Ever heard of a gimbal? That’s okay, neither had I until I took some college film classes. A gimbal is a somewhat large stabilizing device a cameraman wears that allows camera movements to appear fluid with no shaking. It can be used for camera pans, vertical movements and tracking shots on objects moving quickly. In mass media, Kendrick Lamar’s music video for ‘HUMBLE’ is just one popular example of a gimbal being used to get the most unique and effective camera shots. A large portion of impressive camera work can be attributed to the device, from shots where the camera seems to float in mid-air during a thrilling car chase. If you’re like me and have attempted to make amateur short films and music videos for school or in your free time only to have the final product look like a wannabe Bourne movie, then you really could have used a gimbal.
As anyone who has dabbled in film knows, there is a trend in regard to high-tech cameras. The more expensive and intricate a camera is, the heavier it will be, which makes the use of a gimbal all the more necessary; However, operating a gimbal is not an easy task. It’s regarded as one of the more technically difficult abilities in the film industry due to the mechanical knowledge and experience needed to use the device. Using a gimbal successfully requires a creative understanding of how the finished film should appear. To attest to the importance and usefulness of gimbal operation, we got in touch with Zac Chia, a renowned director and cameraman who attests to the device’s usefulness in contemporary film and boasts a lengthy history of working with gimbals and stabilizers of every sort “The gimbal is one of the most, if not the most, versatile and adaptive pieces of equipment for movement,” says Chia. “It’s great for projects that require a lot of movement like action sequences, dance pieces, long-takes and walk-and-talks. I’d honestly argue that every production would benefit from a gimbal.” Having this skill in his arsenal has helped Chia create a successful niche for himself within a tough-to-crack industry. Aside from just understanding how to operate a gimbal, Chia knows how to build, dismantle and alter gimbal setups depending on the individual using the device. According to the directors and cinematographers I know in the business, this is almost unheard of.
Since very few people within the film and television industry have this technical know-how, Chia has been able to work for some of the biggest networks in the country outside of his personal projects as a director. One of his most recent contributions on major TV was for The Fox Network’s hit music reality show “The Four.” If you’ve ever watched the show, it contains frequent camera panning and tracking shots following its various singers, which a gimbal helps to accomplish. As the gimbal technician, Chia had the creative foresight to understand how the gimbal would most effectively assist the cameraman. “It was a really fun challenge to build and supervise the gimbal for the director to operate his own camera.” recalls Chia. “With this show, there were more resources because of the nature of the project, and that means having the ability to choose between a couple of options to see which is the best way to build and tech-out the gimbal for the shoot.” To you and me, the minute differences between gimbal and camera settings might not seem too important, but with a fast-paced and high-stakes Fox production, Chia had to think one step ahead in understanding how each shot will be executed, and what the technical needs are for that specific shot.
Chia’s knowledge of what a director will need from his or her gimbal and camera largely comes from first-hand experience making his own movies that cover a diverse range of topics. Saptapadi, a short film written and directed by Chia, follows the character Anika as she struggles with cultural differences and expectations between the US and India after moving to America and falling in love, despite already having an arranged marriage planned. The film deals with very real topics and dilemmas native Indians as well as Malaysians must deal with while in the United States, and it’s struck a chord in the hearts of audiences due to its accurate portrayal of issues typically not felt by Americans. “I had to do a lot of research for Saptapadi,” says Chia. “As a matter of fact, research informed a lot of my decisions for the movie. For instance, my structure for the film was inspired by one of the rituals of Indian weddings — ‘Saptapadi’.” In English the word means ‘seven steps,’ in reference to the seven steps and vows that newlyweds undergo during the wedding ceremony, and according to Chia, each scene in the film represents a specific step in the ceremony. “In addition to my research, my wonderful actors and actresses helped me with the writing process for the dialogue so that it was accurate, and the color palette was inspired by the colors favored in Indian culture,” says Chia. “It was a lot of meticulous planning.” All of the planning Chia prepares prior to the filming process has paid off greatly, as Saptapadi was an official selection for the prestigious Seattle Asian-American Film Festival. His latest directorial effort, Where Things May Grow was also an official selection for the inaugural Bates Film Festival held this past March.
For most members of the general audience, Chia’s choice and execution of various camera angles, with the help of a gimbal, will go unnoticed; However, festivals like the SAAFF don’t just serve as a platform for filmmakers to show-off their creations for fans of film– it’s where some of the most talented directors, actors, writers and producers gather to network, and ultimately it is those people who have taken note of Chia’s talents. “I do quite a bit of networking at festivals. You never know who might end up hiring you, so having an open heart is important in my opinion,” he says. With a thought-provoking documentary in the works focusing on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) the future looks bright for the gimbal guru, and his technical prowess will propel his projects to be increasingly distinct among the flock of films released each year. The gimbal has the potential to be a difference maker for a director, but when it comes to great filmmaking, the gimbal is only as cutting-edge as the person operating it.