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REVIEW: Wooden Camera’s new shoulder rig, matte box and accessory arm trio

Three great new camera products from a company that’s on a roll…

It’s been a busy few years for Wooden Camera. The company started off selling a single little audio accessory for Red cameras in the spring of 2011. Now, Wooden Camera is the most prolific camera accessory maker around, with a broad lineup of gear for every camera system I can name, featuring sturdy quality, reasonable prices and great support (I’ve always been able to get someone on the phone when I call the office, and the company even lists a cell phone for after-hours emergencies).

I became a Wooden Camera customer and fan a few years ago, when they released a baseplate system for my Canon C300. The plate had holes for 15mm rods, as you’d expect, but also featured a tiny mini-plate system within the bigger plate that let you quickly take the camera off the baseplate when you wanted to shoot handheld without the extra weight of metal, rods, follow focus, matte box, etc. It was an out-of-the-box solution that no other accessory maker offered, but it gave shooters great flexibility and the system has held up for 3+ years of rugged use on both of my C300s (Wooden Camera carried the same idea over to plates for lots of other cameras too).

Since catching my eye with that Quick Base system, Wooden Camera has shipped a lot of other quality, reliable accessories, from base plates to EVF mounts to battery plates and power distribution boxes, and I’ve bought at least a few of them. But this summer, the company introduced three new products that, in my mind, stand out even beyond Wooden Camera’s usually high standards for functionality and value. They are:

  • A great shoulder rig (Shoulder Rig v2, $995 base) that, when you’re working with other Wooden Camera baseplate hardware, lets you slip your camera on and off the rig very quickly, and also lets you quickly dial in the best position for the rig’s shoulder pad and its handgrip crossbar. With other rigs I’ve tried, getting a camera onto the rig and everything positioned just right usually takes several minutes, but now you can dial in the right balance and feel for different cameras, different gear and different operators in a minute or two.
  • A small(ish), rugged matte box (the Universal Matte Box) with two rotating 4×5.6” filter stages, a French flag, and a handful of clever, unique innovations. It costs $995, which is a extremely competitive for what you get, but you can also build it up with upgrades over time, adding another filter stage, a clamp-on option and a fantastic swing-away option (you can buy the matte box with the swing away option for $1495). This ability to grow the matte box over time, and get a high quality swing away option for $1495, makes it the best value in matte boxes I’ve seen.
  • A new accessory arm line called the Magic Arm ($259) that comes in 7” and 11” sizes, and uses a Nato rail and clamp system on both ends to quickly slide accessories on and off the arm (a monitor, an EVF, etc.). Likewise, you can quickly slide the arm onto any other gear that has a Nato rail (such as the new shoulder rig and matte box, along with a variety of other gear from Wooden Camera).

I’ve had a chance to work with all three of these items for a good 8 weeks or so, and have been really impressed with their sturdiness, functionality, and the attention to clever detail that Wooden Camera put into all of them. In the end, I bought them all for my own kit.

Here are a few more impressions of each product, along with one more reason why I continue to be impressed with Wooden Camera these days…

 

Shoulder Rig v2

The Shoulder Rig v2 ($995) is based on a 12” long Arri-style dovetail plate that you’ll slide your camera on and off. That means you’ll need some kind of dovetail-compatible “receiver” or clamp on the bottom of your camera — for instance, Wooden Camera sells a streamlined, 164 gram dovetail clamp for $250, which attaches to your camera’s baseplate. Or, if you have one of Wooden Camera’s Quick Base systems (again, available for many cameras), you can optionally slide the included mini plate right onto the shoulder rig’s dovetail as well (no clamp required), since the mini plate in the Quick Base system is also compatible with Arri-style dovetails. You won’t have 15mm rods mounted below the camera, but some jobs don’t require rods and using that tiny plate helps keep the shoulder rig as light as possible.

 

shoudlerrig1

 

This whole dovetail system makes it very quick to slide the camera on and off your shoulder rig, but a side benefit is that it’s also just as quick to get the camera on/off of any other camera support that has a dovetail. So I’ve installed 8” dovetails (also from Wooden Camera) on both of my Cartoni tripods, and also on a smaller Manfroto head that I use with a camera slider and a monopod. The result is the fulfillment of a long-standing cameraman fantasy: the ability to move your camera between multiple support systems in seconds, and while buying three 8” safety dovetails isn’t cheap, I’m grateful for the time they save me on almost every job. Plus, you get the weight-balancing benefits of a dovetail!

At any rate, the rest of the Shoulder Rig v2 embraces the “Sliding Is Easy” mantra as well. The Rig includes a reasonably comfortable foam shoulder pad (it’s not as comfy as Zactuo’s gel-filled Shoulder Pad QR but seems to fit my shoulder more snugly) which you can slide into any position below the rig’s dovetail and lock with a thumb knob. Since you can slide the camera itself into any position on the dovetail, and then slide the shoulder pad into any position below the dovetail, you can get a camera’s weight distribution just right on your shoulder. Zacuto, another great camera accessory maker, talks about the importance of placing the intersection of your lens and camera body directly over your shoulder, and has designed its latest shoulder rigs to facilitate that. But you can do the same thing with Wooden Camera’s Shoulder Rig v2, while gaining a little more flexibility for getting the camera out of a shoulder rig configuration in a hurry.

Likewise, you also slide the Shoulder Rig’s hand grip crossbar into position at the front of the 12″ dovetail, choosing to center it perfectly, or off-setting it to favor your left or right arm, before tightening it into place with a thumb knob. The crossbar uses standard Arri-style rosettes for attaching arms and hand grips to the ends of the bar, and Wooden Camera sells a few different grip styles and handle bar lengths. Personally, I use a pair of older Arri hand grips that I’ve had around for years, combined with Wooden Camera’s short-style handle bars, which give me good control of the camera without pushing my arms too far out from my body.

 

crossbar rail

The Magic Arm slides onto the Nato rail that’s built into the crossbar. 

The crossbar is where you’ll find one last “nice touch” that really endeared me to Wooden Camera’s Shoulder Rig V2 system, and that’s the Nato rail running along the entire length of the top. This little rail system lets you easily slide one of Wooden Camera’s new Magic Arms right onto your shoulder rig, so you can attach a small monitor or other gear precisely where you want it, in seconds.

Over the last several years, I’ve used a variety of shoulder rigs, both rented and bought. They were all varying degrees of unsatisfactory, suffering from being too heavy or to slow to get the camera installed and removed, or didn’t offer fine tuning for the best weight balance. But the Shoulder Rig v2 is the first rig I’ve used that doesn’t frustrate me. I’ve used it on a number of jobs, and each time, have appreciated its relative low weight, and that lighting speed for getting gear on, off and perfectly in position. 

 

shoudlerrig brokedown

The Shoulder Rig collapses down to a very small size, and you can reassemble it in seconds. The tape you see isn’t included. I use that to mark my position preferences!
 

Universal Mattebox UMB-1

I owned an Arri Mini Matte Box 2 (MMB-2, about $1150) for years, and was satisfied but never really bonded with it. The MMB-2 was relatively small and light, so you could clamp it to a lens, or mount it to lightweight 15mm rods. And it had two 4×5.6″ filter trays, one of which could rotate for a polarizer, graduated ND filter, etc. But the matte box was limited to that basic functionality, and I often wanted other features like a swing-away face for quick lens changes, an extra filter tray, and more options for mounting gear on the matte box. Arri made matte boxes like that, of course, but they were thousands of dollars, and significantly bigger and heavier than the MMB-2. So I just stuck with what I had. 

Then Wooden Camera introduced its new UMB-1 Universal Mattebox a few months ago, and it stands out because you can configure it in different ways, and at a reasonable price. If you want a small matte box like the MMB-2, it can do that, and if you want a bigger matte box with all the options, it can do that too. But you only have to buy and carry one matte box to cover the vast majority of jobs.

 

mattebox1

mattebox2

You can see the Nato rail on the side of the matte box, and 15mm swing away arm in background. The arm can be adapted to bigger rods as well. 

The base price for the matte box is $995, and for that, you get a sturdy, smallish matte box with two rotating 4×5.6″ filter trays, and a height-adjustable, 15mm lightweight rod mount. The matte box uses a native 143mm lens diameter, which will be bigger than most lenses you’re likely to use, but you get a cloth “donut” for keeping light out of the space where the lens meets the box. You also get some nice thoughtful touches not available on matte boxes in its price range. For instance, there are little latches below the filter trays that stop a filter from accidentally dropping out of the box. Another example: the French flag for the matte box folds in half, so you can fit it inside a smaller gear bag (try that with the flag from the Arri MMB-2!) and the flag is designed to attach to the matte box in a way that minimizes wear and tear where the screws tighten, preserving a tight connection over the years. Finally, the matte box has short Nato-style rails built in on the top, left and right sides, which let you easily slide accessories such as CineTape or a monitor mounted on an arm right onto the rail (as long as the accessories have a Nato-style clamp installed, which Wooden Camera sells individually or as part of its new Magic Arm accessories).

But you can also upgrade the basic matte box in a few important ways. A clamp-on kit lets you attach the matte box directly to your lens (no rods necessary), and includes adapters to fit the various lenses into the box’s 143mm diameter (for instance, Canon zoom lenses, Zeiss CP.2 and Canon cine primes, and pretty much anything else). The most compelling upgrade available, though, is a Swing Away arm, which lets you mount the matte box on 15mm rods, and quickly swing it out of the way when you need to swap lenses. In other words, no more wasting time trying to inch the matte box back and forth along its rods to make room for lens changes, or taking it off the rods altogether, or moving the rods forward and back from the camera’s baseplate, etc, etc. I love the Swing Away option, and you can buy the arm at a later date, or buy the UMB-1 already configured for swing away action for $1495 (also included are a few different bellows to create a snug fit on different lenses). That price considerably beats out every other swing-away matte box I’ve come across except for one model from MovCam, which I haven’t seen on any store shelves and which doesn’t appear to have some of the finer touches that Wooden Camera has built into the UMB-1.

 

folding french flag

The folding French flag is much appreciated in my small gear bag. You can see optional side flags on the right side. 

Finally, aside from the Swing Away option, the UMB-1 is configurable in other ways you don’t find in other products. If you want to add a third filter tray, it takes about 60-90 seconds, and the use of a 3mm hex wrench. It’s also quick to strip the matte box down to its bare essentials. Removing the swing away arm and bellows is done with thumb screws, no tools. Then you remove the Nato rail, which requires a 3mm hex wrench, but once that’s done, you can separate the filter modules from the matte box front, and quickly install the filter module back on your camera lens for low weight gimbal or steadicam work, etc.

 

Magic Arm with Nato Lock

Wooden Camera’s sturdy new Magic Arm is very similar to the ubiquitous Noga arms that have been around for years, shipping in 7” and 11” sizes. The arms are fairly beefy and built to last (although I do with they were a tiny bit lighter), and you can buy the arms in a standard configuration with 1/4-20 screws on either end for screwing into your camera rig and any accessories you want to attach (a monitor, wireless transmitter, etc). Either arm costs $125 in this configuration, but screwing things in and out takes a lot of time when you’re busy on set.

A much better solution is Wooden Camera’s new Nato Lock rail and clamp system, which you can buy along with the Magic Arm ($259 for either 7” or 11”). The arm comes with a small Nato-style clamp on the bottom, which you can slide onto any Nato rail you’ve got — i.e., the same rail found on the top of the Shoulder Rig v2 crossbar, and on three sides of Wooden Camera’s Universal Mattebox. Wooden Camera also builds Nato raids into its camera cages and top plates, and sells rails that you can install on cheese plates.

magicarm1

 

Thanks to this Nato rail and clamp system, getting a Magic Arm attached to your camera rig takes just a second. And on the other end of the arm is a short Nato rail, which is ready to accommodate any accessories that have their own Nato clamp attached. Since the Magic Arm kit comes with a spare Nato clamp (and rail), just attach that clamp to your field monitor, small light, or other gear, and it’s ready to slide onto the Magic Arm. Put a Nato clamp on all your accessories, and those too are ready to slide on/off in a matter of seconds (depending on the physical form of the gear, and how adept your fingers are at tightening the clamp’s knob in a small space. A little practice makes perfect.)

I was already familiar with the idea of sliding gear on-and-off accessory arms because I had bought a number of Cine Locks over the years, and installed them on various items like a small LED light, a small field monitor, and a wireless video receiver. I liked my Cine Locks, but think Wooden Camera’s Nato-style solution is a better option for a few reasons. Number 1, you can slide the Nato clamp off a rail from either end of the rail, whereas Cine Locks can only slide in/out from one direction (that makes things harder if you’re trying to slide the accessory in and out of a tight space). Secondly, Wooden Camera’s rail system is already built into many other products (again, the Shoulder Rig, Matte Box, etc.), so you don’t have to spend money on a “receiver” component just to create a surface for your accessory clamp to grab hold of. Wooden Camera’s Nato rails also are typically a few inches long which lets you fine-tune placement whereas a Cine Lock receiver has to be mounted in one specific, more-or-less permanent spot. Finally, you can buy a Wooden Camera Nato Lock rail and clamp system alone (apart from what’s included with the Magic Arm) for a list price of $79, whereas CineLocks go for $95.

 

magicarm clamp

magicarm rail

I installed the clamp on a SmallHD monitor, and then slipped the arm’s Nato rail into it. 
 

Summing Up

These new products give you the flexibility to configure your gear in different ways, and do it very quickly. They work great independenly, but you get extra efficiency when you combine them, with that Nato rail system letting you easily swap accessories between the shoulder rig and the matte box.

What’s more, Wooden Camera impresses me not just with its out-of-the-box approach to gear, but also its business in general. A great example is that the company recently opened up a retail store in Burbank, CA, only few blocks away from Arri headquarters and other retailers like Abel Cine, FilmTools and EVS (what kind of camera accessory maker opens up its own store??).

 

woodencamera store

 

 

The store is laid out cleanly like an Apple Store and features every meaningful piece of gear Wooden Camera makes, installed in camera-specific configurations for over a dozen cameras, from Blackmagics to Reds to Canons to the Varicam35. The store eliminates the guess work of how a particular piece of gear will really work or feel in your hands, or how it integrates with the rest of Wooden Camera’s lineup. The staff is also seasoned and resourceful, and I’ve already been in there a couple of times to figure out solutions for unusual gear combinations, and each time came away with an answer I wasn’t considering when I walked in.

Wooden Camera’s store, along with the new Shoulder Rig v2, the Universal Mattebox and Magic Arm are all evidence to me that this is a company that’s firing on all cylinders, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

 

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based Director of Photography and Cameraman at www.losangelescameraman.com

 

 


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Helmut Kobler is a DP and cameraman based in Los Angeles, California. He’s shot for networks such as Discovery, The History Channel, the BBC, PBS and others. Corporate work includes projects for Microsoft, American Express,…

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