How Three Entrepreneurial Cameramen Created Camera Support for Modern Video Production

Three entrepreneurial cameramen, who were also inventors, created camera support systems that have defined modern video production. Most of us know the brands they created, but few know them as working professionals who each found a niche that has had a huge impact on modern video production.

William Vinten, Chadwell O’Connor, and Wendelin Sachtler were three 20th century filmmakers with inventive minds who could not leave things as they were. Each began on a small scale to solve specific problems, and each was so successful they started iconic brands.

William Vinten began his company in 1910 in England by building cameras and support equipment for military aircraft. When the BBC ordered camera support gear in the 1940s, his company created a category of broadcast camera support products that continue to be a leader in the television industry.

Chadwell O’Connor, once a designer and builder of steam power plants, had a passion for steam locomotives. In the 1940s, he decided to document them on film before they were lost. But before he could begin, he designed the first fluid head in order to get smooth pans and tilts needed for moving trains. In 1940, O’Connor was approached by another train enthusiast who needed O'Connor's help with a new film. His name was Walt Disney. From that project — The Living Desert — OConnor Engineering was born.

Wendelin Sachtler was a cinematographer, actor and inventor working out of his garage in Munich-Schwabing, Germany. In 1958, he designed a tripod head that provided not only pans and tilts but added gyroscopic damping to smooth out camera moves. Sachtler didn’t know it at the time, but he created one of the world’s top brands of documentary and news camera support systems.

All three of these men began with film production. Their inventions migrated to video over time with technological changes that drove the industry. Though each of their camera support systems have the same basic functions, the designs are targeted to a specific environment for shooting moving images.

OConnor, based in Los Angeles, made his equipment for feature film production. Vinten’s British technology was honed from the earliest days for broadcast and sports production, while Sachtler’s German gear was designed for portability during fast-moving news and documentary production.

Though each is now an iconic, premium brand with its own specialty, all three companies are now owned by Vitec Group plc, one of the world’s largest broadcast and photographic conglomerates with 20 major brands sold throughout the world.

Steven Turner, Oconnor product manager.

Steven Turner, Oconnor product manager.

Steven Turner, product manager of OConnor and a former Project Manager/NPD Engineer for OConnor, Vinten and Sachtler, explained that the tripod and heads from each of the three companies support different kinds of customers with specific user requirements.

“All tripods pan left or right and tilt up or down. You put the camera on top and use the tripod to manipulate the camera,” Turner said. “But the environment each tripod functions in is completely different. If you look at sports and the duration of the shots, the camera operator is shooting continuously for about two straight hours. He knows when and where the sports match is going to be. His work is contained, he is in a static location and he needs precise control over the camera.

British TV studio, circa 1950s

British TV studio, circa 1950s

“However, if the operator is shooting a documentary or breaking news with fast moving, random shots on a location, his priority is to be able to move around and reposition quickly. That’s a completely different environment and shooting function than sports.

“In cinema, the environment changes again. You are not documenting an event like a sports match, nature or news event, but converting written words into sounds and Images. The director is constantly changing a vast array of parameters including framing, movement, shot position, lighting, filters and lenses for creative effect to give his interpretation of the script. This type of constant change demands a flexible camera support system with the highest dynamic range as every combination of film and director is different. Each kind of shooting demands specifically designed equipment and that’s why each of these brands has such a long history and following.”

OConnor

OConnor Engineering Laboratories, founded in 1949 by Chadwell O’Connor, has always been based in the Los Angeles area and targeted to motion picture filmmakers, beginning with its first major client, Walt Disney.

Cinematographer Larry Smith (L) on the feature, The Man Who Knew Infinity. Photo by Richard Blanchard

Cinematographer Larry Smith (L) on the feature, The Man Who Knew Infinity. Photo by Richard Blanchard

OConnor equipment — normally rented project by project — is designed for extreme flexibility. “The equipment is being used in many situations depending on the script,” Turner said. “Cameras, lenses and filters are constantly being changed. One film might be shot on 16mm with prime lenses and another with a 35mm camera with large zoom lenses. The operator can balance either a very small camera or large camera on the head with the drag feeling exactly the same. That’s not just from film to film, but from shot to shot. What’s important is the head is extremely versatile.

The base of OConnor heads can easily change from flat to spherical for operating on a dolly or quickly leveling on location. It may tilt down 90 degrees or straight up 90 degrees if the director demands this from a particular shot, such as looking up through the leaves of trees. It can have interchangeable platforms to accept multiple plate and camera types and can also balance from zero pounds to the head’s maximum capacity with no change in performance. The drags can be infinitely adjusted — not fixed in steps — so users can always find an appropriate drag level for a specific angle of camera movement or size of camera package.”

The film industry uses more assistants such as focus pullers than other media. Operators in film also use an eyepeice and most embrace the head and camera as they shoot. Because of this, the controls of OConnor heads have evolved to be in different positions to accommodate industry customs. The control layout on heads and tripods for television studios, sports and documentary are different.

Vinten

Vinten, the oldest company of the group, was founded in the UK and its earliest years were supported by the British film industry and military. In the 1940s, it began work with the BBC to develop camera support gear for television.

Philip Dalgoutte, Vinten product manager.

Philip Dalgoutte, Vinten product manager.

Philip Dalgoutte, product manager for Vinten, said the brand’s legacy is centered in television studio and OB operations, especially sports production. “Vinten allows operators to react very quickly to what is going on in the environment, which is key for sports applications,” he said. “While doing that, the camera operator is always in perfect control. The operator can precisely set the pan and tilt to exactly balance the camera and give the desired feel.”

Boston-based sports camera operator, Tom Guilmette at Fenway Park, Boston, MA.<br />

Boston-based sports camera operator, Tom Guilmette at Fenway Park, Boston, MA.

Vinten heads are mathematically calibrated to be in perfect balance. The reason that’s important is due to the long, sustained times that camera operators must use them. The compromise between the Vinten and OConnor head is the Vinten doesn’t offer as great a dynamic range in order to achieve precision balance. That extreme dynamic range is not needed with Vinten heads due to the fact the cameras and lenses don’t vary as much.

“What is needed for sports and in the television studio are extremely slow speeds where the operator is doing very minute reframing that’s almost impossible for the viewer to spot,” Dalgoutte said. “The operator is simply following the very slight movements of the subject. A high level of control is needed because the operator is handling a big camera and doesn’t want to lose control of it. That control means a higher drag level.

“On the flip side, if a sports play suddenly changes and the ball switches directions, the operator needs to react instantly. With Vinten equipment, the operator can react to that just by reaching a certain speed of movement, and the drag level drops off. It allows quick reframing of the action. As soon as the operator slows down again, all the drag comes back so a high level of control is regained. A high level of control and responsiveness is maintained without having to touch any of the controls. With OConnor or Sachtler, you must alter the controls.”

Sachtler

Sachtler, the newest of the camera support companies, came along in the era of news and documentary shooting. Founded in 1958 by Wendlin Sachtler, the company’s products have always focused on portability with lighter cameras and fast moving action.

Clinton Harn, director/cinematographer, shooting with Sachtler tripod in the sand dunes of Australia.

Clinton Harn, director/cinematographer, shooting with Sachtler tripod in the sand dunes of Australia.

“Sachtler is our lightweight, run and gun brand,” said Turner. “It has the total opposite of Vinten and OConnor’s attributes. Weight and speed of deployment are not big issues with Vinten and OConnor. Sachtler gear is for users who don’t know what will happen next. Users have to move quickly. It may be on uneven ground. They don’t have a lot of personnel to help them. It’s all about light weight and fast deployment since users normally get only one take.”

With Vinten and OConnor, perfect balance has always been important due to the application. With Sachtler, the set counterbalance is not as perfect, but the system is much faster. The Sachtler SpeedLock tripod mechanism allows users to manipulate a tripod with a total of nine leg stages with three clamps. The 75 and 100 mm sizes are the fastest way to deploy a tripod. The SpeedLevel Clamp is the quickest possible way to level a head using a clamping mechanism instead of a standard tie down.

About six years ago, Sachtler decided to address the rise of lighter weight DSLR-style cameras. Always a premium brand, the challenge was to move Sachtler technology to handle smaller cameras while creating lower product cost without sacrificing quality. Now, compact-sized Sachtler systems are priced at about $500, which gives DSLR users an entry point into the Sachtler line of products.

All three brands within the Vitec product line are top quality, with each being aimed to be the leader of its specific application. In some cases, there are crossover products between brands, but most of the tripod-head systems are targeted to their specific markets.

Tobias Keuthen, director of global product marketing, Vitec Group's Broadcast division.

Tobias Keuthen, director of global product marketing, Vitec Group's Broadcast division.

Tobias Keuthen, director of global product marketing for the Vitec Group's Broadcast division, said the product crossover is more about the legacy of the three brands than the future of the various lines. “The legacy has overlap, and the future tries to minimize it,” he said.

Also, where automation has made substantial inroads to the Vinten line, it has not yet impacted OConnor. But that doesn’t mean automation won’t show up in OConnor equipment soon. There is already research going on in cinema automation.

“In cinema, it’s about creativity and flexibility, not like in a television studio where you have fixed shots that are automated,” said Turner. “But automation can do other things too beyond repetitive shots. For example, cranes with robotic heads on the end of them so the operator can control the shot from the ground. Or you can put a camera in a creative position where you couldn’t easily put a human being and remotely control it. In the future, we wouldn’t discount developing automated tools especially for cinematographers on feature films.

“What we seek with all the brands is to focus on solving problems faced by our customers in their unique environments. Sachtler is continuing to evolve its features for the location shooter. It will become faster to deploy and lighter in weight as time goes on. OConnor equipment will continue to be more versatile for creative people, and Vinten will continue to ensure control and stability as screen quality and resolutions improve. It is a continuing evolution.” 

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