My weekend with the Freefly Movi M5: Impressions / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Movi M5

My absence these past several months can be described simply: I have been making a movie. But now that principal photography has completed, I've got a little bit more time and wanted to discuss some aspects of the production itself. To date, the most popular post on this blog has been about my time with BlackMagic's Cinema Camera 4K. Whenever I look at the stats for this site, that story has always gotten at least a few hits. But what that tells me is that people are always looking for impressions of certain equipment/experiences, so I figured it was probably worth writing about my time with Freefly's Movi M5 handheld stabilization unit. For our shoot, we rented a whole bunch of equipment from BorrowLenses, including an M5.

Early on, we had a conversation with our Director of Photography who said the best thing we could possibly get would be a stabilizer of some kind, and that he recommended that even over professional lighting equipment. And because I have wanted to try out a Movi since I first saw a video about one a few years back, that seemed like the way to go. (The rental price also dropped drastically between our original intent and the time we actually reserved it, which didn't hurt.) Our shoot lasted six days. Of those days, we used the Movi on two... the first two. One of the days we decided against using any motion at all and the other three we used a shoulder mount instead.

We had the Movi with us on set every day, but we ended up just setting it aside regardless. Because the M5 is amazing, but it's frustrating as hell.

There are three different Movis: the M5, M10, and M15. The M10 is the original, and it's meant for medium-sized Cinema cameras like the RED Epic and Canon C500. The M5 is for made specifically for DSLRs. As we were shooting on a Canon 5D Mark III using the Magic Lantern hack for RAW recording (something I'll probably write about separately in the future), that made the most sense. It's primarily meant for one person teams as well, and for our extremely tiny crew, that was appropriate. We didn't have a focus puller, and the electronic controller which offers the ability to fine tune pan, tilt, and focus is meant for the higher-end systems. (Even if we had a follow focus, I'm not entirely sure how we would have put it in the rig, which didn't have enough space for the battery grip.

As much as possible, we tried for infinity focus to mitigate the issue, and I had heard that this was true so I wasn't surprised, but it's definitely something to be wary of.

The Freefly is configured via Bluetooth, using a program that is available on all major platforms. But it's also completely non-intuitive, and I'm still not really sure how it works.

"But Alec," you're probably saying, "You should have dealt with all of this before getting to set." And while I agree with you, the cost of the rental meant that we couldn't pick anything up until the day before shooting began. More time probably would have helped, but as it was I played around with the settings while our DP held on to see how it would react. Jacking up the settings actually started shaking the entire Movi, so I kept things pretty low.

But when it worked, it worked, and that was awesome. It definitely stabilizes better than a shoulder mount and you can do a whole lot of cool things with it that you can usually only do with cranes. That as well as the convenience of it (as opposed to an entire steadicam vest) is without a doubt it's number one selling point. Yes, the ~10 lb setup (with camera and lens) gets heavy, and you'll need to take breaks and/or have multiple camera operators, but it's not as bad as I expected it to be. If you have absolutely no upper body strength, it'll be a problem, but if you've got some muscle you'll be fine.

Problem is,  it didn't always work. Sometimes it would turn on and the green lights on the back would all sync up and the rig would stabilize itself and we'd be all set. Sometimes it wouldn't. We eventually figured out why it didn't work, which was a particular wire that was apparently not staying in its socket, although it looked like it was. This actually leads to a separate issue, because I don't actually understand why that cable could be removed at all. The device itself looks sort of unfinished with all the wires sticking out, and this particular one doesn't seem to be used for anything other than plugging into that one slot. So why even make it removable? But I digress: If we turned the machine on, pulled the wire out and then put it back in, turned it off and then on again, it worked about 90% of the time. Those other 10% of times, we had to do it again (and again), and eventually it would boot up properly again. Problem is that we didn't figure this out until after the first day of shooting, and it had messed up a couple of shots from that day.

More frustrating is the fact that there are apparently no documented cases of this particular malfunction. The system was hanging limp and we were getting "Status Error" messages in the software, as well as a "Gimbal fail" notification, but searching for either of those error message brought up exactly zero results. This was maddening, because I cannot believe that nobody else has had that problem before. It's impossible, but no luck, and since we shot on a weekend, I couldn't call support.

Fortunately, we had fewer problems the second day, but we were constantly worried about whether or not we would be seeing some different kind of malfunction. And that was the kind of worry we didn't want to have on set, which is the primary reason we stopped using it.

The other reason is that the Movi M5 is not particularly good at fast turns. One of its features is a smooth pan. When you move the Movi's handles, the rig smooths out the path that the camera takes. For a lot of people, this is actually a good thing. For us, not so much. We were shooting action, and even though we were using primarily wide shots during the fight scenes, if a character was thrown/kicked/punched off-screen, the camera wasn't able to always follow the action properly. That was a problem, and it meant that we will have to cut a few times in editing when we'd hoped to continue the take.

(When we tried to speed up the pan in software, by the way, the entire system started to shake again.)

And so, when all was said and done, we just put the Movi M5 down and didn't pick it up again. Maybe with a few more days, we would have been able to better understand its little idiosyncracies, but we didn't have the time or the resources to deal with it. Perhaps if we had had a larger crew and been able to use an M10 and its controller add-on we would have had a better time with some of the awkward moments, but if I were to do it over again, I wouldn't have rented the M5 in the first place. Certainly not for action.