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The death of shaky video

12/23/2015

In the mid 2000s, the journalism industry was abuzz about the prospect of citizen journalists — independent producers who would research topics and illuminate major concerns in the world. Activists and politically fueled blogs had already been up and running for some time, but the real interest sprouted from video producers that could deliver impactful, unexpected stories, an investigative utopia where you and your neighbor volunteered to wave the flag of the fourth estate and show the world firsthand what was happening on the streets of America and potentially beyond its borders. Today, however, few talk about citizen journalists. Why is that? Because the overwhelming majority of user-created content is unwatchable crap.DJI

Streaming video is powerful. When a viewer gets hooked by a video shared on social media or embedded in a website, he or she is seven times as likely to stay on that site and continue clicking around. That is huge for content providers and is the single reason every major web player in content hosting and delivery has invested in original content and attempted to develop viral content. While web institutions like Yahoo, AOL, BuzzFeed and professional YouTubers do break through the cacophony of media to deliver the occasional viral sensation, it seems the real viral gold is unexpected and low on production value.

As great as your smartphone’s camera is, chances are the vast majority of videos you shoot with it are shaky nightmares that are nearly unwatchable. But don’t worry — you’re not alone. Very few people know how to properly wield a video camera, and even those who do have trouble with such a flimsy tool and horrible microphone. Thankfully, videomaking technology has finally advanced to offer easy-to-operate solutions that will one day transform the world of online video from turbulent viewing to smooth scanning.

If you have ever watched helicopter or drone video footage, one of the first observations is generally how incredibly smooth the motion of the camera is. The image seems to be gliding along as if the video camera was skating across an invisible sheet of floating ice. Well, the truth is that camera is actually attached to a mathematically programming “gimbal” arm to keep the image as close to stable as possible. As awesome as that technology is, it’s more impressive on the ground camera when operators use full-body gimbals to walk or run while holding a camera and still generate a smooth image. Last year’s “Birdman” used gimbal technology to simulate a film shot with a single, smooth moving take.

While these cinema-grade gimbals cost tens of thousands of dollars, hobbyist drone manufacturers have turned the industry on its head by offering very similar tools for a few hundred dollars. For anywhere from $150 to $2,500, lightweight, handheld camera gimbals are now available to consumers to shoot smooth-sailing footage on smartphones, tablets, GoPros and DSLR cameras. A video shot while running one year ago on iPhone would look like it was tumbling through an earthquake. But now, if you attach the $300 LanParte three-axis gimbal, it would be appear to be floating on air. If you want to jump a bit higher in production quality, drone maker DJI offers the Osmo (a self-contained gimbal-camera combo) for $650. Taken right off its popular consumer drones, DJI’s Osmo produces a cinema-quality image that will simply drop your jaw.

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There’s a longstanding saying in video production that if you don’t have good audio, you don’t have good video. With these devices now cheaply available, it seems a new phrase could join it: If your camera isn’t moving on a gimbal, your camera shouldn’t be moving at all. So long shaky cam, it was fun while it lasted. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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