Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Filming On A Small Boat



Not being much of a nautical man myself, I was wondering if anyone had any specific suggestions on how to achieve relatively stable shots on a small boat (35ft, 12 meters), where both camera and actors are on the same moving vessel and where a minimum of mobility can be maintained. The options we are considering are:

*gyro stabilized steadicam

*jib/crane arm with gyro head mounted on front deck

*I also saw at cinegear a product called "perfect horizon" (formerly "hydro gyro")

but I'm not sure what will happen to my foreground with these type of rigs.

Any thoughts would be appreciated in relation to framing head shots and close-ups with horizon and/or boat in the back ground.

Thank you in advance


Dir. Operations Groupe TSF,


I had the experience of shooting on a 100 ft boat crossing the Pacific in some very slow rolling 12 foot swells. We chose to keep the camera tightly anchored to the deck of the rolling vessel as this kept our camera,subjects and the boat environment/background moving in the same relationship to each other. In some shots we could see the ocean and horizon which of course displayed the motion of the boat in relationship to the horizon. If you go with the gyro stabilized steadicam, the camera horizon will be de- coupled from that of the boat and the subjects which might be good shooting boat to boat, but less desirable if shooting people on board your own boat. You would really see the motion of the boat in that case.

My .02

Mark Smith DP,

Seven Films Inc.

Bonjour Danys!

Having NO what so ever experience with the above mentioned gear I will tell you this. I have shot my time on motorboats and sailboats, the best way for me was to shoot it handheld. Yes, you may laugh but when you are on a small boat you don't want to haul more gear than you have to.

Besides, you are going to "gyro" with your own body, try it, you will be surprised. Will you be operating in calm or rough seas? Once we were shooting in a small boat like yours and the steering cable broke in rough sea, NOT a fun time to be "stranded" at sea with 8 people on board. Almost wanted to kill who ever OK:d us to go out. We ended up being rescued by the coast guard. Remember that boats are very unstable and mounting a crane/Jib on a small boat ( 35ft is a very small boat to shoot on ) with weights on the open sea with a gyro head. Just sounds more dangerous than it has to be. With that note. Good luck and happy sailing. Cheers, Andre The sailing Finn

Erickson Cinematographer LA


You might want to read up on John Toll's shooting of that Carroll Ballard boat movie (forget the title) where they ended up shooting handheld most of the time with an Aaton 35. Called something like "Wind."

There's an interview with Mr. Toll ASC somewhere on the internet that has some useful info in it.

Jeff "landlubber" Kreines


I am not sure of what look you are after but my experience includes shooting documentary style television with Betacams on many 19 foot boats in smooth to quite rough (not ocean) waters. I found that hand held cameras offered the maximum flexiblity and mobility.

Once I got used to the movement, it was fairly easy to keep the horizon level with a handheld camera. I asked the producers several times about steadicams or other stabilizing devices and they said that it would look odd to see the water and boat moving with the foreground relatively stable.

In order to keep the motion steady, we did a lot of wide angle work. Canon made a good lens that went from 6-45mm and made the in-boat and boat to boat work really easy. For longer shore to boat work, we simply put the longer zoom lens back on the camera.

I found that I had to treat the boat operators the same as I would a helicopter pilot in that the vessel became a camera platform and an extension of what I was doing with the camera on my shoulder. It was often a real trick to deal with current, wind and waves to keep the angle of the sun consistent. Sometimes we achieved great results, other times...

The additional thing that I liked was the safety of knowing that if I was tossed out of the boat into the water, I could simply let go of the camera and swim. I also wonder how the vessel would respond with the increased weight and placement of items such as jib arms and rigging...

As always, a simple test on the boat should let you know if this is the right technique for you..

Best wishes,

Andrew Gordon

Gaffer Regina,

Saskatchewan Canada

Last year I shot a person on the shore from a small fishing trawler travelling at a crawl on flat water - the camera was in sticks. The ambient movement of the boat under these conditions was still enormous.

Everything at sea in Jaws was shot hand held (Speilberg famously joked that it was the most expensive hand held movie ever made - I guess he had to stop making that crack after Schindlers List though).

For a good illustration of the effect of horizon stabilising gizmos - they used one for the onboard shots in the landing sequence of Saving Ryans Privates. The sea ain't that rough but the boats/talent are all over the place relative to the camera.

Tom Townend, Cinematographer/London.

More info please

Sailboat or workboat or pleasure craft?

One thing I would caution against at the outset on a smaller boat would be a counter-weighted jib arm . Counterweighted devices work well when the centerpost is kept vertical - when the post pan axis is horizontal. On a small boat where you can roll and pitch quite a bit, an arm like this will be very difficult to control as the center post becomes "non-vertical". What happens, among other things, is that even the tiniest balance discrepencies will tend to push the arm around the centerpost, and while the counterweights get rid of the "weight" of the camera and head,. they only add to the mass of the system. The inertia of that mass causes it to want to stay in one place... the boat's rolling and pitching means that the boat is moving... of course when you are on the boat, this translates into the arm trying to get away from you and that is not a good thing.

Just the hassle of moving counterweight and gear around on a boat makes work difficult while at the dock, let alone at sea. The bigger the boat, the longer it takes to change direction (in rolling and pitching) and so on ships, these various jib arms and cranes can be effective, but on small craft, they will be really difficult to work with and potentially very dangerous.

If you are on a boat with overhead rigging possibilities, you might consider a gymbal rig , one of which I have and will cheerfuly send to you. It uses the weight of the camera as the bottom of a pendulum and will allow three axis camera movement without the cameraman taking all the weight himself. (sort of a hard bungy rig) That does not mean that the shots will be what you want. If you are working with a heavy camera, and if you have overhead rigging possibilities, you might consider a bungy rig or a single lift line with either a sailor or a bungy on the other end to take the weight. This can, in a bad situation, turn into a "pinata cam" where the camera becomes a wrecking ball and you and the other people become the building being demolished.

There is a real conceptual issue whether you want to tie your frame of reference to the boat, and let people and the horizon move in the frame, whether you want to tie your frame of reference to the horizon and let people and foreground objects heave in and out of frame, or whether you want to find a compromise, (hand-held) that seeks to smoothly integrate the frames of reference.

I have used dollies on boats, and here I have some advice. (Aww, jeez, don't this guy ever shut up?

On stage, a big fat dolly is a wonderful thing. The mass adds smoothness. On the pitching deck of a boat, it is an horrible thing indeed.

If you want to try some tracking shots, use a sled dolly, either with track bogey wheels or skateboard-type wheels affixed to a board that is big enough to affix a tripod or some apple boxes on which to sit if shooting hand held. Leveling the track on a boat is tough, because boats are generally not flat. If you are using a tripod, I would recommend a ball-leveling tripod instead of a Mitchell/Moy type tripod.

TIE THE TRIPOD OR HIGH HAT OR BOXES TO THE SLED!!!! Don't just use sandbags...they rely on gravity and gravity is not enough on a moving boat or vehicle

use minimal wedges to level the track and try taping them to the track and/or the deck since everything will try to slide around. Don't try to level the track - be satisfied with making the track flat with the minimal cribbing and level the head.

With your weight and the camera's weight on the dolly, it will want to go downhill until it hits and crushes something or someone... ...and on a rolling, pitching boat, downhill is in different places at different times.

Bring lots of rubber mat if it is a sailboat so you don't ruin the finish of the deck and to provide you with a modicum of friction so the track doesn't just slide around. In fact, rubber mat may be your most useful tool in general.

If you can get to a large hardware, plumbing, or home improvement store, buy some foam insulation that is made to fit around water pipes. It is in the form of a tube with a slit going down it and you can cut pieces of it off and tape them to things on a boat that will try to hurt you. You can also put some around your sled dolly so that when it comes shooting across the deck and hits someone in the ankle, it will make a big bruise instead of an open cut.

I spent a couple of months on a square rigged sailing ship rigging large format cameras, and I broke lots of these rules. Since the ship was big, it did not roll or pitch too fast, but I had lots of shots where the camera was rigged way up the mast and out on the yardarms, and when you get away from the center of roll of a ship, it is like being on the end of a stick that someone is waving around over their heads.Once you are 80 feet to 100 feet above the deck, you are getting a lot of side loading when the ship stops rolling one way and starts rolling back in the other direction. We did do some tracking shots with a sled dolly with Panther wheels on track, and it never got away from us, but on a small boat, just the weight of the dolly and the camera crew rolling from one side of the boat to the other can affect the boat's trim.

Shutting up now

Mark Weingartner VFX guy,

LA based

Mark Weingartner's outstanding post should be required reading for anyone even thinking about shooting on a boat.

To this I would add be sure you are tethered to the safety rail on the boat and wearing proper floatation gear while rigging cameras -- if not at all times. If you are shooting this goes double. It is very easy to lose your balance on a boat while looking through a viewfinder. Do not tether yourself to the camera or wear a battery beltYou can always get another camera. If you'reconcerned about losing the camera, tether the camera to the boat, not to yourself. Swimming for you life after falling off a boat can be challenging enough without adding an anchor.

Also, if you're not used to shooting and sailing at the same time, you might want to look into something like Dramamine or Marezine. Even very experienced sailors can wind up heaving over the rail when trying to operate a camera when it's choppy. If you do decide on taking something, take it several days before you go out to see how it affects you. It knocks some people right out. Lots of parents give it to kids before car trips so they'll sleep all the way.

Brian Heller IA 600 DP


I spent a year and a half shooting 12-meter yachts preparing for the America's Cup. In the yachts and in Zodiac chase boats in calm and very ruff seas.

You did not say what format you are shooting, but what ever it is I would make sure to use a wide angle lens and that you can operate with one hand. Even tethered, if you have any kind of seas or weather you will really need to hold on with one hand. A tether never worked for me. I need to change positions too fast and too often. I also always had a clean washrag handy to whip dry the front of the lens. After a few days I also started wearing kneepads. There are lots of places on a small boat where kneeling makes a lot of sense.

Good luck,

Steve Golden,

DP/International Cinematographers' Guild Chicago, IL

Oh yes I forgot to add in my earlier post. Go to a good auto parts and Buy a large piece of Chamois, the kind used for washing cars.

Cut it up into smaller pieces and use them as wipes for lens or what have you. They are very effective in wet environments especially for a lens swab. Got to keep them in a zp lock bag though...

Mark Smith DP Oh,

Seven Films Inc.


Having worked on "Wind" with John Toll and Carroll Ballard, I can attest to the benefits of hand held with the Aaton 35. We did have, however, talented grips both Aussie and US who rigged a small four legged "horse" device out of speedrail for the operator to sit on for extra stability which was strapped down to the boat in various places. Sometimes just a beefy crew person who can brace himself somewhere to hold on to the operator works. I've been shooting 16mm with an XTR on the America's Cup boats in Auckland, and wearing a construction safety belt with large rings on either side for someone to hold on to helps as does non slippery knee pads.

Spintec in Isreal makes a small lightweight spray deflector that fits on the XTR or Aaton 35 rods. Carry a spray bottle of fresh water to rinse off the salt spots, especially the one that inevitably forms dead center.

I've used the Hydro-gyro for boat to boat in fairly rough seas, and would call it miraculous in its two axis mode. Next week I get to try the "Perfect Horizon" which is the three axis version (yaw) and can't wait.

Paul "can't believe they'll pay me to work on boats" Marbury

San Francisco

Been a while since I have shot on boats, but I found hand held very successful.

There is an article in Am Cinematographer about Waterworld which may be worth checking out...August 1995 Vol 76 ~No 8

Looking now - there are pic of the camera on a stedicam and crane. I have the article if you cant get it from Am Cine web site archives

James Welland


Very recently I was faced with just this situation. I had to take a page from Michael Chapman's book (who was the operator for Bill Butler on Jaws) and go 100% handheld. If you've got a good operator - you'll be as steady as humanly possible. The problem is, if you secure the camera to the boat, you're in danger of making your audience sea sick. And if you incorporate a gyroscope - in my opinion - it won't look real, I will look like it was done on stage and unnatural. I had wonderful luck with handheld operation on a 42' yacht.

All the best,

Jay Holben Director of Photography Los Angeles, CA

I agree with the others about hand-held. It will often be the best solution.

Depending on scene/shots/style etc. you will also need plain tripods. It will sometimes work very well if you have strong boat elements in the picture, which will remain stable.

I would be afraid that gyro and such equipement on a rather small boat would only make things unnecessarily complicated and in the end create rather than solve problems. Unless it's a feature which needs a very controlled picture style. Even the latter case, I think there are better solutions than gyro etc.


In my (much) younger days, as a cinema newsreel (Movietone) camera I also, from time to time had to film from small boats at sea.

These occasions varied from filming from a lifeboat (albeit nothing more dramatic than delivering an Xmas tree to a lightship, but still in pretty rough seas) and, more famously, filming a ship called The Flying Enterprise sinking in stormy seas off the Cornish coast. (the subject more recently of a Discovery program documentary)

On all occasions the only way to go was with a hand held camera. (I recall always putting in a couple of extra good heaves just to let the news editor know what a rough time I had had.)

More important is to keep an aluminum bodied camera clear of sea water ... and if it does get drenched, to run it under a cold tap as soon as you get ashore ( and have changed into dry clothes and had a stiff whisky yourself)

I always used to say that you were looking at the sky one moment, and at your ultimate destination the next.

Not all fun ... but not as scary as being transferred from one warship to another by jackstay transfer ... and I've been there and done that too.

Many years later, at Samuelson Film Service, we built a couple of sea tripods. These hat a gimble top and a couple of heavy Elemack weights below.


David Samuelson

I remember seeing the film "L'avventura"(Antonioni, 1960) It's beautiful, and I imagine it was shot handheld and tripod. Check it out if you have a chance.

Dramamine or Marezine. Even very experienced sailors can wind up heaving over >the rail

I assisted on a job, small boats. A lot of people puked on that very, very rough day, (including the sunt coordinator). We all ended up throwing up. The marine patrol thought we were crazy going out on such horrible weather, boats disappeared between waves.

I would go handheld, Aaton 35.

John Babl


As a happy owner of a hole in the water that I seem to throw money into constantly...a few thoughts: If the boat is fiberglas, be sure to have something to protect the gel coat from scratches. You might try some mounts that use suction cups and the like... You'll want to wear shoes that won't mar the decks if it's a yacht and not a work boat.

just remember the horizon is going to go crazy if there is much of a swell or a boat passes nearby. There are so many variables as to the size of the seas, wind and the rest.

All my best,

Chet Simmons

A lightweight skate board/rollerblade helmet for under $30 will help protect your head if you slip.

It doesn't cover your ears and is very thin and can be worn for long periods.

Put reflective tape on the top so you can be easily spotted if you go overboard in rough seas. Write your blood group on the helmet as well if you are working off of a power boat.

Mike Brennan DP London

No need. Just ask the nearest shark to give you the blood type information...

The interview with John Toll is posted on the ICG Web site,, along with interviews and chats with many other ASC members featured in the Guild's monthly online Internet chats.

Don Ver Ploeg VP

Communications Pittsford, NY

A good body harness is on the top of my list. Something that will give you tie-off points from the operator to the boat. One of the most useful is two points from the hip. It gives you stability without losing freedom to move your upper body. It's just like hand held in a car, the more you lock your body to the car by wedging yourself against it, the less the shot will look out of control. Another version would be hanging some of your weight from above by using a D-ring on the back of the shoulder part of the harness. In a way, you become a gimble of sorts, only with a brain. You can give as much of the shot to gravity as you want, choosing your mix between locking to the horizon and locking to the boat.

Bert Guthrie


Just a quick word to thank everybody who answerred my modest question. I never expected to receive so much usefull insight. This is what makes cml so good. I'll keep you posted on the final outcome.

Hope to see some of you at IBC or CINEC.


Danys BRUYERE Dir. Operations Groupe TSF, Paris


Did couple weeks shooting aboard HMS Bounty and USS Constitution recently. I'm done for now with the shooting but left my eye at sea. What a place to roll camera.

Tho not directly related to your question FWIW the really enjoyable thing that the deck of a ship brings to your eye is the background/foreground depth. The sheer, the curves, literally what shipwrights call her 'sweet lines' all combine to pull the eye into a deep frame. using the rigging lines and their blocks and deadeyes softly in the foreground was absorbing me alot. I've never found framing a problem when under way in fair winds if the sail is up. ECU's are not too bad when you consider that you establish your sea motion when wide so a drifting in the ECU is even desirable. be alert to matching ship motions/wind effects (actress blowing hair) as winds vary throughout production day. maybe a good reason to keep shooting script close to sequential is weather.

Think about the boat first- before considering gyros/technical approaches that may slow you down and be counter productive. A critical thing to ascertain from script/director is will the boat be under sail or power most of the time? With sail up you're sorta ziplocked into a world of firm rythmic movement. Motor cruising is a more random, reactionary movement (defeats the keel). sicker quicker. Unless... the wind is gusting.

Talk with the Captain/pilot of ship. Every coastline has its lee shores, rolling sea and choppy rivers. Every ship/boat has a sail plan based on a 'center of effort' and a quarter she takes the wind best from. If possible get to know the boat. modern 12 mters are very stiff boats- extremely prone to snapping about in variable wind. The lightness of fiber hulls makes this more pronounced. The older (and more wooden) she is the better in my thinking. For anything, especailly imaging.

The best thing you can do is tech scout the boat. check her out. get friendly with skipper- sail her! and BTW, we often talk about chopper pilots and the desireablity that they have film experience. A boat is no different. it s a specialized world. At sea the perceived danger is less but the actual danger is probably more because its picturesque and natural and people let their guard down. with film crew aboard, production should have an experienced captain and a SHIPS crew- atleast one mate. let them know what to expect as well- from the chaos of a film crew- retakes, madness, many voices, panic attacks, pissing contests etc... I've produced some small films and captained some small boats...

I couldnt even imagine running a ship with a film producer aboard. @! (Come to think of it there is one producder who I'd....)

maybe when shooting on deck try to snug into spots and only tie down if you really need to. if you do tie down - dont tie it off. have someone stout take a turn thru a ring or cleat and "tail you off". resistance to movement but not restriction. if you get into the rigging on a fiber hull 12 meter tie everywhere you want cause you're nuts ;- ]

lastly, seasickness doesnt usually effect most people unless you are AT SEA in a rolling seaway. harbor and river chop is more a jarring thing- worse for shooting- better for tummy- atleat in the Atlantic.

lastly lastly, rig for salt rain. wrap cam in that great see thru plastic material you can get in fabric shops. like 3 bucks a yard. darn i need some more myself...

cheerily mates!

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.


New Orleans


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