Zacuto: Bullet-Proof but Evolving

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.

Sony FS5 with RAW upgrade; Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 geared cine lens; Sachtler Ace Matte Box and Follow Focus; Convergent Design Odyssey 7q+; Zacuto Eye OLED EVF; Anton Bauer CINE 150 V-mount battery; and then everything to make it all hang together: Zacuto Recoil Rig (VCT Universal Base Plate, FS5 top plate, Axis Mini, FS5 Grip Relocator [not shown]), Zacuto Tripod Plate with front and rear rods, Zacuto , Zacuto Zamerican Articulating Arm V3 Small version to connect Odyssey to the top plate,  Zacuto Riser to match lens axis to matte box, Follow Focus with Z-drive [not shown], Switronix V-mount Battery Plate attached to Zacuto Zwiss Plate V2 for the battery. All mounted atop Sachtler Video 18 S2 fluid head and Speed Lock CF Carbon Fiber tripod. Cabling not shown.

Sony FS5 with RAW upgrade; Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 geared cine lens; Sachtler Ace Matte Box and Follow Focus; Convergent Design Odyssey 7q+; Zacuto Eye OLED EVF; Anton Bauer CINE 150 V-mount battery; and then everything to make it all hang together: Zacuto Recoil Rig (VCT Universal Base Plate, FS5 top plate, Axis Mini, FS5 Grip Relocator [not shown]), Zacuto Tripod Plate with front and rear rods, Zacuto , Zacuto Zamerican Articulating Arm V3 Small version to connect Odyssey to the top plate,  Zacuto Riser to match lens axis to matte box, Follow Focus with Z-drive [not shown], Switronix V-mount Battery Plate attached to Zacuto Zwiss Plate V2 for the battery. All mounted atop Sachtler Video 18 S2 fluid head and Speed Lock CF Carbon Fiber tripod. Cabling not shown.

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.

The Z-Finder Pro with EVF was an indispensible piece of my kit - until I discovered mirrorless cameras.

The Z-Finder Pro with EVF was an indispensible piece of my kit - until I discovered mirrorless cameras.

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.

Sony FS7 with FE PZ 28-135 f/4, Atomos Ninja Assassin, Zacuto Gratical HD, Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate and Tripod Plate, edelkrone FOCUS OnePRO, Sony XDCA-FS& Extension Unit with V-mount battery, all mounted on Cartoni HD Fluid Head and Tripod

Sony FS7 with FE PZ 28-135 f/4, Atomos Ninja Assassin, Zacuto Gratical HD, Zacuto VCT Universal Base Plate and Tripod Plate, edelkrone FOCUS OnePRO, Sony XDCA-FS& Extension Unit with V-mount battery, all mounted on Cartoni HD Fluid Head and Tripod

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.

iPhone rigs and accessories have shrunk dramatically  since I wrote Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution last July.

iPhone rigs and accessories have shrunk dramatically  since I wrote Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution last July.

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

The Zacuto Recoil Rig for the FS5 ($1,282.50 at B&H) is designed to enable shoulder-mounted shooting. It is not a single product, but instead a bundle of existing Zacuto products.

VCT Universal Base Plate with 15mm rods

The Recoil Rig for the FS5 was my starting point for my FS5 RAW review rigging.

The Recoil Rig for the FS5 was my starting point for my FS5 RAW review rigging.

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.

I used to think the Cartoni Focus HD fluid head and tripod combo were massive, but compare the plate from it (foreground) to the VCT base plate which is also quick release (background). It's actually no comparison at all. Massive.

I used to think the Cartoni Focus HD fluid head and tripod combo were massive, but compare the plate from it (foreground) to the VCT base plate which is also quick release (background). It's actually no comparison at all. Massive.

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.
The base plate is super-robust, but one price is limited travel of the front riser and the need to really lock it down with a pair of hex screws. With the FS5 and the Sachtler Ace Matte Box, this meant I needed a separate riser to line up everything else.

The base plate is super-robust, but one price is limited travel of the front riser and the need to really lock it down with a pair of hex screws. With the FS5 and the Sachtler Ace Matte Box, this meant I needed a separate riser to line up everything else.

Once you dial everything in, it's easy enough to tighten the base plate's mounting screws to the camera with a narrow flat bladed screwdriver. But "easy enough" doesn't mean easy. 

Once you dial everything in, it's easy enough to tighten the base plate's mounting screws to the camera with a narrow flat bladed screwdriver. But "easy enough" doesn't mean easy. 

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.

These are renderings of Zacuto's updated VCT Universal base plate with sliding deck dating back to NAB 2014, so it's been a long time coming. According to Zacuto, this will finally be available about now.  I'm betting it's a big improvement, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on one to test.

These are renderings of Zacuto's updated VCT Universal base plate with sliding deck dating back to NAB 2014, so it's been a long time coming. According to Zacuto, this will finally be available about now.  I'm betting it's a big improvement, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on one to test.

FS5 Top Plate with 3" Rod

FS5 Top Plate is available separately, $112.50 at B&H.

FS5 Top Plate is available separately, $112.50 at B&H.

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.

Once you remove the focus pin and cable guide (less than 30 seconds for both) and screw down the four machined screws which attach the top plate, it's a rock-solid addition, at one with the camera.

Once you remove the focus pin and cable guide (less than 30 seconds for both) and screw down the four machined screws which attach the top plate, it's a rock-solid addition, at one with the camera.

The whole purpose of that top plate in this instance is access to that 90° rod clamp so that I could attach the Axis Mini EVF mount for the Gratical Eye.

The whole purpose of that top plate in this instance is access to that 90° rod clamp so that I could attach the Axis Mini EVF mount for the Gratical Eye.

 

FS5 Grip Relocator

FS5 Grip Relocator vailable separately for $332.50 from B&H.

FS5 Grip Relocator vailable separately for $332.50 from B&H.

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!

You can't really see it from this angle, but the grip extension on the FS7 requires a screw driver to adjust length.

You can't really see it from this angle, but the grip extension on the FS7 requires a screw driver to adjust length.

Axis Mini EVF Mount

 

Axis Mini EVF Mount available for $332.50 from B&H

Axis Mini EVF Mount available for $332.50 from B&H

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

VCT Tripod Plate available for $270 at B&H

VCT Tripod Plate available for $270 at B&H

The combination of the VCT Universal base plate and tripod plate when locked together conjures language like "brick sh**house."

The combination of the VCT Universal base plate and tripod plate when locked together conjures language like "brick sh**house."

It's only when you compare it to the excellent Sachtler Ace Base Plate that you begin to get a sense of how robust and massive the VCT twins are.

It's only when you compare it to the excellent Sachtler Ace Base Plate that you begin to get a sense of how robust and massive the VCT twins are.

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

Zamerican Articulating Arm V3 Small Version 6" available for $185.25 at B&H

Zamerican Articulating Arm V3 Small Version 6" available for $185.25 at B&H

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.

Just in case you couldn't make it out in the photo above, here's another shot showing how the inner lip of the Zamerican quick release clamp prevents a rod from passing through.  I really like this. Also note how the two little arms are different lengths - that's because I screwed them in to different depths.  This approach (rather than, say, using the clamp to also lock them in place after positioning them better) makes it very hard to put them exactly where you need them to prevent twisting.

Just in case you couldn't make it out in the photo above, here's another shot showing how the inner lip of the Zamerican quick release clamp prevents a rod from passing through.  I really like this. Also note how the two little arms are different lengths - that's because I screwed them in to different depths.  This approach (rather than, say, using the clamp to also lock them in place after positioning them better) makes it very hard to put them exactly where you need them to prevent twisting.

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.

Good idea: the Zamerican Arm relies on what is essentially a quick releaseso that you don't futz around screwing and unscrewing an entire monitor into a 1/4" 20 socket. The problem in this case is that the equivalent of a second tripod screw or the kind of lip you find on something like a dedicated ReallyRightStuff L-bracket --these two little 90° holders -- are too difficult to line up for every situation. I think this needs a redesign, even as I recognize it's impossible to anticipate every combination of gear or mounting points.

Good idea: the Zamerican Arm relies on what is essentially a quick releaseso that you don't futz around screwing and unscrewing an entire monitor into a 1/4" 20 socket. The problem in this case is that the equivalent of a second tripod screw or the kind of lip you find on something like a dedicated ReallyRightStuff L-bracket --these two little 90° holders -- are too difficult to line up for every situation. I think this needs a redesign, even as I recognize it's impossible to anticipate every combination of gear or mounting points.

But with this written, once you screw the heck out of the QR clamp, that arm is just outstanding.

But with this written, once you screw the heck out of the QR clamp, that arm is just outstanding.

QR Riser

QR Riser available for $98.10 at B&H

QR Riser available for $98.10 at B&H

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.

As you can see in this photo before the QR Riser arrived, the camera sat too low relative to the matte box. It's just one example of the challenge faced when mixing and matching gear from different manufacturers. It's no one's fault: it's impossible to account for all possible combinations. Properly lining up the follow focus and matte box also required me to locate the FS5 all the way forward, creating a pronounced tilt even with the counter-balancing weight of the Anton Bauer battery.

As you can see in this photo before the QR Riser arrived, the camera sat too low relative to the matte box. It's just one example of the challenge faced when mixing and matching gear from different manufacturers. It's no one's fault: it's impossible to account for all possible combinations. Properly lining up the follow focus and matte box also required me to locate the FS5 all the way forward, creating a pronounced tilt even with the counter-balancing weight of the Anton Bauer battery.

The riser did the trick in placing the lens in perfectly alignment with Sachtler Matte Box (not shown). But...

The riser did the trick in placing the lens in perfectly alignment with Sachtler Matte Box (not shown). But...

...although it worked just fine, I'm still a little queasy at the the thought that the only thing keeping this heavy lower plate, battery, rod system (and matte box and follow focus, not shown) together with the camera is one little twist lever.

...although it worked just fine, I'm still a little queasy at the the thought that the only thing keeping this heavy lower plate, battery, rod system (and matte box and follow focus, not shown) together with the camera is one little twist lever.

Zwiss Plate V2 

Zwiss Plate v2 available for $166.25 from B&H

Zwiss Plate v2 available for $166.25 from B&H

The Zwiss plate, on the other hand, was perfect: robust, rigid, easily movable. Once I mounted it to the rear rods (which screw into the threaded holes at the back end of the plate) and then mounted the Anton Bauer CINE 150 to it via a Switronix V-mount plate, I never gave it a second thought.

I love to be able to write "it just plain works" as I can for the Zwiss plate.

I love to be able to write "it just plain works" as I can for the Zwiss plate.

The Zwiss Plate is only as wide as it needs to be to mount the battery.

The Zwiss Plate is only as wide as it needs to be to mount the battery.

 

Gratical Eye Micro OLED EVF

Gratical Eye EVF available for $1,950 at B&H.

Gratical Eye EVF available for $1,950 at B&H.

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.

Zacuto makes a dedicated cable for the Eye which combines SDI with D-Tap, meaning that's one less cable you have to worry about.

Zacuto makes a dedicated cable for the Eye which combines SDI with D-Tap, meaning that's one less cable you have to worry about.

On the other hand, it's not particularly long: with the Small Zamerican Arm, I could position the Odyssey 7q+ far enough way from the Eye that the cable was the limiting factor rather than the Arm itself -- and there may be times where you really do want a monitor a bit further away from the left side.

On the other hand, it's not particularly long: with the Small Zamerican Arm, I could position the Odyssey 7q+ far enough way from the Eye that the cable was the limiting factor rather than the Arm itself -- and there may be times where you really do want a monitor a bit further away from the left side.

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. 

The combination of the FS5 top plate, Axis Mini EVF Mount and Gratical Eye really extend the scenarios in which the FS5 can be used on the shoulder. The only fly in the ointment is that I couldn't find the right balance with this particular set-up when also using a matte box and follow focus -- I needed Zacuto's not-yet-released update to the VCT base plate with sliding deck.

The combination of the FS5 top plate, Axis Mini EVF Mount and Gratical Eye really extend the scenarios in which the FS5 can be used on the shoulder. The only fly in the ointment is that I couldn't find the right balance with this particular set-up when also using a matte box and follow focus -- I needed Zacuto's not-yet-released update to the VCT base plate with sliding deck.

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).

This is the only button on the Eye, but it's more than that: it's a joystick, and works beautifully with a very rich Zacuto menu system. including focus and exposure assists (with my favorite, false color) and the easiest to use LUT function I've ever seen. It's the first one, in fact, I'd actually use. I suspect you're a little more advanced than I am when it comes to LUTs if you're reading this far.

This is the only button on the Eye, but it's more than that: it's a joystick, and works beautifully with a very rich Zacuto menu system. including focus and exposure assists (with my favorite, false color) and the easiest to use LUT function I've ever seen. It's the first one, in fact, I'd actually use. I suspect you're a little more advanced than I am when it comes to LUTs if you're reading this far.

Z-Drive and Tornado Grip Kit (Manual Follow Focus)

Z-drive with Tornado Grip manual follow focus available for $744.09 at B&H

Z-drive with Tornado Grip manual follow focus available for $744.09 at B&H

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°.

Z-Drive with Tornado grip on the left; edelkrone FocusONE on the right. There is zero slack on the Z-drive because of that universal joint, and it has a heft and silkiness to it that the edelkrone doesn't approach. Can you get the job done with the edelkrone? Yes.

Z-Drive with Tornado grip on the left; edelkrone FocusONE on the right. There is zero slack on the Z-drive because of that universal joint, and it has a heft and silkiness to it that the edelkrone doesn't approach. Can you get the job done with the edelkrone? Yes.

Never mind that I don't even have a geared lens mounted - that's not the point. The point is that the Z-Drive is a truly original follow focus designed for run 'n gun one-man band operation, interestingly enough a scenario less appropriate for all of the other gear here. I've removed the Tornado grip which is intended to complete and complement the Z-Drive as part of a two handed rig and reversed how it would then be pointed - away from the body. It really is brilliant.

Never mind that I don't even have a geared lens mounted - that's not the point. The point is that the Z-Drive is a truly original follow focus designed for run 'n gun one-man band operation, interestingly enough a scenario less appropriate for all of the other gear here. I've removed the Tornado grip which is intended to complete and complement the Z-Drive as part of a two handed rig and reversed how it would then be pointed - away from the body. It really is brilliant.

Here's the Z-Drive side by side with the edelkrone, Tornado grip removed. It's almost as compact as the edelkrone, but again it's in a different league. At $261.25 for the grip alone and $522 for the Z-Drive by itself (the edelkrone is $199 on the edelkrone site) it ought to be.

Here's the Z-Drive side by side with the edelkrone, Tornado grip removed. It's almost as compact as the edelkrone, but again it's in a different league. At $261.25 for the grip alone and $522 for the Z-Drive by itself (the edelkrone is $199 on the edelkrone site) it ought to be.

But nothing's perfect, and the two tightening levers which attach the Z-Drive to the 15mm rod can get in each other's way. Sure, these are spring-loaded levers that can be lifted and turned so that you can get them as tight as you need, but this is a good example of where upping the design will pay dividends in the user experience and perception of thoroughness of design courtesy of real world feedback.

But nothing's perfect, and the two tightening levers which attach the Z-Drive to the 15mm rod can get in each other's way. Sure, these are spring-loaded levers that can be lifted and turned so that you can get them as tight as you need, but this is a good example of where upping the design will pay dividends in the user experience and perception of thoroughness of design courtesy of real world feedback.

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.

Summary

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.

The Gratical Eye is beautifully designed and built in the U.S. Am I the only who's reminded of Fritz Lang's 1927 METROPOLIS?

The Gratical Eye is beautifully designed and built in the U.S. Am I the only who's reminded of Fritz Lang's 1927 METROPOLIS?

Or maybe the speakers at one of the last drive-ins in Ohio? Shot on a Sony a6300 with E PZ 18-105mm f/4 at 103mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/4, 

Or maybe the speakers at one of the last drive-ins in Ohio? Shot on a Sony a6300 with E PZ 18-105mm f/4 at 103mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/4, 

How about the Death Star?

How about the Death Star?

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.

At the April rally. That's the FS5 with kit lens on a Benro Monopod. This image was captured on an iPhone 6 and cropped like heck. Sure the IQ is poor -- but not poor enough to prevent anyone from seeing what's going on. 

At the April rally. That's the FS5 with kit lens on a Benro Monopod. This image was captured on an iPhone 6 and cropped like heck. Sure the IQ is poor -- but not poor enough to prevent anyone from seeing what's going on. 

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.

Sony FE 70-300mm f/4-5.6 on Sony a6300 at ISO 6400, 1/250, f/5.6, clear image zoom 2x (900mm full frame equivalent), hand-held: astounding what technology can do. I was in the cheap seats.

Sony FE 70-300mm f/4-5.6 on Sony a6300 at ISO 6400, 1/250, f/5.6, clear image zoom 2x (900mm full frame equivalent), hand-held: astounding what technology can do. I was in the cheap seats.

iPhone 6S+ with fixed built-in lens, ISO 80, f/2.2, 1/15th, 4.15mm, hand-held. Did I just write "astounding?" I believe I did. These are transformative technologies which incent a company like Zacuto to move higher up the value-added chain to a smaller but more professional audience.

iPhone 6S+ with fixed built-in lens, ISO 80, f/2.2, 1/15th, 4.15mm, hand-held. Did I just write "astounding?" I believe I did. These are transformative technologies which incent a company like Zacuto to move higher up the value-added chain to a smaller but more professional audience.

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.

Press weren't allowed in this particular meeting, but there were no prohibitions for members of the audience taking photos or videos. Shot on Sony RX10 Mk III, ISO 6400, 97.49mm, 1/100, f/4, hand-held. 

Press weren't allowed in this particular meeting, but there were no prohibitions for members of the audience taking photos or videos. Shot on Sony RX10 Mk III, ISO 6400, 97.49mm, 1/100, f/4, hand-held. 

So what does this all mean, and what does it have to do with this gear?

Final Thoughts

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.

Who wouldn't?

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!

Shout-Out

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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