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Header image for article Ari Robbins on ARRI's TRINITY & MAXIMA Stabilizers

Ari Robbins on ARRI's TRINITY & MAXIMA Stabilizers

Recently, I talked by phone with Ari Robbins, a well-known Steadicam operator. He shared insights about his career, incorporating new tools, and how ARRI’s TRINITY and MAXIMA inspire him to innovate new techniques that allow him to achieve the Director and DPs' vision.

Read highlights of our conversation below. I encourage you to listen to the recording of our call to hear even more of Ari’s thoughts on the tools and his passion for his craft, as well as his advice for aspiring and working operators.

 

Listen to our conversation.

 

Megan Donnelly: Tell us about yourself, your previous work, and how you got into this business?

Ari Robbins: No film school for me. I still can't tie my own shoes, so I'm still learning and growing. I was very fortunate that I least had some exposure to the film business before I was making those decisions. I moved to LA in 2004 and was a little bit curious. I’d already heard about Steadicam, and a lot of the friends that I grew up with that worked in the business were like, 'you will probably enjoy this, it seems like it would be for you.' I moved to LA and started working as a grip and electric. And then of course the first time I saw a Steadicam and put it on I was like, 'oh my god, I'm hooked'. Naturally, I'd still like to blame that operator. So I took a workshop at the end of 2004, and then literally went and used all the savings that I had to get myself to LA and pawned off a lot of items, and I bought a really, really bad Steadicam and just started working on Craigslist. I'd go on Craigslist and applied for free or very small jobs, and student shorts and this that, and the other, and it was a slow grow into what it became. I was lucky because at the time there was not a lot of people doing it, this was pre-digital age. And, I got very lucky and fortunate to work with the USC, AFI, and UCLA students, and as those guys grew and kept working, I kind of went with them, and it expanded from there. The true hard knocks life of learning.

 

Megan: How did you decide to commit to Steadicam?

Ari: The second I put it on, I was like, 'yep.' And, that was probably the hardest the commitment, which I think most operators probably face: do you take the plunge to you spend what you have? Do you get started, and what happens once you do? And for me, I was all ready. I got my rig. It got delivered in the mail on my 21st birthday. Funny enough I actually got to shoot that day too. And it just went from there; it just grew and grew.

 

Megan: I've done a little bit of Steadicam operating myself, but I imagine you're always learning new things.

Ari: I wish it was just like you learn and that was it. That's the thing about it as styles change, or interests, or cameras or lenses, how we use the tools and the format – it's always changing. It's always pushing you to learn more and try new things. And that's the fun of it. The more comfortable you get with it, the more experiences you've had, more often than not you find new ways. And that's actually one of the very enjoyable things, is that it's really not the same every day.

 

Megan: What's the relationship between you, the DP and the Director? How much creative input do you have?

Ari: I think it is going to vary with the relationship you have to the Director and the DP. There's times when creatively you will have a bit more to put in, and there's other times when you won't. You're not necessarily always imposing this idea or this plan, but by having the skill and experience you might say, 'oh ok, I can do that for you; I can also give you this a little here and I think this might achieve a little more emotion out of this moment.' And that's kind of the creative input. It's really not telling anyone, 'oh, this is what we do or how we do it or should do it.' It's more about you listening to your director and DP, and in that guided relationship you just naturally assist in getting everything to be the best it can be.

 

Megan: I want to touch upon the choreography of the shots. How do you learn that side of it?

Ari: I think it's one of those things where the only way to truly learn is to experience different things. I always feel Steadicam operators need a few years to have jobs that will put them in different circumstances. And then they will learn that this worked in this case. And next time I'm in a circumstance where we might want to do something like this for a shot, you'll know that you did something like that before, and this actually would help me. It's really a trial by error. You have to learn by being in it.

 

Ari Robbins at AbelCine

Megan: You've recently added the ARRI TRINITY and MAXIMA to your tool set. Can you tell me what made you decide to purchase them?

Ari: I don't like the idea of 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' Really at the end of the day, the enjoyment of learning more and achieving more should be a guiding factor for a Steadicam operator because you can’t be stuck in your ways. So for me, future technology should always be appreciated and tried to be understood. It's a matter of sharpening your own tools.

At first, when the gimbals came out I was a little apprehensive, as most operators are. But then seeing that these tools really do have a new application – and it's not necessarily better or worse but a different opportunity to achieve the same goal. The curiosity in learning more about how they would work is kind of what started me. And then the TRINITY, there are so many things you can do with it that you can't necessarily do with the Steadicam. Having the opportunity to utilize it was like, 'well I can just achieve a little more out of this, or gain a little more out of that,' so that was the start for me.

There's obviously the cool gimmicks, the high to low and the rotating and all these neat things that it can do, but really at the end of the day it comes down to just being able to sell that story a hair more, then it's worth it. I've found that as the tools are changing and the requests area always growing, the TRINITY and MAXIMA allowed a little more freedom to do something different.

I recently used my MAXIMA for two grips running with it and holding it and using it like a little stabilized remote head. That shot was very plainly not possible for a Steadicam. It was just way too much. It was like 350 ft of just really rough terrain, different heights, all of these things that would most likely just have been skull crushing for a Steadicam operator, as well as just not a way to feel the artistry of the moment. So we threw it on the MAXIMA and the grips were running with it. And it was like, 'oh my lord, this is so gorgeous'. There's just no other way to have done it. And that's part of appreciating the TRINITY and MAXIMA. There are things that they can do that a Steadicam may not be able to do as well.

Just adding these new tools and these new opportunities to me is a must do. Learning and growing is always the key. I see the future being gimbal. Like the future is female, I say, 'the future is gimbal.' Because there are applications. And now even my standard Steadicam has a gimbal included with it. It's just a part of future technology and avoiding that and not embracing it just wouldn’t do anything for me to make me better for the people hiring me.

 

Megan: You're one of the operators we know of who has both the TRINITY and MAXIMA. What are you able to achieve with the combined pieces?

Ari: It doesn't necessarily always apply to short form jobs because they have a very dedicated task and it's known. With movies and films and shows, you may not always know exactly what's coming. So for me the combination, and one of the films I did this year, we literally shot 70% of the movie on two cameras: one on TRINITY and the other operator on my MAXIMA. It was just, 'hey, we could do all of this and we could facilitate this whole show with these tools working in tandem.' And for me that was kind of what it's all for. I love the idea of a director and DP wanting something and the answer is never 'no.' Ever. And I think that's why having them both, to me, made the most sense.

And it's little things. I'm a little older and I don't love climbing on a ladder just to tilt down. So it’s like, 'why we don't just put the little remote head, the little MAXIMA, up there, and we can do a pan and tilt from there?' It keeps me closer to my director and cinematographer, and makes me more available to communicate. Adding all of those tools together gives you more range and versatility for what may come.

I kind of bought them all together for 'this one could serve this purpose' and 'this one could serve this purpose, well I should just have them all so if anything comes up, then there you go.' So for me it was a matter of learning the tools and then providing anything and everything at a moment’s notice. And that’s why I really like having them. I tend to try to do all of my long-form shows with those pieces included into my kit rental. Just because it's less about the earnings and more about well what if we needed something in the moment and this is the best way to do that, we should just have that.

We're in a creative field. The idea of thinking outside of the envelope, pushing the boundaries, is really why we all come to work. We love the idea of creation and doing something new. These tools just supply more of that opportunity. Anything I can do to assist creative in that role is exactly why I started in the first place.

 

Megan: Is there a specific challenging situation that either the TRINITY or MAXIMA helped you solve.

Ari: As productions happen, nothing can be 100% planned, and that's the fun of it. You might have all of the insight, and when you get there a little something is different, and you go, 'hey, what if we could do this.' I was on a job with an amazing director, and it was the night before, and the DP was like, 'hey, how can we achieve a really cool quick roll without going and getting a giant roll head.' So, me and him were just chatting, and I was like, 'what if we did this, what if we locked the TRINITY head and we do this, and we mount it onto that, and we create a roll,' and it was like, 'well holy sh*t we can do that'. And that was kind of the fun that the TRINITY just created a new way of doing it, and it was just a fantastic shot. We were in low mode on a dolly and just doing 360 rolls. The character was running, playing soccer, and we stayed with the ball, and the world is rolling as the ball is getting kicked. It was a fascinating new way to see it that frankly, yes, could have been achieved in other ways, but that might have been something that would not have been achievable on that day just because it wasn't necessarily planned for. And sometimes those 'wouldn't it be nice' moments really are the key moments where a tool will just shine. And that's when you blow everybody away, and I didn't even know it could do this.

I had a pilot last year where we kept the TRINITY, and it was 'should we use it this time, maybe not,' 'should we use it for this, maybe not,' and then we had one really cool moment where a car came into frame and slams on the brake at full speed; we come flying into this car, and it was all 50's cars so the back trunk was a very small window. I think it was 11 1/2 inches. So we measured out the lens and everything and the TRINITY head, and the idea was when the car comes to a stop, we're going to run full speed and literally stick the lens through the car and land in a close up. At this point in the story, this is the first time that the actor is seeing something supernatural, so a very big moment. And we're like, 'let’s try it,' and I'm like, 'I'm probably going to break this car’s window, this is such a tight spot to put it in.' But we decided let’s give this is a shot; this is the right time to pull out the TRINITY; this is the right time to try something completely different. And I'll never forget it because after we did it and the actor went and watched playback he came back, and he literally jaw dropped that he hadn't seen anything like that, and neither had we. No one has been able to achieve this in another way; it would have been an incredible amount of work to do it.

So all of a sudden we've got something that is one of a kind, a shot we couldn't conceive that just came up. It just happened, and it was only because the TRINITY was there and it was available. It was that openness and trust to say, 'hey, let’s all come up with a great idea and just go for it.' I'll never forget that shot because, it was a really fun shot, and seeing everything, and the director just being like: 'Oh my God, that was brilliant.' That’s what I like about the TRINITY: there are times when it will just be a tool, it will just be a Steadicam, and then all of a sudden it’s like that is something else I couldn't even fathom. That's what I love about it, and to me that's kind of what makes it so special. That just blows my mind. Something so rudimentary as the Steadicam, so to speak, can still achieve that level of just profound newness that wasn't available two, three, four, five years ago. And that's why I absolutely love it, because when it does something amazing, it does something that truly nothing else could have done.

That's always the neat thing, the learning. And for me the MAXIMA and TRINITY is like, 'I should do this I should give this a shot.' I've had them both now for like two or three years, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what opportunities are out there – what could be done or what could be created.

Five years ago, I would have been running up and down the court trying to get these shots, and now all of these tools are providing new ways of doing these things that are groundbreaking for most of us.

 

Megan: Is there a shot where you have used the TRINITY and MAXIMA together?

Ari: Not so much together, but the thing I did really enjoy this year was being on A-cam with the TRINITY, so naturally you're on the wider side, you're kind of getting the master of the show, and I was standing next to my B-cam operator who was in my MAXIMA with my slingshot rig and watching him get all the tight shots. The motion, the feeling and the tone layering them together, cutting from wide to tight in this similar sense of motion was really cool because it felt like we could maneuver through scenes and sequences in ways that might not have been as simple in handheld, or as fluid. I was in awe every day, and the operator we had was amazing.

And then the fun of it was that, naturally, you find yourselves really close together. That was one of the neat things, neither of us were bound by the physical limitations. I had times where I'd be lower under his lens getting the nice wide, and he'd be just above mine getting the tight, only I would be standing to his left. So, we're literally standing next to each other but our lenses are almost at the exact same place together, and we can move, walk, and go. We could float like this and make scenes happen collectively together without that physical limitation. It was incredibly fascinating, a new day of doing it. So working together, maybe not so much as the same shot, but working in tandem was a beautiful opportunity.

There was a moment I actually squeezed the sled in between his two sling shot things. When you are working with tools that allow you that fluidity, you get to do a real dance together, and that's always fun. That movie convinced me I really never want to do a film without my MAXIMA and TRINITY together – just because you don't have to have it for every shot, but when you do and it works, there's just nothing better. It's like fireworks. And, I like the idea saying of I can have these things and there is nothing that would hold us back. Except maybe rain. But that's it. And that's how it should be.

 

Megan: Can you tell us the film?

Ari: Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods for Netflix, shot by Tom Siegel. Amazing director, amazing cinematographer, fantastic experience, incredible cast. Personally, I’m super excited to see it because there’s so there much we did there, and the toys worked so well. I can’t wait to see.

 

Megan: When you are setting up a shot, what is your creative process?

Ari: You don't always get the time to really sit down and think about it. Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but for me it's always: what am I looking to achieve, what's going to be the difficult parts (not necessarily for my physicality or what I'm going to have to go through) but what's going to be the difficult moment to achieve for the content. Where is the meat of this sequence? And then looking at that and deciding how we are going to get there. How are we going to go from point A to point B with that being the overall goal.

You don't want to feel the presence of the camera. So for me the question is, how can I facilitate this with as much ease as possible so that nothing gets lost in the actual sequence. What gives me the simplest way to get what we want without losing any sense of emotion, and that to me is kind of the creative guiding factor.

Justin Timerberlake music video, Steadicam by Ari Robbins.

 

Megan: How do you feel the specific investment in TRINITY & MAXIMA has helped you or made you grow?

Ari: To me it was an investment in myself. And, the idea that I do not want to sit here a few years later and say, 'oh well, I never put that personal or financial investment in because of any fear.' The idea of investing in oneself and these tools was an investment in learning. And ultimately, they've paid out in both ways.

You invest in yourself as an operator because you are your own industry; you are your own business. For me, that's what the investment was. Do I want to be the best for everyone who calls me, or do I just want to get the job done? These tools for me now are what allows me to be the best I can for everyone. And when the next one comes out, I'll probably be first in line, whatever the next tool is, because that's just simply what it's going to take to be able to feel good about knowing that all the passion and all the love that goes into doing this is worth something.

 

Megan: What do you hope the audience feels when they see your work?

Ari: I think if the audience doesn't know I did it, then I've done my job. I've had times where people are like, 'that was all one shot, I didn't realize that'. They're so lost in the moment, and you've done exactly what you intended to do.

And, it's not always that case, but when the team that's making it has that love for what they are creating, the audience feels it. You can shoot something with a team that is just in love with every moment and even the worst editor in the world couldn't chop that out because it’s a feeling, and it's carried through the screen right into the audience.

There's this joke: we just make movies; we're not changing the world. I thought that was a wonderful statement because it’s 100% true, and it’s 100% false, because we can do stuff that can change the world. And thinking of it that way — that, yes, we can we can actually make something that will alter the way an entire culture is going to think — is such a privilege. To cherish that and hold onto that is probably the most important part of being a filmmaker in my mind because if you're not doing it to make everything better than what is the point.

If I've done my job right and I've given this moment with this character my everything, ideally the audience just feels it. That's what we were doing it for. For that moment of awe, for that moment of enjoyment, that natural moment of interest.

I actually really like to pay as much attention to the audience and watching your work on your own TV. That's where you really learn what you did or didn't do and what you took away from it. Really thinking about the way it’s going to be perceived is highly important. You're creating art, hopefully, and if you are you should create this experience simply for the person who is experiencing it. That should be the guiding factor – that really, really needs to be it. Which is why all these tools are so important, because if you use the wrong one and you took that audience member out of it then you failed. You failed them, and you failed their story, you failed your director, and then ultimately you failed yourself. We do change the world. I want to change the world, and it may not be 'X + Y = this,' but it is in there and is part of who we all are. And I suppose I would just hope that every filmmaker feels that way, even if it is just little things. It might not be saving someone's life, but if that flare took out of something that character was going to say that would affect some young person's mind, that little thing did affect the audience so it has to be considered.

 

Megan: One last question. Kind of predictable, but always good way to close… what advice do you have for people that are looking to operate.

Ari. I have young kids ask me that all the time: 'how do I get in? what do I do?' And it's such a difficult question to answer now because the way the game has all changed.

But ultimately, at the end of the day, for operators getting in, and what worked for me was, you have to have 100% commitment. For better for worse, for feast or famine, whatever it may be I'm going to do this and be really committed. Whatever you choose to do. Any of it. The reality is committing and doing it. I really look back on life and I think, 'well how did I get from point A to point B when all these other people were trying to do the same thing,' and it was that 100%. This is what I've chosen to do for myself, and I know bills and life will naturally get in the way, and those are the tests of commitment, and that's what it takes to be an operator. My first two years, I sold all my belongings and pawned everything that I had. And that's what it took. It wasn't practicing every morning, it was just committing that this is what I set my goal to be, and whatever it will take will be. And, that’s all I can tell operators.

But also, the other thing to tell people trying to be an operator is if you're not spending 12 hours of your day researching everything and opening doors that really are available to you, you're going to lose to someone who is willing to do that. There's every resource now. It's a lot harder, but it also should be easier, if you're willing to do what it takes.

There’s very few Steadicam operators or camera operators out there doing great things who don’t come in everyday and go, ‘I’m the luckiest man on Earth’, and that’s the key. I would say, if I were to literally boil down what would I want to pass on to the youth or the next generation of operators, it would just be, 'honor the responsibility of what we do.'

When I think of all the great operators out there I don’t think it’s necessarily the shots they did; I think it’s that kind of attitude they brought.

 

Megan: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

---

For more of Ari's work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

Photo: Geoffrey Gross on the MAXIMA, and Ari Robbins on the TRINITY.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 

 

Megan Donnelly
Technology and Education Development Manager, AbelCine LA

AbelCine encourages comments on our blog posts, as long as they are relevant and respectful in tone. To further professional dialog, we strongly encourage the use of real names. We reserve the right to remove any comments that violate our comment policy.

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