Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Working With The MCS System

I have had an opportunity to work with the Master Cinema Series system for several months now in real production environments, and I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the system. It really does take an un-ergonomic camera like the 7D or 5D and make it more friendly to use in production life. What I really appreciate about the system is that it is camera agnostic - to date, I have used the MCS with the Epic, C300, FS100, 5D, 7D, AF100, and GH2. It is from these experiences that I offer the following tips to help get even more out of the system ...

It is important to note that the base rigs, like the Action Cam, have come from Shane Hulrbut, ASC's own aesthetic and personal style of working on set. So, if you are a fan of his work, all of these rigs are well suited to help you shoot in that same style. What makes these rigs truly great, in my opinion, is that they are truly configurable to fit your own style of shooting. Personally, my own aesthetic is less run & gun / handheld, as I prefer the more traditional fluid movement that is obtained from working off of a tripod, jib, dolly and Steadicam. It is from this aesthetic that I have modified the base configurations of the MCS system to come up with my own rigs. While they are very similar to the base configurations, they have some nuances that fit my working style better.

Because I operate off of tripods, dollies, jibs, and Steadicam's 90% of the time, my biggest desire is to be able to go from one setup to the next with the fewest number of changes as possible. While the MCS system goes a long way in making this a reality, and it works a lot better than the solutions of cobbled together pieces from multiple vendors, there are still some bits of the system that are too slow for me (Note the change over in the video to studio mode). For example, I am used to working with a camera system where everything travels with the camera - the follow focus, the rod's, and the matte box (which I usually have rod mounted) - everything goes everywhere all the time. This is typically done by mounting the camera to a bridge plate that is then connected to a dovetail. Underneath the dovetail, is a 120mm camera plate that quickly swaps out from the tripod head, to the camera cart, to the jib - or wherever it needs to land. Not only does this allow for quick swapping, but more importantly, it allows for quick balancing of the rig when lenses are changed, or any other component is added or removed for that particular setup. To rebalance the rig, all that needs to happen is a quick slide on the dovetail via the bridge plate: one lever. One quick adjustment. With the current implementation of the MCS system, fine tuning the balance is not as quick and easy as working with a bridge plate and dovetail. So I've devised my own solutions.
Mount as many things as possible to the top rods.
To help mitigate these two issues, the first thing I do is to relocate as many items as I can to the top rails. This means the monitors, follow focus, and handles, as well as switching to a clip on matte box. Using a clip on matte box is not my preferred choice (I prefer the rod mounted variety), but it means that I have one less item to change when swapping between rigs. The only thing I leave attached to the bottom rails is any counter weights and extra handles. The second thing that I do is use multiple "base rigs" and balance each one for that specific setup. These "base rigs" consist of just the rods, the quick release plate, and any additional weights and handles that I may need.
My modified shoulder rig.
Now when I change from operating off of a tripod to operating off of a shoulder rig, all I have to do is to disengage the cage via the quick release and snap it on the other rig and I am all ready to go. Everything is balanced ahead of time - saving precious time on set in-between setups. Fine tuning when swapping lenses from this point is easier as I'll adjust the counter weight to get the proper balance if needed.

Another recommendation I would make when using the MCS system, is to always mount the follow focus to the top rails. While this is not standard practice, I have found it to be the most secure and reliable mounting point. Camera bodies vary so much these days that the lens mounts are nowhere close to the proper offsets. This leads to rigs where the follow focus has to be extended up and out, far away from the base rods. This is not the optimal position for the Letus Follow Focus.  Instead, it is best to keep the arm as compact and close to the rails as possible. That will ensure a rock solid connection to the rods and the lens - then you'll get every ounce of use out of the gear box. And the Letus gear box is one of the best out there at any price point in my opinion.
Keep the follow focus arm low and as close to the rods as possible. 
Following these recommendations has allowed me to be quick and nimble on productions where I have a very small crew, or I have to be working by myself managing several roles. When I have a large enough crew, then I'll have my 1st AC make the call on the gear and rigs - which typically means working with a bridge plate and dovetail. My 1st & 2nd AC's can take care of managing all the gear, balancing the rigs, and making any changes while I concentrate on the more important aspects of the days work like lighting and composition.
One of the rigs from a recent Adidas shoot I did with the High Speed Alexa. Notice the Arri swing away matte box, the eye piece leveler, and of course the Cooke Lens. The camera is on an Arri 15mm studio bridge plate and dovetail. The hands are that of my nimble 1st AC making a last minute adjustment.

The MCS system is all about configuring it to suit your needs. And while you can use it with any size crew you are working with, I'm going to expand on the modifications that I have made to help me work more quickly on smaller productions with less crew. These two examples here are setups that I used on a recent commercial shoot that I did with Jesse Rosten. We were a lean and mean crew that was shooting a spot on the Epic. The shoot was on a tight schedule due to talent availability, so I appreciated the time savings I had by using these preconfigured rigs.
My modified "Studio Cam" setup.
The first thing you'll notice about my "studio cam" setup is that it is missing the eye piece leveler. While I think that the leveler is a great idea, I have yet to be happy with any of the EVF offerings out there - sans the EVF on the Alexa. (This may change with the introduction of the TV Logic EVF I saw at NAB 2012). Because I'm not happy with any of the EVF's out there, I haven't had a need to use the eye piece leveler, and instead I use an LCD for myself, and the 1st AC will get his or her own LCD monitor. The side benefit of not having an EVF means that I have one less thing to connect and disconnect when going to studio cam mode.
My modified "Studio Cam" setup. The second monitor in this setup is for the director- Jesse Rosten. 
Essentially, to get to this setup, all I did was to add the MCS Base Plate, Rear Stabilizer, 12" Rods, and a  Top/Back Handle to the Action Cam setup. I use the back handle to pan and tilt the rig, as I find that position to be a more ergonomic place to operate the tripod head from. If you want to save some cash, and you are fine using the tripod handle, then you can lose everything except for the base plate. (You'll want to keep the baseplate attached to the tripod head for faster swapping on set). Just about everything lives on the camera via connecting to the top rails, and the matte box clips on to the front of the Canon L series lens which has a 80mm front for easy clip on mounting.
My modified "Shoulder Rig" setup
The second rig I used for this shoot is a shoulder rig used to get some handheld shots. While handheld is not my typical style, for this piece it is the right choice and fits the aesthetic Jesse wanted to achieve for the spot (and I agree with that decision). Since I already had all of the parts from the Action Cam, all I needed to make this setup work was to have 18" rods where I attached the T-Handle KitBase Plate, Rear Stabilizer, a Padded Long Weight, Shoulder Pad, and a Top/Back Handle. I then positioned the Base Plate and the Padded Long Weight so that when the camera was attached, everything was balanced properly.

For my modified shoulder rig, I opted to add a back handle for two reasons. First, it gives me a second point by which to hold and pickup the camera (convenience), but more importantly, I can use it in a pseudo "Man Cam" setup for low angled handheld work. So essentially I could quickly change shooting styles / heights without changing rigs. Flexibility and adaptability on a moments notice was the name of the game on this shoot - so having the rig configured this way allowed me to get the shots with no down time. Again, you'll also notice that I did not incorporate the EVF into this setup for the same reasons previously mentioned. Having these two different rigs set up ready to go may seem like overkill - and it may be for your situation. But it has been a lifesaver for me, as it has kept my down time to a minimum, freeing me up to work more quickly on set with smaller crews. In the end it is all about style, crew size, and flexibility. So choose the tools that work best for you, and configure them to allow you to get the most out of them. If you can't get the shot in the time allotted, then it really doesn't matter what camera or what rig you use - you don't have the shot.

Important Disclaimer:
In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel it is important to note that I am not paid for my opinions. I have paid for all of the gear I use. (I was able to borrow the Epic cage for this shoot, as I own the 7D cage for my personal rig). I do not work for, nor am I paid by Letus. I have been fortunate enough to be able to provide them with my feedback about their products over the years. You can read a more detailed account of my history with Letus HERE.

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer
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