Tiffen's diminutive Steadicam
Merlin was a pleasant surprise, both in delivery and performance.
The zippered soft case and fitted foam neatly held the device,
stainless steel balance weights, dovetail mounting plate, screws,
manual, and instructional DVD. A certificate of authenticity
personally signed by its designer, award winning Garret Brown,
was included. The Merlin, sans cam and weights, was an impressive
13 ounces. It was something that you might find in a Sharper
Image or Apple Store.
The unit is approximately 14 inches fully
extended, and has a folding (and locking) caliper hinge that
separates the lower and upper spars. While designed for camcorders
that weigh less than five pounds (2.27kg), I tested it with a
Panasonic HVX200 and the Sony Z1U, both of which exceed this
weight. Tiffen notes at its web site that the Merlin has been
successfully used with these cams, but with medium weight batteries
and no accessories. I followed a similar configuration with a
I also tested it with the much smaller
and lighter Sony A1U HDV camcorder and produced some very good
results. In all cases, however, you have to learn to balance
the Merlin, and practice your technique for shooting footage.
Both require some time and dedication (and with the latter, arm
strength), but the results can be impressive.
My initial attempts to balance the device
with a Sony Z1U and HVX200 were unsuccessful. I contacted the
company for assistance and it came in the form of a telephone
call from the Merlin's inventor, Garrett Brown. He diagnosed
the problem as a faulty caliper hinge, and arranged to have the
unit replaced by Tiffen. The new unit worked as advertised.
This camcorder weighs approximately 5.5 pounds with the large
battery, one 8Gb p2 card in the top p2 slot and no additional
accessories. I opted for a smaller sized battery in my testing,
because the stock battery still made the Panny a little top heavy.
Other Panny users report, however, that you can use a stock Panasonic
with the Merlin with the larger battery. They add a couple of
large metal washers between the lower weights. Tiffen advises
against this procedure because it affects the overall rigidity
and the precision milled nature of the Merlin.
There are a number of resources to assist
in balancing your camcorder with the Merlin. Along with the manual
and included DVD is Tiffen's "Merlin Cookbook" located
on the web. (http://www.merlincookbook.com/). This excellent
database includes dozens of settings for various camcorders configured
by Tiffen and submitted by users. Using this guide, I attached
the HVX200 to the dovetail plate using camera alignment pin and
the locating screw in the "H" hole.
Notably, you can manually identify the
balance point using a procedure set forth in the instructional
DVD. Or you can use an interactive web based spreadsheet called
the "Magic Formula" to input specific information about
your camcorder. There is also a downloadable spreadsheet with
formulas to assist you. The point being that Tiffen has worked
hard to make the balancing act as painless as possible.
With the Panasonic, the upper and lower
spars were fully extended and locked into position at 13.5 inches
from the trim stage. The Panasonic requires that all balance
weights be used due to its top-heavy nature.
With lighter camcorders, the number of
balance weights and the extension of the spars are modified accordingly.
The on line Cookbook contains Tiffen's suggestions on what weight,
initial extension, and trim stage positions should be used. And
as I stated earlier, users also supply settings that have worked
for their camcorders at the web site.
Perfecting the balance of the Merlin
with your camcorder is a trial and error procedure using three
adjustable mechanisms -- two precision trim rollers, and the
gimbal handle that can be rotated several turns.
If the cam leans up or down, adjust the
trim roller on the left side of the Merlin to bring the cam into
balance front to back. Use the same procedure with middle trim
roller to adjust the side-to-side balance. Both controls are
well constructed, easy to use, and responsive. This final balancing
act, however, is invariably part art and part science, and it
takes some practice for the uninitiated. But surprisingly, once
you get the knack of the procedure, it stays with you like riding
The Merlin, however, is not for everyone,
nor is it appropriate for every camcorder. It is best suited
for lighter cams. Anything in excess of 5.5 pounds requires modifications
the Merlin is not designed to accept. Even though it will work
at this weight, you must be strong enough to control it for any
substantial video shoot. However, the footage is produces with
an over cranked HVX200 at 720/24pn (60) is absolutely stunning
in my view.
The inevitable question is how much footage
can you take with the Merlin. The answer depends on how much
combined weight is involved. At nearly eight (8) pounds, my HVX200
was heavy and difficult to use after a couple of minutes. However,
the upside is that the footage was pleasing, and my right arm
got a good work out. Tiffen reminds users that most Steadicam
commercial footage lasts less than two minutes.
Some purchasers may be legitimately concerned
with the $849.00 price of the Merlin. However, the unit is remarkably
manufactured. It consists of machined aluminum, brass and stainless
steel. It is exceptionally rigid which contributes to its overall
steadiness in operation. As I said, this should be sold in Apple
Copyright ©2006 David
A. Saraceno is a motion graphics
artist located in Spokane, Washington. He has written for DV
Magazine, AV Video, MacHome Journal, and several state and national
legal technology magazines. David also moderates several forums