rooftops and high-level walkways.  This forms a major part of Eiger Safety’s work these days as well as their periodic testing and re-certification.

High-level filming always has its dangers – but even more so in wet, windy and cold condition. When you’re filming in London you are never too sure what the weather is going to throw at you so you’ve pretty much got to be prepared for anything – at any time of the year. Thankfully when you work alongside a company that’s made its name through reducing the risk of injury (or more serious consequence) you feel pretty confident that every measure has been taken to ensure you don’t get blown off a roof.

Rooftop view over London
A cold, wet and windy day rooftop filming in London

Eiger Safety are also no strangers to the demands of film crews having worked in all the major UK film studios and provided height safety services on many of the big blockbusting movies that get shot in the UK each year.  Over the years they’ve got up close and personal with the biggest stars of the screen when rigging them up with harnesses and flight-wire systems.  And yes they do have some stories to tell. : )

Filming in London is always a privilege and somehow the weather today made it even more special.  The only downside to the shoot was that it was the last location day for the Eiger Safety’s film.  I’m sure there will be other “special” projects they’ll need to record in the future but I’m now going to be concentrating on cutting a short piece set to music for them to use in sales presentations in order to illustrate the wide range of services they provide.  A little later on I’ll be filming an interview with MD, Paul Jaffe, that will reveal more about the company and the rarely seen world of the abseiling and height safety professional.

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Cine to DVD – achieving the best conversions

We’ve been getting more cine to DVD enquiries lately – as well as tons of VHS and videotape to DVD conversions.  There still seems to be reels and reels of cine film out there just waiting to be loved again so I thought I’d better update my conversion process to match the interest.

Cine to DVD
Cine to DVD conversions – time to update your memories

I’ve always tried to retain as much of the original film quality as possible during the transfer process.  I don’t claim to do a piles and piles of cine to DVD each year but the stuff I do carry out is done with tender loving care.  The final result makes the whole family archive viewing process much more enjoyable… just pop the DVD in your player and you’re off.  No more family arguments as everyone struggles to set up a screen, projector and then feed in sprocket-chewed cine film.  More often than not these days the client simply doesn’t have a working projector so those precious memories never see the light of day.

I don’t have the throughput to justify the highly automated frame-scanner converters but believe I still turn out a pretty reasonable job using the much-used projector and video camera system.  Basically, the film image is projected through a mirror set at 45-degrees and then on to rear side of an opaque screen – which is then filmed from its front side with a video camera.

I use a Canon DSLR as my capture camera which gives me a full HD video which is then edited, tweaked, cropped, compiled and then output to a standard definition DVD.  Capturing at full HD does give me the option of supplying it to the client in Blu-Ray format too – but the vast majority end up on DVD.

The results from this method can vary quite considerably depending on how the system is set up and the quality of the mirror/screen combination.  There are also some modifications to the standard projector that can be made to squeeze a little bit more out of the film stock.

Cine to DVD Projector Modifications

The vast majority of cine films that I convert are either Standard 8mm or Super 8mm (I can convert any gauge though).  The sprocket and frame size differ on these formats but a dual-gate projector can play both back happily.  Switching the projector between formats engages the correct sprocket gearing and alters the gate size within the projector so that the projected image has a nice and clean frame edge.  This is great for projection but the process also masks off part of the exposed image on the film.

Filing out these gate frames enables me to capture more of the original film content.  I can then crop the video files and re-frame the image in post production to ensure every little corner of the film is on screen.

Another modification to the projector that helps is to alter the quality of light coming out of the projector lamp.  These lamps tend to produce a very focussed source of light which is great for projection but not so good for cine to DVD conversions.  Diffusing this light source helps smooth out any hot spots and helps create a more evenly exposed image.

Projector
Converting a Eumig 502D for Cine to DVD – adding diffusion to the lamp

Projection Perfection

The really rudimentary method of cine to DVD conversion is to simply project your film image on a wall or screen and then film that with your video camera.  This has one major disadvantage as your projector will have to have a slightly different angle of approach to the wall/screen than your video camera (they can’t both be in exactly the same position).  The image will therefore never be truly square and your focus will vary slightly from one side of the image to the other.  You’ll also have to do this in darkness as your room lights will need to be turned off in order to get a clear image on the wall/screen.  It works, but it’s not brilliant.

You can of course buy a purpose made cine to DVD conversion screen – and they will help you to get a better conversion than the method above.  However, the cheap conversion screens have a fundamental flaw in that the mirrors are generally standard back-coated.  Light passing through the mirror will split when it hits the front surface of this glass – part of which passes through the mirror and back out to the rear side of the opaque screen and part reflected directly off the mirror front surface.  This causes a slight double-image to be projected on to the opaque screen and a conversion that isn’t as sharp as it could be.

Good quality cine to DVD conversion screens overcome this problem by using front surface mirrors.  All of the light from the projector therefore bounces through the light path as one image – giving a much sharper conversion.

Cine to DVD Black Box

Excluding light from the projected image is important too to help you capture the widest possible contrast.  Some of the basic converters have no light exclusion at all, whilst others acknowledge the problem but only provide minimal hooding over the front surface of the opaque screen.  A simple rule – the more light excluded from the front surface the better.

To get the very best quality conversions I’ve built my own cine to DVD black box unit as there didn’t seem to be an off the shelf solution that solved all the problems.  This includes a porthole suitable for most projectors, made to measure front surface mirror and opaque rear projection screen – all housed in a light exclusion matt black box with enough hooding to enable me to operate it in a fully lit room.

Cine Black Box
Cine to DVD Black Box – with roof taken off

The front surface mirror was specially made for me by Vacuum Coatings Ltd of Walthamstow who specialise in all kinds optical coatings and scientific mirrors (they provide the glass for Autocue too apparently).  They also hand-frosted the front projection screen for me too.  The box construction is MDF.

So now the system and process is all tested, tweaked and ready for the next cine to DVD job to come in.  I’m not the cheapest guy around for this service but I like to think I do a good job.  You can get it done a lot cheaper in fact, but I think those guys know their worth better than me so I won’t comment. ; )

For details on our cine to DVD pricing please click here.  If you are not sure how much film you’ve got please give us a call for a quote.

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