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The Tripod Man

April 20, 2008

I was going to blog about 3D/Stereoscopic filmmaking today, but I’ll save that for later, and instead share an anecdote that happened to me yesterday.

Having gotten an uber-loan for my RED, I’m in the process of actually spending all this money on the equipment that I borrowed the money for in the first place. And let me tell something to all the folks in the “DV Rebel” tier that I’m springboarding from: these ain’t your momma’s tripods.

I come from a place where cameras weigh, like, 5 pounds on the outside, and you can buy a Bogen tripod and get decent results with it. Though admittedly most of the time you end up going handheld anyway, because you want to move the camera and you can’t afford a dolly/jib.

The RED camera body is 10lbs, and that’s just the body. By the time you add batteries, rails, lens, mattebox, follow focus, EVF, monitor, and drives, you could be looking at upwards of 40lbs for the camera, at about $1K per pound. You’re not going to pop that onto a $300 still-camera tripod and hope it holds.

I also want the camera to get some play in the rental market, and an unspoken evaluation of one’s “package” seems to be the quality of your “sticks” (the innuendo is lost on neither of us). But the fact is, if you want professionals to take your camera rental package seriously, you’ve gotta have serious camera support.

I found a place that has a bundle package specifically designed for owners of the RED camera, based on feedback from RED owners on what they’re glad they bought and what they wished they hadn’t. The package was under a discounted rate as a bundle, so not only did I happen to get a package which contained EVERYTHING I was already planning to buy, at a discounted rate, but they also threw in carrying cases for the equipment. It’s like the carrying cases cost me negative money, because I saved a couple thousand off what I planned to buy and got them on top of it all.1

I’m buying the O’Connor Ultimate 2060HD Fluid Head with 150mm Ball Mount, on the O’Connor Cine HD aluminum tripod sticks, also with ball mount. Apparently at this level of equipment, you buy the tripod head separately from the tripod legs. The tripod head can then be taken off the sticks and thrown on a dolly, jib, crane, “hi-hat”, etc. as necessary.

There are two kinds of mounts.2 There are ball mounts, which allow you to rotate the bottom of the tripod and level it on potentially uneven surfaces, and there are Mitchell mounts, which are solid, flat connections that expect a level surface. And it’s regarding this choice of mounts that I wanted to tell a little story.

I was at the reseller and putting the package together, and another customer there and I started making conversation. He had been a focus puller for 13 years before making the move to DP, and he asked what kind of mount I was getting on my tripod. I told him I was getting the ball mount, then admitted that I had no idea what the pros and cons were in either direction.

There are two ways someone can respond to that. The amateur version is to roll your eyes and start off with “You DON’T KNOW…” and then launch into a condescending explanation, while all the while giving off an air that you’re doing me a favor digging into these totally basic depths of your knowledge.

The professional version is to explain the facts based on one’s experience, with a view towards helping someone else understand the same things you do.

This guy was a professional. He spent a good fifteen minutes weighing the pros and cons of the two different tripod mounts for me. He was ultimately a Mitchell man, and said that most of the rented equipment that you’ll find on a film set, such as cranes and dollies, will come with Mitchell mounts. So for interoperability and speed of use, he was all about Mitchell. He even went so far as to inquire into whether or not I would have the option to swap the mount, or if my ball mount could be adapted to a Mitchell.3

Two things about the guy struck me. Well, really one, but it manifested in two ways.

First of all, the guy was a focus puller for 13 years. Think about that. For 13 years his main job was to stand next to a film camera and make sure the shot was in focus. And make no mistake, that is a crucial job on a movie set, and requires a hell of a lot of technical know-how and skill, but it’s hardly glamorous — even by the already unglamorous standards of below-the-line film labor. Now, the focus puller is also known as the 1st AC, a more hoity-toity title, but also a more appropriate one, as he is essentially in charge of keeping the camera loaded, clean, and running. The fact that he was a 1st AC for 13 years, and willing to downplay it by saying “focus puller” instead, tells me that what we’ve got is a man who just loves being in the movies.

Likewise, his passion for tripod mounts was both amusing and moving. Again, here’s a guy who cares so much about something that is both incredibly important (for what we do), and incredibly obscure. A guy who just loves being a part of the art and business of movies, and loves sharing what he knows with others.

I love meeting people like that.


  1. I won’t quote the price here, but the company was Abel Cine Tech. If you’re a RED owner or plan to be one soon, call them for bundle pricing and availability. It’s still in the many-thousands-of-dollars range, but it’s pro equipment for a discounted rate, and the cheapest I found anywhere.
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  3. “Package”, “sticks”, “mounts”, yes. Freud would have a lot to say about tripod terminology.
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  5. As it turns out, the O’Connor 2060HD comes with a Mitchell mount, to which the ball mount attaches. In purchasing the ball mount version, I am effectively purchasing both, which is the best of both worlds.
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2 Comments
  1. Rin permalink

    W00t to the tech gear.

    Its really cool to meet people like that, it seems to lift my spirit a bit. Reminds me that there are people who are in this biz for the fun of it.

  2. Daniel Broadway permalink

    Something tells me that since the innuendo is not lost on you, that perhaps your titled this blog entry accordingly.

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