By Elisabetta Cartoni, President and CEO, CARTONI (S.p.A.)
My family has been designing and manufacturing camera support systems for more than 80 years. My grandfather Renato and later my father, Guido Cartoni, built gyro camera heads in the ‘40s.
Back then, popular Bell & Howell and Mitchell cameras were bulky and heavy. Supports were mainly gear-heads on top of columns or dollies. Cameras have changed a lot since then. Most are smaller and easier to use. Support systems have gone through a similar evolution. They, too, are lighter and easier to control. Yet, the underlying principal behind camera support remains unchanged. A good support system provides a stable platform for the camera. It also offers perfect counterbalance and repeatable, smooth drag so that the operator can control the camera with ease and confidence.
One thing that has changed a lot are the users. In the old days of camera heads, cinematographers and camera operators were a relatively small, tightly knit group. They knew their craft inside-out as most had risen through the ranks of a rigorous apprentice system. Cameras were expensive to own and difficult to operate. You had to know every detail if you were going to succeed on a film set. Back then, none of our heads or tripods came with an instruction manual. There was nothing we could tell our customers that they didn’t already know.
The digital age has changed that. Today’s cameras are, by and large, smaller, easier to operate and less expensive than cameras of the past. As a result, they have expanded the field of cinematography. People, who in the past wouldn’t have dreamt of owning a 35mm camera, now might have several DSLRs. That is a welcome development as it has enabled many new people to become operators and cinematographers. It’s empowered innovative forms of creativity. But it also means that many people who work with cameras today have not had the benefit of coming up through a well-established training system. As a result, all our support systems and tools now come with instruction manuals and part of our job is to educate some users on the benefits and proper application of our products.
New digital cameras are appearing every six months and a lot of these new cameras are complex pieces of different technology. Operators often devote a lot of time and effort into mastering the intricacies of these new devices, so it always surprises me when they don’t spend as much time learning about what goes beneath their cameras.
A quality support system is essential for capturing clean, sharp, smooth shots. It needs sturdy legs with ample torsion rigidity to eliminate unwanted motion. It also must provide perfect counterbalance and just the right amount of drag to ensure smooth, unfettered and precisely controllable movement. In an ideal support system, there is perfect synergy between pan and tilt. One of the tests we perform on new fluid heads is the diagonal shot. If the fluid head can move a camera along a diagonal line without jerking, it means the two fluid units are working in sync.
The challenge for top-end manufacturers is to design support systems that deliver professional caliber stability, counterbalance and drag at an affordable price. It isn’t easy. If you are producing smartphones, you can provide your customers with complex technology at a low price because it can be mass produced. But professional camera support systems are highly engineered devices and they do not lend themselves to mass production.
A modern fluid head is a precision instrument that requires a high degree of quality control, testing and finishing. Mass production would undermine its craftsmanship and durability. Camera operators all strive to capture the “perfect shot.” Their ability to do so depends, firstly, on talent. But gear also matters. If you want to get the best possible shot, you need a good camera and a great lens. They will help you capture a pristine image. But then there is movement and that comes from the support system. You can design a beautiful shot and have a super digital camera, but if your support system fails, you won’t get the result you’re after. So, if you really want that perfect shot, you need to choose your tools—all your tools—wisely.
Elisabetta Cartoni is president and CEO of CARTONI (S.p.A.), a Rome-based leader in professional camera support systems. The company was founded in 1935 and since 1990, under Elisabetta’s guidance, the company continues to grow through a tradition of innovative design. It currently holds more than 35 patents for camera support technology and enjoys an international reputation for reliability, performance and engineering excellence.