When I received a demo unit from Convergent Design of their RAW-enabled Odyssey 7q+ 4k recorder/monitor combo, I finally had the basic pieces -- along with the Sony FS5 and RAW upgrade -- to do a long-awaited review. But when I thought through the test scenarios and other gear I might need, I reached out to Zacuto, a highly regarded "Made in America" filmmaking accessories manufacturer founded by working pros to help me pull it all together. The RAW review is still in the works, but I thought I'd take time in the interim to review the Zacuto gear used in the project. It quickly became a reflection on broader industry trends and how small U.S. manufacturers can respond.
In some ways, Zacuto is an aspirational brand like Porsche: you buy their stuff because it really is what you need and there's a clear ROI, you want it because you think it's the best or you deserve the best and money is no object, or the very act of buying it tells you something about yourself and your journey toward hardcore professional.
Just in case you didn't know (unlikely as that may seem to most of us) Zacuto makes industrial strength, bullet-proof filmmaking accessories right here in the U.S.
But the image business has changed dramatically since Zacuto first opened its doors in 2000, and every manufacturer, large or small, has had to adapt. Like other small U.S. companies, Zacuto faces pricing pressure from off-shore competitors. Price points and capabilities have shifted dramatically.
And their products, like every other product ever made, have room for improvement.
My own experiences and needs -- probably like your own -- illustrate the challenges and opportunities they face.
Let's begin around 2012.
The Live View/DSLR Era Gives Way to Built-in EVFs/ILC Mirrorless
My first Zacuto purchase was a Z-Finder Pro 2.5X for my Canon 5D Mk II. Its robust design appealed to me, and I thought I'd keep it for a very long time.
The Z-Finder was a significant improvement over the rear LCD alone for video focusing, and became a critical piece in my kit. But I quickly learned that since it was only a magnifying loupe, its value as a focusing aid was limited by that rear screen. I quickly added their EVF.
Less than a year later, I augmented the 5D Mk II with a Panasonic GH2, my first exposure to an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera with built-in EVF.
That 5D Mk II -- and the Zacuto gear -- were quickly relegated to eBay.
When it came time to buy a rod system and matte box, my gear was so inexpensive and so lightweight -- and my business so new -- that it didn't make sense for me to spend big bucks rigging them up. $80 for a Chinese matte box and rod system and another $70 for a small rig did the trick.
No news flash: mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have set the bar for video focus and exposure assists on hybrid stills/video cameras, as have very crisp but inexpensive HDMI monitors (like the $199 Aputure VS1 FineHD) all the way up to stunning 7" combo monitor/4K recorders (like the $1,295 Atomos Ninja Flame). The market has moved quickly to obsolete magnifying loupes and lower resolution, small diagonal EVFs. They've also put pressure on robust, expensive rigging: it defeats much of the benefit of a camera like the Sony a7s II.
The Hybrid DSLR is Joined by Prosumer-Accessible Dedicated ILC Video Cameras
With the arrival of cameras like the Canon EOS C300 (2012) and Sony FS7 (2014), Zacuto and others like them had a new and rapidly expanding market to tap: heavier, more expensive cameras than DSLRs and mirrorless hybrids that were dramatically less expensive and almost as good -- especially if distributed through the web -- than the even heavier and more expensive professional cameras used in higher-tier productions up to that point.
I can tell you from personal experience that Zacuto's monstrous VCT Universal Base Plate and Tripod Plate were a perfect pairing with the FS7, and the Gratical HD offered a superior EVF to the FS7's combo LCD/loupe.
But the flip side is that off-shore companies were growing more sophisticated and creating more robust products (even mimicking Zacuto's anodized red levers).
And increasingly complex, multi-vendor camera and lens setups began to expose weaknesses in Zacuto's (and their competitors') universal "infinitely adjustable, one-size-fits all" approach to their product.
Then Came the Smartphones
With the 2015 release of the indie film TANGERINE shot on an iPhone 5; smartphone-based citizen journalism spreading rapidly across the web; and mass media using smartphones (even ABC News began experimenting with smartphones during the 2016 U.S. primary), more and more people entered filmmaking with expectations of traveling light and cheap.
While this was never Zacuto's market, it might have contributed to the diminution of the potential audience for Zacuto's DSLR/mirrorless accessories -- and Zacuto's decision to up its game and appeal more widely to the dedicated ILC video camera crowd with higher value-added products like the Gratical series micro OLED EVFs; their new Gripper series cine batteries; and the newly re-designed universal base plate shown at NAB 2016.
Fast forward to now, the summer of 2016.
Hands-On With a Pile of Zacuto's Current Products
The arrival of the RAW upgrade for Sony's FS5-- and a deadline for my review of it -- was the perfect impetus to get Convergent Design's Odyssey 7q+ and find the right kit to hook them together for on- and off-tripod shooting.
Why not just attach the Odyssey to the FS5 and call it a day?
I could have done exactly that: the FS5 has a number of 1/4" 20 threaded sockets, a mini-rosette, and easily detachable top handle and grip.
But it's not a shoulder-mount design, and if I wanted to go off-tripod I'd need a rig. The inclusion of a big combo monitor/recorder makes things more ungainly. The EVF's location at the rear (like the Canon Cinema EOS line) makes a shoulder-mount configuration essentially impossible without a separate side-mounted EVF. And if you're going to go to the trouble of shooting RAW, you may want to rack focus using geared cine lenses and possibly a dedicated, perhaps even remote focus-puller, necessitating both a wireless follow focus and a battery with a D-Tap port.
A few emails and a phone call later, a pile of Zacuto loaner gear arrived.
Zacuto Recoil Rig
VCT Universal Base Plate with 15mm rods
I'd already had experience with the VCT base plate under an FS7. Massive, robust, mounting points everywhere, rock solid, the base plate also has a hex-screw adjustable riser for the front rods. You simply do not worry about what's on top of it, because you know it will be just fine.
But this time with the FS5 mated to it, a number of ergonomic limitations began to emerge.
- I had to use an additional riser between the camera body and the base plate to create the right height (in conjunction with what I now perceive as the limited travel of the front riser) to ensure the matte box was properly lined up with the optical axis of the lens. Although the riser worked just fine, it left me slightly queasy: now I had one more potential failure point if I neglected to tighten it sufficiently or didn't check periodically. What I really wanted was more range to line up the accessories on the rods to the lens' optical center.
- With the front rod riser adjusted, I couldn't move the FS5 forward enough so that it sat properly balanced on my shoulder. What I really needed was a design that allowed me to move the shoulder pad back and forth underneath the buttoned-up rig to get that balance.
- Getting to the screws underneath by reaching between the split shoulder pad with a narrow screw driver seemed much more awkward than I'd remembered it being with the FS7, but this is likely because I had to go back and forth a number of times trying to find the right balance point. I wished for an easier way to do this with a single shoulder pad.
In the end, this is at least as much a function of trying to marry components from different manufacturers as anything else. On the other hand, I'd just reviewed some Sachtler gear and found their industrial design extraordinary, especially their Ace Base Plate and the even more extraordinary (but vastly more expensive, and not apples-to-apples because it's an entire fluid head) Video 18 S2. If the VCT Universal base plate outpointed both for robustness, the Sachtlers schooled the base plate in design, ease of use, and thoughtful execution.
And that's what makes what happened next so interesting.
A viewer on my YouTube mentioned that a newly revised VCT base plate had been shown at NAB 2016. I found a clip about the new design by Newsshooter. It seems obvious that enough other folks had had the same issues: the newly revised VCT base plate looks like a perfect answer to just these problems. It's a clear evolution of a product to a higher level of design.
FS5 Top Plate with 3" Rod
The top plate is very interesting: a way to add even more accessories to the FS5, it manages to wrap itself around the handle so that the handle doesn't have to be removed (but it does require that you remove a cable guide - one Phillips head screw does the trick -- and then the focus pin for a tape measure). Once this is accomplished and the plate is mounted to the body with four heavy duty machined screws, it offers ten 1/4" and two 3/8" threaded sockets and (most importantly for this particular set-up) a 90° rod clamp used to mount the Axis Mini for the Gratical Eye.
FS5 Grip Relocator
I didn't end up using the grip relocator because I couldn't balance the FS5 properly on my shoulder given the particular combination of gear on my rig (again, it looks like the new base plate will solve this with its sliding deck), but as with the Axis Mini, its design and build quality inspire confidence. It's certainly a big improvement over the factory adjustable arm on the FS7 because unlike that one, this is tool-less. Big up!
Axis Mini EVF Mount
Like every arm I've ever seen from Zacuto, the Axis Mini is a paragon of rigidity, smoothness, solid locking levers, and adjustability. It's also expensive, but it inspires utter confidence, especially when attached to the Eye.
VCT Tripod Plate
Like the base plate, I'd had prior experience with the tripod plate. Like the base plate, it's extraordinarily robust. The two lock together at two points and when they do, that's it - you simply don't think about it again. When you're on a shoot, that kind of peace of mind is worth a great deal. In this regard, it outdoes the Sachtler. I saw a number of these at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last week.
Zamerican Articulating Arm V3
The Zamerican Articulating Arm is a novel one. It offers the usual Zacuto virtues of rigidity, smoothness and easy locking, but adds its own kind of quick release which I loved: no futzing around rotating a monitor or other accessory like a light on top of the arm, one of the most vulnerable moments when attaching gear to a camera.
You can see why you'd want it compared to a more consumer-oriented arm like the very nice and inexpensive one that comes with Aputure's VS2 7" monitor, perfectly appropriate for the DSLRs and mirrorless ILCs for which it is intended: with that QR clamp in the middle with the 1/4" 20 screw, you aren't dependent on a shoe mount (always iffy, in my book), but it goes one better by allowing you to tighten that screw and then mount the arm into the clamp. Smart. Everything about the Zamerican is also more robust and smoother.
A bit less successful -- though definitely on the right track -- is that pair of 90° stops designed to prevent the quick release rod clamp from rotating in position. I wish they could be positioned and then locked in place, rather than relying on how they happen to line up as you screw them in. As it is, they didn't keep the QR clamp in place, and on more than one occasion the Odyssey swung around and gave me heart palpitations as the screw managed to loosen on its own.
The riser worked. Period. But it still left me uneasy (queasy, as I wrote above), because all that's keeping the camera attached to the base plate is a single locking clamp which unlike a rosette is purely friction-based. What I really wanted was to avoid the need for this altogether, but again the new version of the base plate shown at NAB 2016 looks like it addresses this directly.
Zwiss Plate V2
Gratical Eye Micro OLED EVF
The Eye is the "mama bear" version ($1,950) of the Gratical series, which also includes the original, top-end Gratical ($2,450) and the now-lowest price Gratical HD ($1,650). Even as it sports the identical 1280 x 1024, 10,000:1 contrast micro-OLED display, the Eye is smaller, lighter and more elegantly designed than either.
The Eye comes with all of the focus and exposure assists along with built-in LUT support of the Gratical (unlike the HD), but achieves its lower price and smaller form factor by doing away with the battery (you run a cable to a D-Tap like the one found on the CINE 150), eliminating all but a single SDI connector (you can get an HDMI converter) and removing all four of the function buttons of its older siblings.
It was a perfect pairing with the FS5 in shoulder-mount or tripod configuration. In either case, it was superior to Sony's LCD panel in terms of visibility and placement.
But what really sets apart the Eye from the Sony LCD/loupe combo and its older siblings -- in addition to Zacuto getting smarter about trade-offs as it received feedback from the marketplace -- are the improvements in industrial and user interface design evident in the Eye.
There's only one button.
It's actually a joystick, and it controls a responsive and well-laid out menu system for selecting scopes, assists, LUTs and more.
Kudos, Zacuto's (I had to do it, just had to).
Z-Drive and Tornado Grip Kit (Manual Follow Focus)
At $744, Zacuto's Z-Drive with Tornado Grip is the most robust, smoothest and heaviest manual follow focus I've ever seen. It's at a completely different level than either my edelkrone Follow FOCUSONE or the Sachtler Ace Follow Focus, both of which I like very much. Designed to be used on a shoulder rig by a one-man band, the Zacuto combo succeeds brilliantly with a unique-in-my-experience universal joint (just like in the drive shaft of a car) allowing it to be angled 60°.
With all of this written, be aware that because it's designed for shoulder-mount, the design clearly assumes the operator will not have the time to set up hard stops -- so it doesn't have them. This makes perfect sense to me, but you may have different needs.
Zacuto makes beautifully machined, robust, silky smooth accessories and charges premium prices for them.
This either suits you or it doesn't, and either is OK.
The more interesting thing to me is how the company is evolving and why.
There are more than a few companies which position themselves either implicitly or explicitly as selling gear created by filmmakers for filmmakers.
Zacuto is rightfully one of them.
There are companies which make a point of manufacturing in the U.S., even though in an increasingly global economy it is harder and harder to resist the call of cheaper manufacturing costs with ever-improving product outside of the country. Even -- especially -- Apple is not immune.
Zacuto is one of the increasingly rare companies which design and manufacture in the U.S., even when it's their high end stuff like the Gratical Eye.
Then again, ALL of their stuff is high end.
But many consumers don't sweat those kinds of details, and in the end it's hard to resist lower prices -- not just in accessories, but in the more fundamental choices of camera and lenses.
The products I've had in hand from Zacuto indicate a company at an inflection point. Their universal building block components are top notch in terms of fit, finish and robustness, and will continue to appeal to higher-end productions, even if every now and again design and usability - paradoxically -- take a back seat.
In any event, they are absolutely the right kit to flesh out a 4K RAW-shooting FS5 (review coming soon).
But when you add up the weight and cost -- just the sheer bulk -- of assembling a full kit, it forces many of us to take a second or third look at what we want in order to achieve the result we truly need.
Then again, I gather Zacuto is OK with that too: no company can be all things to all people.
When I covered a presidential rally in April and absolutely had to have it right straight out of the camera so I could pass the footage to an editor up in New York the same day (I was part of a two person shooting crew), I chose the Sony FS5 with E PZ 18-105mm f/4 as my go-to camera (video here). Yes, I also carried the a6300 with the Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8, and it was great, but most of the footage came from the FS5. I knew the final result would be posted on Facebook, mostly seen on mobile devices. I shot everything in 1080p, 30fps. I didn't bother trying to shoulder-mount it.
When I covered the DNC this past week, I used four different cameras, none of them the FS5 because of security restrictions on size (I couldn't even bring in a monopod) and because I wanted to be unobtrusive: a Sony a6300 with their new FE 70-300mm f/4-5.6 [B&H|Amazon]; a Sony a6000 [B&H|Amazon] with Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 [B&H|Amazon]; a Sony RX10 Mk III [B&H|Amazon] with built-in 24-600mm (full frame equivalent) f/2.4-4; and an iPhone 6s+ with Schneider iPro lens set [B&H|Amazon]. Since this was mostly about testing gear, I shot in 4K, 24p (except, of course, on the a6000). My experiences at the DNC will be posted soon.
Sure, there were broadcast cameras everywhere - as were DSLRs being used by non-broadcast pros, along with dedicated ENG cams (I was surprised by how often I saw the ENG guys toting Sachtler tripods with the Zacuto Tripod Plate - really).
But it was the number of folks with smartphones capturing video and streaming live -- rigged up or not -- that really struck me.
So what does this all mean, and what does it have to do with this gear?
I have no doubt that if I'd been on a film set, I'd have seen much more rigging than I did at a live event. When you're putting together a high-end camera and lens package, Zacuto accessories are most in their element. I think this usually means narrative or documentary filmmaking scenarios where "run 'n gun" is not needed -- but a full complement of tools are. In these instances, you have time to set up the most complicated combination of kit imaginable, lock it down, and be confident that everything will remain rock solid (with the one caveat I mentioned about the Zamerican Arm QR and the slightly queasy feeling I got by using the riser).
In those cases, Zacuto is worth every penny.
But technology marches on as do a constant stream of new filmmakers with changing perceptions of what to make, how to make it, and at what cost -- and I suspect Zacuto is feeling that pressure.
That's what makes the Eye and the yet-to-be-released revised VCT base plate so interesting: they are both examples of high-end products which Zacuto is making better and cheaper in response to changing market conditions.
I don't see Zacuto abandoning the high-end to compete with what are increasingly commodity items, but I suspect we will see an acceleration toward products like the Eye and the new base plate: higher-end functionality moving into displays and electronics and design more reflective of deep experience in the field with feedback from many high-end users -- while figuring out how to bring the price down, still well above commodity levels.
That's how you stay on top.
In the meantime, the peace of mind I have from knitting together the FS5 RAW kit for testing with the current Zacuto line up is profound and as I've written before, peace of mind can be priceless.
But I'll stick with my own personal Sony a6300, a6000 and iPhone 6s+ for now -- they represent the kind of trade-offs I can easily live with.
Your mileage may vary - thank goodness!
A big thanks to Rachel Kenton and the Zacuto team for making the gear available. Thanks to Allison Mandara and the Sony team for what feels like infinite patience while I finish up a long-term evaluation of the Sony FS5. Cheers to Mitch Gross, Dan Keaton and Denise King at Convergent Design for making the Odyssey 7q+ available to test the FS5's RAW. Guys, I promise that RAW review will be done by end of September!
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