When filming things that don’t move, it’s sometimes nice to set the camera in motion. The opening sequence of my first film Shine, for example, is a tracking shot of a crowd made using on a dolly at Fremont Studios here in Seattle. The smooth motion creates a sense that you are taking the audience on a journey, that the story is beginning to unfold. Since then I’ve had my eye out for a way to achieve this effect that doesn’t require a small army of technicians and a fat bank account.
So when I read about Glidetrack, I was intrigued. After doing a bunch of research, I ordered one just before Christmas (I like to think of it as a gift to anyone who watches my future films). With FedEx shipping, the only option provided, the total was $355. I also considered a Pegasus Carbon System from Cinevate, but it costs $850 configured the way I wanted it. The difference between $350 and $850 is – for me – the difference between actually making the purchase and thinking about it. Although I’d sure love to get my hands on a Pegasus some day.
The Glidetrack arrived via FedEx in a 4″ diameter tube, into which the Glidetrack was carefully packed for overseas shipping from the UK, where they are made by Alistair Brown. Taking it out of the packaging, it’s immediately clear that this is a really solid, simple device: a 1-meter-long piece of aluminum with some channels for the slider, which is already attached, and holes for mounting it on a tripod.
It’s a snap to put Glidetrack together using the included hex wrench – you simply bolt the end pieces on, and you’re done. The end pieces have soft rubber feet that allow you to use the Glidetrack as a table dolly, or on a nice hardwood floor, without leaving any scratches. The big question in my mind: is it possible to mount the 1-meter long Glidetrack on my tripod from a single point in the middle and have it be stable enough? Or would it require two tripods, one mounted under each end piece?
I tested out the Glidetrack by making a short film starring the chandelier in our upstairs media room (which I’ll post later – you can see another film I made with it below). I mounted the Glidetrack on the quick-release plate of my Manfrotto 755XB tripod, which has a 501HD fluid head (which FYI I’m replacing with a 701HD head – the 501 is too heavy for use with this tripod and makes it top heavy). The Glidetrack felt stable once I mounted it to the tripod, although I had to really crank the quick-release far tighter than normal to keep the Glidetrack from slipping from side to side while using it.
The gliding platform of the Glidetrack contains a standard 1/4″ mount which you could twist your camera onto. But that would mean you’d have to adjust your tripod legs to tilt the lense. Ideally you’d mount a small fluid head on this. I used a Manfrotto ball head, which does the job fine for under $40.
I mounted up my JVC GY HM-100, and tested out the stability by sliding the camera all the way out to the edge of the Glidetrack. It does dip a bit from the weight of the camera, maybe a half inch total. And, I found that my already top-heavy tripod almost began to tip when the camera reached the end of the rail in some angled positions – I think this will improve when I swap in a lighter head.
I pushed the camera from one end of the track to the other, and the first thing I noticed was the sound: it’s a noticeable swish, but not loud. The faster you push, the louder it gets. But slowing it down, it’s almost inaudible. This would be a problem if you plan to use a shotgun mic to record audio while you’re filming. But for this type of shot, it’s common to use externally recorded audio or track the shot over music, which is what I did. The small noise factor is a tradeoff I’m willing to make to have such such a small, portable, inexpensive piece of equipment (if quiet operation is of critical importance, check out the Cinevate Pegasus carbon fiber system I mentioned previously).
Now for the fun part. I positioned the tripod and Glidetrack under my chandelier, and took my first shot by starting the camera, then pushing the track from one side to the other. The unit slides easily and uniformly. I noticed, however, that my first movements were not perfectly even, resulting in some very slight jerkiness. So I resorted to a trick I learned for smoothing out tripod pans: using an elastic band to pull the handle rather than by touching it directly. That way, the rubber band absorbs the small jerks and the whole thing moves smoothly. I’m afraid I have shakier than normal hands, so I have to use this technique as standard procedure. Works great.
You can see the results in this short film I made using the Glidecam:
A couple of filmmaker tips I learned while producing this:
1. You can actually do some interesting, crane-like shots with the Glidecam by turning the tripod head and thus the Glidecam track, while at the same time pulling the slider down the track. However, it’s difficult for one person to manage both with perfect smoothness.
2. To make the unit rock solid, you will want to mount it on two tripods, one under each foot. It’s solid with just the one center mounted, but I had to wait for minor bouncing to subside after moving the camera all the way to the end of the track before starting a new shot. I’m willing to put up with a little instability for the added range of motion and ease of repositioning that comes with using a single tripod.
3. You have to move the camera REALLY SLOW, slower than you think, to produce silky results. You can use the elastic band tip (mentioned above) to accomplish this without jerkiness.
I’m thrilled with the results of my first Glidecam shoot. It’s a tad long for taking everywhere, perhaps why the unit is available in a half-meter length. But I like having the full meter of runway to work with. I also like that Glidecam appears to be an indie product, produced by a guy with a name whose Twitter account I can ping to say: Thank you, Alistair Brown, for a producing a solid, affordable tool that puts smooth tracking shots within easy reach of documentary filmmakers.