Film making for all

Mike Figgis, Oscar winning director, turns engineer

Many film directors have been innovators, but few have devised anything worth protecting with a patent. Alfred Hitchcock conceived a plot mechanism called the McGuffin. The French director Abel Gance developed a new means of projecting movies, the short-lived Magiarama. But when it comes to the actual hardware with which films are made, directors have invented little of value. Until now.

The British director Mike Figgis, whose films include the Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas – is patenting a device that he believes will help to bring movie-making to the masses. With one of these items, he proclaims, any individual – professional or amateur – can function as an entire film unit.

The device, which Mr Figgis created in partnership with a designer from London’s Royal College of Art, is a portable camera rig. The prototype is made of aluminium and resembles a steering wheel.

“For quite some time now,” Mr Figgis tells the Financial Times, “I have been frustrated with the design of video cameras. I began using the new small cameras a few years ago and discovered that the image quality was really good. But the cameras themselves are hard to hold. They keep getting smaller. Which is great for ease of transit but terrible for stability of image.”

Mr Figgis, whose films have used technical innovation with great effect – as in Timecode, which split the screen in four to show concurrent storylines – turned for help to Ben Wilson, a design graduate at the RCA who had previously been at college with Mr Figgis’s son. As a keen skateboarder and BMX biker, who liked to record his experiences on video, Mr Wilson had extensive experience of the problems caused by camera wobble. At the RCA, he had attempted without great success to overcome those problems by building a helmet with a pair of digital cameras mounted on top. Undaunted, he went to see Mr Figgis at his production company, Red Mullet. “He said, ‘I’ve got this idea,’” says Mr Wilson.

They set about trying to solve the problem of stability, sketching ideas on a piece of paper. “In my head,” says Mr Figgis, “I had the image of a waiter with a tray. On the tray are full glasses of water. How does he avoid spilling the water? Firstly, his arms must be free – away from his body so that any bumps can be absorbed by his elbow joints and his shoulder joints. Secondly, the tray needs to be quite wide in order to control the balance of the horizontal.”

They tried several different shapes before settling on the steering wheel, with internal supports enabling the camera to sit in the middle. “With the hands on either side of the wheel,” says Mr Figgis, “it’s much easier to maintain stability, much like driving a car on a motorway. There is just enough weight to turn gravity to an advantage.”

From the top of a cupboard in his fantastically untidy office, overlooking the Albert Memorial, Mr Wilson pulls down some prototypes. “The early version had an adjustible crossbar,” he says. “The width of the thing was determined by basic ergonomics: you have to be able to go through doors, for example.

“A circle gives you a lot of possibilities,” he adds. “You can go low, or high.” He grips the rig at the top and lowers it to the floor, then takes the bottom and lifts it above his head. “Do you want to try it?” he asks. “Until you take hold of the thing, it is hard to imagine how much it improves stability.” He’s right.

Initially, they planned to use steel. “But it became clear that this would be too heavy, so we moved to aluminium. We’re looking at making them in carbon fibre and titanium. Aluminium is the most practical, but the welds on this are not exactly beautiful. That’s what I’m working on now.”

On his desktop computer – adorned with stickers promoting skateboarding brands – Mr Wilson stores a film he shot for his degree, showing him discussing the rig with the direcor on the roof of Red Mullet’s offices. The film also shows Mr Figgis using the rig in Venice to shoot his recent film, Hotel. “I went out to seem him use it on location,” says Mr Wilson, “to make sure everything was alright.”

Mr Figgis – in denim jacket and bright red scarf, round spectacles and trademark bushy hairstyle – fidgets with the rig as they discuss it. “I can stabilise the camera on my legs,” he says at one point, “and it stays steady. All the camera people on the shoot [in Venice] ended up holding it like this.” He puts his right hand on a stem below the camera; his left, on the rim, provides stability. “Another benefit is that this is like a shell. If I bump into something, it’s only me – the camera is protected.”

Using push-bike accessories, it is easy to add other important pieces of equipment to the rig: small lights, microphones, VU meters, and remote controls for the camera itself. “The idea was to have everything on there at once,” says Mr Wilson. “Each individual camera operator can customise it.”

A second film on Mr Wilson’s computer shows members of the Hotel cast holding the rig and describing its usefulness. Among them is David Schwimmer, the actor best known for his role in Friends. Mr Schwimmer offers these insights: “Wow, a camera and a steering wheel in one! The purpose is, um… You could put a little horn somewhere, maybe here – Poop! – and then if an extra gets in your way, you press it and they will fuckin’ move!”

With help from the law firm, Olswang, Mr Figgis and Mr Wilson have lodged patent applications in the US, Europe and south-east Asia. (The application, number 0103279.6, was released into the public domain this month.) They share equal rights to it, and intend to put the rig into production it as soon as possible. “If you have a good design,” asserts Mr Wilson, “it should be manufactured.”