Quick and Dirty Overhead Rig for Tabletop Filming

A simple setup for filming recipes and such directly overhead

Filming food from above It’s right in the middle of a filming day when the client springs it on you…“Can we film this from overhead? You know, like one of those Tasty recipe videos on Facebook?” The sort of question that would have been good to hear about two days ago when you were finalizing your grip order.

Now, if you’ve got a studio dolly with an offset and riser (or a really solid short jib), you might be good to go. But if not, here’s a quick and dirty recipe for an overhead filming rig that a reasonably well-equipped grip truck likely has the parts for. And you can hack in replacement components if you’re missing anything.

Note that this setup only works for lockoff shots. It’s a really good fit for simple top-down tabletop work, but would also work for narrative or anything else as long as the frames don’t need to be very wide, and you don’t need to operate the camera. With the right gear on hand, you can build this rig in 15 minutes or less. Here’s a rough list of the parts that you need:

    2x 8ft speedrail
    1x 2-4ft speedrail crossbar
    2x truss crossbars w/ junior pins (Dana Dolly end blocks also work well)
    1x cheese plate w/ locking ball head (add a QRP for simpler mounting)
    2x combo stands (add wheels for simpler adjustments and fine-tuning)
    2x 90-degree grid clamps
    2x flat-top grid clamps
    2x 3/8″ bolts

How to rig the camera directly above a table How to film over a table How to film a recipe from the top

Take a look at these rough overhead sketches. If your table is short, you could certainly span it on the x-axis. But after doing a few of these videos, I find that spanning with 8ft speedrail on the y-axis tends to work better. For one, that allows you to frame up a fairly wide shot, taking full advantage of a 16:9 aspect ratio without showing the legs of the stands. Combo stands allow you to quickly raise and lower the rig to make adjustments or change the framing, and they are rock-solid once locked down. And if you put the combos on wheels, you will find that this simplifies fine tuning the final frame. Here are a few rig pictures with a very simple camera setup, using an FS5 camera tethered to an Odyssey 7Q recorder.

FS5 tabletop 90-degree angle FS5 tabletop overhead above table studio

Studio tabletop simple rig for recipe video How to video recipe on top

I like to hang the monitor on an arm close to the hand model so that they can see the frame for themselves. Most of the time, you can get away with locked-off focus on these types of shoots, as long as you can get an f/5.6 stop or deeper. The camera shown here is super lightweight, but you can easily support 30-40lbs without any issue on this rig. Just ensure you have a good solid cheeseplate w/ locking ballhead, the type you’ll often find in a basic car rigging kit. You’ll also want to make sure you have a remote trigger for the camera within reach, and some way of playing clips back without having to climb up on a ladder.

Filming hand model from above How to film high angle looking directly down

One last tip for these type of shoots: have a few white and black v-flats on hand. If you aren’t familiar, these are simple 4×8 foamcore panels taped together on the long edge to create a flexible hinge, so that you can stand them up in a v-shape. It’s a quick and easy way to fly in some bounce or negative as needed. Easy to make, and ridiculously handy on studio shoots! They’re big enough to affect lighting even when you position them away from the table (to allow crew access), and they’re easy to adjust simply by walking the vee around. You can see several of them in the background of these bts photos.

If you film enough of these overhead setups to buy the parts, here are the bits that I would purchase:
2x 8ft Schedule 40 Speedrail Pipe
1x 2ft Schedule 40 Speedrail Pipe
2x Ladder Truss w/ Jr Pin for 1-1/4 pipe
1x Ball Camera Leveling Mount w/ cheese base
2x 90-degree Fixed Grid Clamps
2x Grid Clamp w/ 3/8″ female thread
2x 3/8 bolts from any hardware store
2x combo stands with Jr receiver
6x wheels for the combos

Season and adjust to taste. Hope this helps, happy shooting!

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Matt Jeppsen is a DoP based in Sydney. Reel and contact info at www.mattjeppsen.com