Make your movie moves smooth: Why I love my fluid tripod head

How are we going to move the camera? It’s one of the biggest questions a cinematographer faces with every new project.

This is a particularly important decision when you find yourself on a low budget or independent production. It’s easy to make a film look great when you have cranes, jibs, steadicams and all of the support crew to run them. But for the cinematographer with limited resources, a fluid tripod head is your best weapon in the fight for silky smooth camera moves.

When it comes to a shoot where we have to really run-and-gun, I always reach for my fluid head first. I’ve been using the Manfrotto MVH-502 fluid head for years and I absolutely love it. It gives me all of the control I need to make sure I get great results whether I’m working off of full size sticks, baby legs, a slider or a dolly.

Particularly when shots require long, slow movements, a fluid head is a must have. Unlike a friction head, whose low cost might attract some frugal filmmakers but are only really suitable for static shots, a fluid head allows you to increase the resistance required to move the camera without the worry of a sudden slip or jerk in the middle of the movement. This gives you the precision to really dial in both the pan and tilt and get the perfect move you’d envisioned.

I love a good gear head, but their high cost and even higher learning curve don’t make them the ideal choice for productions with limited resources. Their weight alone–most are at least 15 pounds–will often mean you need to very heavy duty tripod, dolly, jib just to support it. And that’s before you add your camera and other support equipment.

I can tell you from experience, using a gear head without a full support crew is incredibly difficult. Trying to spin both geared wheels in opposite directions, while dollying in yet another direction, all while pulling focus, is damn near impossible without a seasoned dolly grip and an experienced first A.C. to assist you. A gear head is a wonderful luxury on a set that has both the budget and crew to utilize it, but for productions that do not, they are often a burden in both time and resources lost.

For the small crew or one-man-band operation, the fluid head is simply a no-brainer. By using a fluid head, it’s possible (but still not easy) to pan, tilt, pull focus, and even dolly all by yourself. While onset of The Toy Box recently, I needed to pan left, tilt up, dolly right and rack focus all without an assistant camera person. And while the shot was certainly challenging, with a little practice we were able to pull off the move. It might not have been the ideal way to do it, but on an independant feature film, sometimes that’s just the situation you find yourself in.

Early on in my career I heard a producer say, “a film production is a lot like owning a boat, it’s a hole you can throw as much money in as you want.” Sometimes that means you have all of the toys and help at your disposal, and sometimes that means you have just enough to keep yourself afloat. A Manfrotto fluid head tripod is on my “must-haves” when it comes to gear I know I’ll need. It should be on yours too.

Ken Stachnik

Ken Stachnik is a cinematographer, screenwriter, and director based in Los Angeles, California. He has worked in nearly every area of film production on sets large and small. Ken received the award for Best Lighting at the 2016 FearNYC Film Festival for the full-length feature film Clown Town (cinematographer), produced by Steel House Productions. His short film Return to Grace (director, screenwriter) won the Audience Choice Award at the 2010 Elgin Short Film Festival. His work has been commissioned for corporate clients and media publications including Hewlett-Packard, MensHealth.com, Prevention.com, and Livestrong.com. Ken’s second full length feature film, The Toy Box, is currently in production.

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