The folks at Glidecam were kind enough to send me a complete Gold Series rig for an extended test drive. I'd checked out the Gold rig at trade shows, but had never really spent more than a few minutes in it. This time I had it for two weeks, and even used it for a couple of jobs. I was confident enough with it after a few days of "playing" that I took it out for some real-world use. Overall, it performed very well.
I've spent varying amounts of time in most of the rigs out there: EFP, IIIA, PRO, Ultra, Masters, Ultimate, Provid, Mini, SK and even the Alien, so I've got a pretty good idea of what to expect in a rig, and where the shortcomings usually present themselves. I've flown the Sauve vest and the PRO arm.
I've owned a Provid for several years, and that's going to be the main basis for my comparisons with the Gold rig. Of the name-brand Steadicams, the Provid is closest in price to the Glidecam. They both list for around $25K, and they both target a similar type of operator, someone like me who does most of his work in video, HD or 16mm, and rarely has a call for 35mm work.
Glidecam sent me a full standard package, with their Gold vest, arm and sled. The sled was configured for NP1 batteries, although an Anton Bauer version is available, too. A Panasonic 7" LCD monitor was part of the package, too. Glidecam also offers a greenscreen, and the system is modular, so you could easily put whatever monitor you choose on the sled.
I started building the sled, setting it up on a C-stand with the included Hill docking bracket (a nice touch!). The upper stage mounts solidly to the center post, and there's a multipin connector attached to a coiled cable inside the post that carries all of the electronic signals and power. It attaches easily, and locks down tight. (The Provid's upper stage is not designed to be easily removed from the center post.) The camera mounting plate is large, much larger than the Provids, and the upper stage has a quick release function. Very nice, and something that the Provid lacks. The upper stage has precise X/Y trim adjustment knobs that work independently of the plate's lockdown knob. This is a big improvement over the Provid, where you have to release the fore/aft lock down in order to make a trim adjustment. Overall, the upper stage feels solid and well designed. It locks down much more securely than the Provid, and trim adjustments are faster and more precise.
The center post is aluminum, in contrast to the Provid's Carbon Fiber post. The gold rig is indeed heavier than the Provid, but more on that later. The center post is extendable, no-tools. The lower stage attaches in a similar way as the top stage. The rig I was using had some miniscule rotational play in the post-to-lower stage connection. Don't know if it was specific to the rig I had, or a design or manufacturing error, but it needs to be corrected. It didn't affect any of the operating I did, but I could imagine it being a real problem with whip pans. The Provid had a very solid locking mechanism for the lower stage and didn't exhibit this problem. The lower stage houses some of the rig's electronics, and the main battery cage, with room for three NP1s. You can mix and match the number of batteries you want to use, depending on your camera requirements.
The Gold sled is 12v and 24v capable with the flick of a switch. Glidecam has also wisely separated the monitor power from the camera power. The Provid runs off a single battery and has no 24V option. The battery cage slides fore and aft for dynamic balance adjustments and for expanding the rig for greater inertial stability. One nitpick here - with the battery cage positioned closest to the center post you can't open the battery doors. They bump up against the side of the cage. Notching out the cage on that side would solve the problem, and probably take all of ten minutes in the machine shop. The monitor mount is fully adjustable, up and down the post, fore and aft. This is another advantage over the Provid, which has the monitor fixed on the curvy lower stage, with only a tilt adjustment.
The Gold sled had a full compliment of connectors on both the upper and lower stages. Just about everything you could want is available here, and they've done their homework and stuck to industry standard configurations. Plenty of power taps and video signals available for your transmitter, on board recorder, follow focus, etc. There's a built in video distribution amp in the upper stage. In this department the Gold sled trounces the Provid, which has a single power tap and a single video connection on the upper stage, no spare connectors at all on the lower, and no video DA. The Provid does offer a frameline generator as an option, which the Gold sled does not. The Gold sled has a digital level-horizon meter on the monitor out, the Provid does not. One thing that always frustrated me about the Provid was the curvy shape of the lower stage. It looked cool, but made it almost impossible to mount any accessories down there, like an onboard recorder. The Gold sled is very rectilinear in design, with ample room to mount the required goodies. The Gold Arm is a IIIa style arm, the standard three spring per section design. It's not isoelastic like the current Tiffen arms. I was pleasantly surprised by the arm. Gold series arms I'd tried at trade shows always felt a bit stiff and had some noticeable torsional flexing under load. This one did not, and I'm told that Glidecam has made some adjustments to the arms over time to improve them. The arm is capable of a great weight range than the Provid arm (greater than a IIIa arm, too, I'm told!), and it has a greater boom range. It's also noticeably smoother, particularly when booming over the full range of the arm. The arm segments work together much better than the Provid arm. I always found it hard to do a slow creep (Mickey Rooney) with the Provid, because the arm wouldn't "break" easily enough and I'd end up with some vertical bob in the shot. Not so with the Gold Arm. This is not to say that the Gold Arm is as silky smooth as a PRO arm (it's not) or a well maintained Ultra Arm, but for the price it's hard to beat. It's a huge improvement over the Provid design.
The gimbal is very nice. It's smooth and solid. I never had trouble with the Provid gimbal, which I understand is the same design as the IIIa. Again, not as silky smooth as a PRO gimbal, but still capable of getting the shot. The demo rig had a little bit of crud in the pan axis, which I suspect a good cleaning would take care of. The gimbal is a no-tools affair, as well.
The Gold vest is much larger and more supportive than the Provid vest, and features a standard socket block mount. (You can buy a standard socket with the Provid now, along with a larger vest, but they are both options.) It also has a safety breakaway feature, which the provid also lacks. Glidecam went a bit overboard, in my opinion, with the ratchets on the vest adjustments.
The release levers for the underarm straps end up right where my arms fell, and I would occasionally release one of them unintentionally. Overall, though, the vest is comfortable and more substantial than the Provid vest. In real-world operating I found the Gold rig to be a lot of fun to fly. It's very stable and smooth, and the arm is a huge improvement over the Provid. I felt like the rig was working with me, instead of me having to work around its limitations, a feeling I often had with the Provid. It's heavier than the Provid, but flies so much smoother. The larger vest also does a better job of distributing the weight. I also took advantage of the ability to fly as many batteries as I wanted, cutting down on the overall weight of the sled.
Overall I came away feeling very impressed with the rig. It's a tremendous value, with a lot of high-end features in a middle-market price range. I know some of you will disparage me for not comparing the Glidecam to a PRO and an Ultra. But it's not fair to hold it up against rigs that cost twice as much, if not more. Someone looking to invest around $25K on a rig (which is exactly the situation I fall into) have a limited number of options, especially for new equipment. The Provid and the Glidecam are in the same price range, but the Glidecam is, in my opinion, vastly superior. I'm one of the many operators out there for whom buying a film-sized rig makes no sense. The market isn't there for me, but the smaller rigs fit my needs.
Granted, the Provid is a much older design, arguably a holdover from a different era in Steadicam, before there was so much competition. The Provid has gone without an upgrade in many years, and it's showing its age. Hopefully competitors like the Glidecam will make others sit up, take notice, and offer more competitive midrange products.