Documentary filmmaker Andre Götzmann has been putting Sachtler aktiv fluid heads through their paces on different types of programmes with different demands on gear. Andre splits his working life in to two shooting disciplines, documentary and more cinematic-based programming; he explains how the contrasting heads were perfect for each.
“If I was only a documentary cameraman then the aktiv12T would be perfect for all my work. You can still attach the big lenses to the head, even up to 600mm; on documentaries you tend to have the longer lenses. It’s also light weight which allows you to travel easier.”
However, the demands of shooting more narrative driven footage, like a TV series, needs the aktiv14T head. It’s an accessory issue as with the longer form of television you need to deal with equipment like a Teradek video transmitter, larger monitors, lens and other accessories. It becomes a weight concern which in turn can affect the balance.
“You’re also possibly using character lenses so need wireless focus boxes. Your monitors are usually bigger with 7in being the standard for this style. Add a matte box for your filters in front of my Canon C300 MkIII and you understand why I look to the aktiv14T to manage the extra weight. The head’s counter balance helps enormously, smoothing out any unwanted movement.
“You could probably managed it with the aktiv12T but the aktiv14T gives you extra security with all the weight on the top. The aktiv14T is probably happy in both areas but if you’re shooting smaller features films say with the ARRI Mini or the RED, then you need the aktiv14T.”
Andre used the aktiv12T on a two-part documentary for prime time Saturday evening viewing about the Baltic sea, part of a long time documentary series called Terra X. “Using one tripod and the aktiv12T head we followed a biologist, who was also the host, under and above water.”
Andre’s second programme was a more personal story of life in the Caucasus. He shot through Georgia, Chechnya and Armenia. “We followed personal stories of people that have gone through periods of political unrest in these regions over the years, the programme was in three parts.
“This time we used the Sachtler aktiv14T and had plenty of opportunities to experiment with quick levelling situations through the regions.”
Andre used his usual Canon C300 camera for the Terra X documentary. Twinned with the aktiv12T, he found an instant change to the lightness of the camera package. “We had to walk large distances for this show mainly because the areas had bans on using cars – it’s a huge biodiversity area. I was using a 600mm lens which is huge but important for capturing animal behaviour. The Sachtler head still allowed me to slowly pan, it was the perfect tool for the job.
“The combination of a lighter weight but strength in dealing with a big lens and accessories like a small monitor was great to have.”
The power of the foreground
As other camera operators have found, putting this tripod and head completely on the floor gives you some new aspects to experiment with. “With documentaries you are always trying to get some foreground. Usually you would have to use the camera handheld for these shots but now you can still put the camera on the floor but you can pan it. Also the way you can level introduces so many more positions which you can achieve with speed.”
In Andre’s other recent show based in the Caucasus, the concept was more about the interviews and catching the opportunities to talk to people in the moment. Amazingly with that in mind he managed to use his aktiv14T in cars to capture close-ups. “I ended up putting the tripod up in cars mainly because it was so easy to do – it’s not normally something you would try. It would take seconds because of the way the legs were moving. Even using the quite large Sony FX9 camera I had some perfectly stable images.”
Andre also used his Magic Carpet slider with both heads which was beneficial practically. He found that weight transit charges were less than he usually paid as the Sachtler heads and Flowtech tripod were so light. “I used the slider in most of my work so it was nice to pay less for its transit. But the slider was also very easy to use with the Sachtler heads, a matter of seconds to connect.
“Again the Sachtler heads helped me use more foreground with the slider, it always make the image much nicer.”
The muscle memory
The conversion to the aktiv head design can take a little while but as Andre agrees, it was worth it. “After 20 years to levelling a tripod one way you’re battling against a little muscle memory but it doesn’t take long to get use to this new way of working – in fact it’s much better.
“It’s also so much faster, it’s the biggest gain. Sometimes we were shooting in minus 28˚. It’s the kind of temperature that stops you even bending your body as the cold will get inside your jacket – you just want to stand straight! You can with the Sachtler and there’s no cold coming in.”
Now at home after shooting what was five documentaries in total Andre sees that the shots he got on the floor were the ones that without the aktiv heads and the flowtech tripod he would not have got.
“It would have taken me much more time, especially the shots in the car using the aktiv14T head. That allowed me to get the shot stable, otherwise we would have used a smaller camera but handheld. It would have taken too much time and perhaps we would have decided not to do it or done it differently.”
Even Andre’s director noted how fast he was working to get ready for a shot. “He was very impressed and the time saved let us use the slider more frequently. If it takes too much time you shoot by hand and stabilise it in post which isn’t ideal.”
Another shooting scenario with the aktiv12T head was one in heavy snow where the top of the snow was up to their stomachs. “We were following a herd of deer which weren’t moving very fast but usually you would have to dig a hole to level the tripod. It was nice not to have to do that because of the lightweight nature of the gear.”
Andre concludes that all these benefits add up to the aktiv heads being game changers in his world. “Weight has always been an issue, especially in documentaries when you are usually carrying everything on your own. It’s the package of inventions on these heads which are groundbreaking and I don’t want to work with another head anymore.
“Before, I didn’t even think about all those things but now they’re here you think ‘where have they been all my life’. It’s so great.”