Every camera build, for me, begins with a Shape shoulder rig. Coming up through documentary, reality and factual television observing the style and equipment of so many great DOPs, almost all of their camera rigs began invariably with a Shape shoulder rig. The benefits were apparent immediately but slowly appreciated to become a complete necessity. I could not imagine shooting without it. My name is Gordon Gair and I’m a DOP who has just finished shooting season 2 of Life Below Zero: Canada. This article will break down why a Shape shoulder rig is my most essential piece of equipment on one of the most challenging shoots.
SHAPE KIT FOR THE SONY FX9 REVIEW
First, the shoulder operation. Most of what we shoot on a series like Life Below Zero: Canada is from the shoulder, so we need a rig that is comfortable, but more importantly, solid. The newer rubber/gel shoulder pad material is a big improvement over the previous leather/velcro pad of years past and allows you to access the screws underneath by swinging away on a hinge. All of this is built and designed around a VCT plate giving you the ability to go from shoulder to tripod and back in seconds. On a series like Life Below Zero, you simply don’t have the time or ability to make adjustments in the field, and this rig means my gloves never need to come off.
Proper shoulder operation needs to be accompanied by handles. In documentary, as the sole operator, the extension handle/grip relocator is essential to camera control. Shape offers a more robust metal arm that integrates seamlessly with Sony’s grip. But the most important improvement over the Sony stock arm is the Shape patented push-button adjustment. Swinging the handle up and down from shoulder to tripod to the ground to over your head happens with the push of a button and twist of the wrist all with one hand.
To those totally unfamiliar: it’s that press on the button with your palm that disconnects the rosette locking connection and allows you to freely move the arm into the desired position. Then releasing the button reengages the rosette at the new position and you’re completely and confidently locked. To the point that for a top-down shot, we will hold the camera above our heads by the handles alone because we have complete confidence in the strength of the rosette connection. This speed and efficiency are what sets Shape apart from any other shoulder rig and why the extension arm is a must-have addition for any shoulder operator.
With both handles attached, you almost get a built-in high hat when you drop it on the ground. I’ve seen many DOPs drop to the ground, adjust those handles just right for a quick low angle shot instead of grabbing a high hat or tripod or fine saddle. Not to mention the added bit of protection for your camera body and lens as the rig will keep the body suspended above the ground and the weather – very handy when shooting in remote places with nowhere safe to put the camera.
The camera cage and top plate add that extra layer of protection and provide many rigging points for whatever you need to throw on, whether a monitor, timecode box or a wireless transmitter.
Build quality is a major plus of all Shape products and their all-metal design is essential to operating in sub-zero temperatures. Low-quality plastics freeze and break beyond a certain temperature.
Also, cold weather tip – connections that rely on screw tightening will inevitably come loose and back themselves out as metal shrinks in the cold. I learned this the hard way during a critical scene in which the tiny screws connecting my 70-200’s rear element decided to come loose, forcing me to jam the lens into the camera body with my left hand against the pressure of my face in the eyepiece while pulling focus and zoom with my right hand! I recommend using the product Loctite to hold these little screws on your lens, your camera body and shoulder rig in place.
The v mount battery plate is another vital piece of equipment to the setup. With space and battery life being limited, we need professional high-capacity batteries, and we need them to work across multiple uses. Whether for our cameras, our lights, d tap to a DSLR timelapse or as an external battery via USB to power our GoPros or to charge our GPS communication device, v lock batteries give us that flexibility.
Overall, the Shape shoulder rig is the first and most essential piece of equipment to me as a Documentary and Reality DOP. This rig gives me the ability to land in a remote location, build the camera once, and be ready for any and all shooting scenarios.
Life Below Zero: Canada Season 2 premiers on March 22 on CottageLife currently in free preview.