Using the Zoom Commander Pro with the Cobra Crane!

Using the Zoom Commander Pro
with the Cobra Crane

As an independent producer and cameraman I love learning about new gadgets and I love buying or trying out products I think will best fit my needs. I've grown to trust brand names--like Sony, Steadicam, Macintosh, etc. Another name is Sign Video (the makers of the awesome XLR-PRO ).

I have purposely refrained from posting info on the Cobra Crane (available from ProMax ) because, simply, I'm too busy to talk about it. It's one of the best pieces of production equipment I've ever bought (second only to the Handheld Steadicam, of course!) but it requires a lot of support gear to use successfully. It comes in either a one or two piece configuration and can store easily in your car trunk or across the back seat inside the car. Once set up it gives you camera height of around 12 feet! It's very cool --even though some lament it for its lack of a remote pan head. Whatever.

The two-piece Cobra Crane is essentially two metal bars that bolt together with thumbscrews, then it has a steel cable for camera tilting control and the whole thing mounts to your tripod via your tripod shoe. It's such an unusual piece of equipment that I find myself in all sorts of unusual shooting situations--stairwells, tops of boulders, sides of bridges, high on the ledges of tall buildings, etc. Before I knew it my camera was safely dangling high over all sorts of precarious locations that were inaccessible to me any other way.

Setting up, counterbalancing, and viewfinding with the Cobra Crane takes 3 times as long as a Handheld Steadicam. Finding the right accessories to manage and/or control a camera on the Cobra Crane is tricky business. A brand new Cobra Crane only comes with crane parts--no tripod or mounting shoe, no viewfinding monitor, no steel counterweights, no velcro, and definitely no remote zoom controller for the camera.

Up until a few months ago I was satisfied with Sony's RM-95 cabled remote. But its sluggish response time made me shop around for another solution. I found the Zoom Commander Pro , from Sign Video. It is a rugged little black box riddled with buttons and knobs and (just like the Sony RM-95) powers right from your Mini-DV camera with the provided cables. It allows you to turn the camera on and off as well as operate the complete gamut of necessary camera functions.

Its strengths lie mainly in its ability to give you 2 separate zoom speeds. The dial for Speed 1 can be set to slow and it will give you your camera's slowest zoom speed. The dial for Speed 2 can be set to fast and it will give you your camera's fastest zoom speed. This doesn't mean that you have to set one to "fast" and the other one to "slow" it simply means that the Zoom Commander Pro allows you to preset the zoom rate at ANY speed. Either dial can be manipulated during a shot for variable speed but on a Cobra Crane that's a useless practice since it requires both hands. Remote focus, zoom, power, and VTR controls are right where you need them. Simple. (all VTR functions are marked in a different color and after a few practices they become intuitive)

Slow take-offs and slow stops (what I like to call "feathering on or off") are NOT possible with this or any cabled zoom controller for Mini-DV cameras. Sony's HVR-V1U is the closest they've come to a real "creeper" zoom on a handycam. The Zoom Commander Pro allows you to maximize what the camera is capable of and not limit you in any way. The Sony RM-95 was too sluggish to use when trying to quickly reset a complicated shot for "take two".

The large black round button at the top of the unit toggles from auto focus to manual focus. If you're using a decent video monitor the manual focus buttons offer spot-on control of focus. The record button is right in the middle and cannot be missed--even out of the corner of your eye--due to it's bold red color. All buttons are laid out intuitively. Only the OFF button for camera power is difficult to see since it is black. This is the closest I've come to studio-configurated controls since I've bought mini-DV equipment.

Setting up the Zoom Commander Pro is a snap if you prefer to use the included mounting plates with front & back velcro. Plugging in the cables is straight-forward and if you need more than the shortest 6 foot cable the other cables provide you more than ample length at either 12 feet or 25 feet! Just plug them in on one end, strap them up to the crane arm and plug them in on the other end. They are smaller Lanc plugs so use a little extra care when uncoiling longer cables as they tend to drop down and get underfoot easily during the setup process.

The most mysterious of all the Zoom Commander Pro's functions is the Automatic Power Down Override. This is turned on and off via a tiny recessed switch next to the Lanc jack on the top side of the unit. Using a ball point pen you can push the switch toward the jack to turn it on at any time. What this allows you to override is the camera's tendency to shut down while a tape is loaded. I didn't have much luck with this function because I didn't really know how to "read" the camera when it was engaged. My camera still shut down but as soon as I hit the on button the camera was powered up instantaneously and ready to go. I'm not exactly sure how this is different from operating without the override function.

For tripod use the provided V-block clamp is the best choice for keeping controls near your thumb while panning--but for the Cobra Crane I prefer attaching the zoom controller unit right to the jib arm (in the rear between the tripod head and the steel barbell counterweights). The tripod pan handle is utilized for remote tilting the Crane's camera mount so the only logical placement for a cabled zoom controller is next to the operator on the jib arm.

When the shoot is over the Zoom Commander Pro fits nicely back into its box, the cables store right along side it--even the instruction sheet stores invisibly at the bottom of the box--and the entire "kit" goes box and all into my camera case or bag.

The provided cabling gives ample options for all kinds of uses but I found the 6 foot cable was all I needed while the Cobra Crane was configured into a single-piece unit. However, when using the extension kit I had to order another 6 foot cable from Sign Video. There is 12' and 25' cables provided with the remote but it is just too much extra weight for the crane--a large loop of cable swinging off the back of the crane will wobble the rig and spoil the shot. I've combined the 2 six foot cables which only leaves a scant 4 feet or so of slack and can be tied off with a velcro strap.

The Zoom Commander Pro isn't waterproof or water resistant so don't use it in the rain without first taking some precautions. I like to use oversized ziploc freezer bags and mount the unit with velcro straps or gaffers tape. Usually, though, setting a precedent with my clients of not operating in the rain at all is the best bet against ruined gear. But there are always those artificial rain and waterfall shoots to think of.....

There is no "holy grail" of zoom controllers but the Zoom Commander Pro solves most of the problems I encounter while using the Cobra Crane. There are a lot of zoom controller systems out there to choose from. "Varizoom" products seem to be advertised all over the place but I've demoed one of their zoom controllers and cannot recommend them (way too big and way too expensive!). The Zoom Commander Pro requires only one hand to use--and resetting a shot is a breeze. For $159.95 the value of this unit is a no brainer! Fast setup, intuitive controls, and incredible support from the manufacturer. Hats off!

Complete the Handheld Steadicam Info Tour--all written by John Brune

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