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Steff Otto interview for TV-Bay

Steff Otto

Interview with Stefan Otto, freelance cameraman and Polecam owner operator using only DSLR cameras with his Polecam Starter Pack rig

How did you get into the Broadcast Industry?

I was born and grew up in in Guernsey in the Channel Islands. I was trained on camera work by one of the first TV camera women, Rosemary Henry at Channel Television – she'd been there 30 years when I started in the early 90s. I started as work experience while still at school.
Eventually I moved to the UK, to Fountain Television. I trained as a studio sparks and lighting operator. After a while I returned to the Channel Islands and was offered a job at Channel TV. I trained further as a cameraman there several years, along with editing, lighting, sound - the whole works really because they were a small team. I did everything. You pick up all sorts of skills. You're news editing at half past 5 at night and you know you've got to get something out in half an hour. That is a pretty steep learning curve.

When did you become a freelance cameraman?

Back in the UK in '98 I joined Meridian Television initially as a technician, then as cameraman and VT editor for a while, then back out as cameraman, finally going freelance in 2000 with my own gear. I continued doing some camera work for Meridian but was gradually picking up clients too.
I have bought a PMW-500 which I use on most of my shoots.

When did you become aware of Polecam?

At Goodwood Festival of Speed around 2004 – I saw this camera on a pole right over the top of the road on a tight bend. I didn't see it as something I was going to get – it looked to be a big investment. I was concentrating on what my main rig was going to be, looking at Digi Beta, but in the end I just kept hiring as required.
I saw another Polecam on triathlon events I was covering in the Lake District, with a Toshiba minicam on the pole. I was impressed with how quickly it was rigged, and the kind of shots they were getting with it – it certainly made an impact on me.
Then last year, I noticed that the Polecam DSLR rig was available, and coincidentally there were plenty of colleagues and others I knew buying DSLR cameras. I didn't have one and I didn't have a selection of lenses like many do.
I noticed that DSLR cameras were becoming very popular for the video aspect, and if Polecam was going to the trouble of designing a DSLR head, they must have thought that these cameras are significant too. Also I was going on shoots and noticing people using DSLRs, usually the researcher or the assistant producer were picking up cutaway shots etc – on programmes like Watchdog, Coast, Gardener's World.

So you made a decision to buy a rig?

I thought if DSLRs are becoming so popular I'll capitalise on it, and get a Polecam rig – the Starter Pack. Money was limited - I do corporate work too and I'd already invested in a full HD edit suite which cost me around ?10,000 to provide a whole package to clients. I went to Creative Video, had a go with Polecam and thought 'This is fantastic – I'm going to invest in it' - I bought it there and then.
What sold it for me too – was a video on YouTube, one guy rigging a Jimmy Jib and the other guy rigging a Polecam – this is a great way of showing the Polecam speed of setup – you have to feel sorry for the Jimmy Jib guy. ( link: http://www.polecam.com/news/latest-news/286-polecam-vs-regular-jib.html)
I know you have steady work as a cameraman but what about the Polecam rig?
I was too busy to get into using it initially. I was doing a lot of sailing and aerial shoots. I started to introduce it via the DSLR route and I've been busy with it since really.
I'm currently doing quite a bit of BBC work as a cameraman.I haven't used Polecam on Coast yet – we already run on quite a tight schedule, same on Country File - there's never much time to introduce anything new.
If I turn up on any shoot and they have a Canon 5D there I'll put the 5D on my Polecam and say 'have a look at this' – I haven't bought a camera yet, just Polecam.

spacer Polecam crane with BlackMagic camera head
Polecam Camera Crane with BlackMagic camera fitted to Polecam Wide Head.

Have you had any Polecam training?

No. I met Steffan Hewitt, the inventor of Polecam, at the BVE show and showed him how I've been using it. He said it wasn't quite right so I changed my stance, which has improved my style further. I watched a training video on line and did those exercises too. I spent several days in the back garden practicing the moves. Eventually it becomes an extension of you. I'm still learning - the remaining problem I have sometimes is to over compensate, - to go a little too far or fast with the joystick to match the camera movement to that of the pole. When you get it right it's just fantastic – it's brilliant.
I'm doing another show - Great British Wildlife for the BBC for next June. We've stopped now but we pick it up again next Spring. They had a 7D there so I used their camera.

Are you close to buying a camera for the rig?

I'm waiting for the market to settle down to find a camera I want to use. I've always hesitated about using a stills camera to shoot video, particularly as I'm not a photographer and I'm not going to go out and shoot pictures.
I've been looking at other options like the C300, but I've not got the right Polecam head for that yet. There's also the Black Magic camera –I'm waiting to try it.
So you've had success in your first year with the rig without even owning a camera?
I know what I can achieve with Polecam, and to have all the kit that goes with it for me isn't necessary right now. If somebody wants me to do some Polecam tomorrow I can get on line and source what I need.
The important thing for me is now I'm a Polecam owner and I can kit it up for whatever the job needs.
For me this way has worked. The jobs I have done with it serve to show others what I can achieve, and the work keeps coming.
I did Gardener's World using a mini jib and saw the potential for using Polecam on it. I 've done some British Motorsport as well – Touring Cars – I haven't used Polecam on it yet but it would be great. I've done Watchdog and Inside Out. I've just done Country File with John Craven with the rig, and that will go out early in December. I'm shooting the Country File Christmas Special this week also with Polecam and that will go out just before Christmas on the 23rd. All this is using DSLR cameras.
How would you summarise what the Polecam has brought to you.

I'm always keen to add production value to any shoot I do - with something I can rig quickly - that the sound man can help with - something we can literally just jump on to and grab some beautiful additional developing shots that we couldn't otherwise have got within the existing schedule. It's fantastic.

Stefan Otto: Otto Productions This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. www.vimeo.com/ottoproductions
Polecam: www.polecam.com This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. tel: +44(0)1234 855222

Photo descriptions:
Photo of Stefan Otto in a heli:
Steff Otto at work with his PMW500 fitted with Schwem gyro lens on a Super Lynx helicopter in Oman shooting aerials for Sunset & Vine for OmanSail.
The Polecam wide head rig photo:
Polecam Starter Pack PLUS fitted with the Black Magic Design Cinema camera.