Cathie Anderson

Filmmakers, broadcasters fly with Nevada City startup’s technology

Michael Lewis, an engineer at Gyro-Stabilized Systems, installs a video camera into a gimbal for a news helicopter on Wednesday, June 1, in Nevada City. GSS builds gimbals that house cameras and stabilizing equipment for motion picture filming, news helicopters and television.
Michael Lewis, an engineer at Gyro-Stabilized Systems, installs a video camera into a gimbal for a news helicopter on Wednesday, June 1, in Nevada City. GSS builds gimbals that house cameras and stabilizing equipment for motion picture filming, news helicopters and television. rpench@sacbee.com

Jason Fountaine doesn’t blink when he gets a call in Nevada City from a filmmaker in Sweden who wants to nail a cinematic shot that has never been achieved before – a high-velocity shot from a new Saab Gripen fighter jet.

In the aerial-to-aerial video, a snippet of which can be viewed online at vimeo.com, the Gripen streaks over mountainous terrain at speeds of more than 300 knots, but every image is buttery smooth. There are no plumes of white smoke here. And when the jet pilot turns to glance across his shoulder, directly through the cockpit canopy, and into the lens of the camera, it feels as though he’s looking right back at the viewer.

The footage got technology blogger Chris Ziegler craving a “Top Gun” sequel and remembering a memorable track from the 1986 film.

“If ‘Danger Zone’ doesn’t automatically start playing in your head as you’re watching this, you need to check your pulse,” Ziegler said.

Fountaine’s 5-year-old company, Gyro-Stabilized Systems, is frequently asked to help film and broadcast companies tackle new frontiers, he said, and that’s just the way his small band of 17 staffers likes it. They produce a pivoted support system, known as a “gimbal,” that will keep a camera steady even as plane, helicopter, motor vehicle or boat swerves, spins or bounces. The company integrates off-the-shelf cameras and lenses its customers buy.

“We like to say they can mount to anything that moves or vibrates, and you’ll still end up with this perfect image,” Fountaine said. “It’s a tripod floating in space. The goal is to make sure there’s no jitter at all.”

We like to say they can mount to anything that moves or vibrates, and you’ll still end up with this perfect image.

Jason Fountaine, founder of Gyro-Stabilized Systems

While stability is crucial, Fountaine said, it’s not the only thing customers want. His team must look for innovations on many levels. For instance, their gimbals will allow cameras to pan at up to 200 degrees per second.

“You’re able to get shots now of two aircraft … and the camera is able to keep up,” he said. “Many systems in the world have the capability of doing maybe 60 degrees per second. It may sound like all you have to do is grab a bigger motor, but it’s not just that. There’s more involved in getting that to work. Otherwise, everyone would do it.”

Gyro-Stabilized Systems also created a gimbal mode that basically gives the pilot, skipper or driver control of the shots.

“We call it POV mode, or point-of-view mode,” Fountaine said. “You can be flying like a bird. It’s very smooth. You could be in a helicopter flying in a canyon and really control that gimbal. As you turn, all the internal sensors and software work to turn the gimbal.”

Fountaine said one of the keys to success is understanding that he is not just selling his product to clients, he is becoming an unofficial partner in their businesses.

“If they come across a way that they can differentiate themselves with their clients and customers, so they can win more business, they come to me,” Fountaine said. “They say, ‘Jason, … I have a vision to get this type of shot. Here’s the output I want. I need what the inputs are on your side to be able to achieve this shot. Are they even feasible? Are they possible?’ We take that and figure out how to make it work. We’re proactively looking to evolve the market and change things. That’s how we’ve always been.”

While cameras and lenses may cost as much as $120,000 in the film-production world, Fountaine said, his company’s gyro-stabilized systems cost a half-million dollars or more. Before a customer pays that much, Fountaine said, they want to know that Gyro-Stabilized Systems will be there for them as they grow and change. That’s part of the reason why Fountaine and his business partners opted to create gimbals that could be updated with new cameras and lenses rather than forcing customers to toss out the whole system when cameras or lens technology becomes outdated.

“The systems are expensive,” Fountaine said, “but the best people can capitalize these systems in two years, plus or minus. Then, after that, they’re cash cows for them as well. Of course, you don’t just buy a system and become successful. These guys have been in the production industry. They’ve been shooting movies and documentaries, commercials, their whole lives, so when they get to this level they’re aerial directors of photography and they’re running the business mostly around aerials.”

Gyro-Stabilized Systems sells its gimbals to companies in the cinematic, broadcast news, utility and surveillance markets. At the outset, the company began by developing systems for film production because they felt if their systems could please innovative, demanding directors of photography and fans of their films, then it would prove they manufactured quality products. Virtually all parts of the GSS gimbals are machined by small suppliers who serve other broadcast or production companies in Nevada County. Fountaine’s team puts all the pieces together.

Their film-production customers include companies such as Oscar nominee Peter Degerfeldt of Blue Sky Aerial; Emmy nominee Teton Gravity Research; and Peter Davis and Adam Huddlestone of Flying Features, who won an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for their cinematography. It was Degerfeldt who worked with the GSS team to get footage of Saab’s latest Gripen fighter jet, a reel that has gotten hundreds of thousands of online views.

Fountaine and team also have worked with the biggest names in cameras and lenses — Canon, Panasonic and RED Digital Cinema, to name a few. They frequently integrate cutting-edge camera and lens technology into their gimbals before they have gone to market, Fountaine said, because manufacturers want to shoot highlight reels ahead of their product release.

In the broadcast media world, gimbals from Gyro-Stabilized Systems are regularly used to shoot traffic reports or to broadcast major sporting events such as NFL football games and the Kentucky Derby. They are working around the clock with a neighboring company, Grass Valley, to integrate an ultra-high-definition broadcast camera into a gimbal for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer. The broadcast segment is coming on strong for GSS, Fountaine said.

“Right now, we have more … digital cinema-production customers than in the other three (industries),” Fountaine said. “In broadcast, we’ve got the second most, and it’s growing at a rate that it will outperform the production segment over time. It’s a bigger market anyway than the production market, so that would be natural.”

In fact, Fountaine said, all the other industries have a broader potential customer pool or customers who will order more units than those in the filmmaking industry. The nice thing about film, though, is that one individual, a director of photography who controls his own budget, is often making the purchase decision, Fountaine said. Broadcasters have the next-shortest procurement process, he said, and with utilities, law enforcement and military, it could be months or years before an order materializes. By starting in the film production market, Fountaine said, GSS was able to realize revenue much quicker than it could have in the other industries while also continuing to develop its products.

Fountaine said his company’s chief competitors are an Australian company called Shotover and Grass Valley’s Cineflex, a unit of big defense contractor General Dynamics. Fountaine and other members of the GSS team actually worked at Cineflex before they launched Gyro-Stabilized Systems in 2011. Fountaine said they spent about two years on research and development before they began marketing their products three years ago.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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