I’ve never hidden the fact that ultimately I would love my career as a Director of Photography to move permanently towards the drama/feature film path, with regular commercial work in between the long form shoots. As part of my mission I’ve decided to expand my operating skills to more traditional “film-based” systems. I’ve also been talking to older DoPs, experienced operators and researched on the Net regarding geared heads.
I always felt that if you’re a good operator then you can operate anything and it will look just as good as if you were using better equipment – ie. it’s all in the operator and not his tools. Having said that, it’s definitely easier to use an actual hammer to put a nail in than any other heavy dull instrument. Even as a Jimmy Jib operator, I do enjoy when I operate jibs or Technocranes with Pee-Pod or Scorpio heads and it definitely makes your life much easier. The difference is noticeable to you as an operator but can you see the difference in the lens?
As a result of my querying, I recently spoke to a very experienced Director of Photography colleague of mine and posed the fluid head versus geared head question and, as was expected, he prefers to use a geared head. His reason, however, was one that I hadn’t heard before. He said that a geared head really comes in to its own in two distinct scenarios. The first is when your move needs to be very precise – table-top work was his example for this. The second scenario was at the end of the day, when you’re naturally more tired, your “feel” through your operating becomes more prominent with a fluid head. A geared head is considerably easier, physically, to operate and the tiredness doesn’t show through the lens.
After this enlightening conversation I found a comment from Roger Deakins BSC ASC on his site regarding this very question. The answer in my eyes was clear: GEARED HEAD all the way, when you can!
Now, I know it’s easy enough to go in to one of the big hire companies (like Arri and Panavision) and practice with one, but it’s far more enjoyable doing it in the comfort of your own home, where you can take a quick break and have a cuppa. So, about six months ago I bought an old Worrall (2-speed) geared head so I can practice. These heads, although superseded by the lighter Arri heads, were the industry standard for years and this one is possibly a good 40 years old!
After a few months though I finally gathered the funds together to buy some heavy duty Ronford-Baker legs (tall and short) with some spreaders. The Worrall head weighs about 36 kg (80 lb) so the heavy duty sticks were the only option. Final stage was to change both legs from bowl to Mitchell/Moy mounts.
So, finally, I have a geared head to play with at home. I have diligently set it up in my office with a green laser pointer gaffer-taped on top and a figure eight printout on the wall. The practice has begun and I can honestly say that it’s harder than it looks. I plan to do it for 30 minutes every day to get up to speed and, hopefully, I’ll have some footage to show soon of some of my work with the head. In the meantime, I’ve attached some pictures of my little setup, which, at the moment (just quietly) is the pride and joy of my equipment arsenal.