Zac Chia’s Gimbal Finesse Makes Him a Key Figure for Cinematographers

Portia Leigh
May 24, 2018 · 5 min read
Camera and Gimbal Operator Zac Chia shot by Taylor Blackburn

Having a strong cinematographer and their team behind the lens is one vital aspect that separates professional looking visual media projects from their low-budget counterparts. The steadiness of the shots as the camera pans across the set, fluidly zooming in and out to capture the scene’s moving subjects, are key to capturing a project’s visual language in a cinematic way. These movements are something camera operator Zac Chia knows how to execute with precision, and they’ve made him a powerful contributor for cinematographers in film and television.

Earning several prominent awards, such as the Festival Award for Best Action Film for “Room 205” from the Atlanta Horror Film Festival and the LA Shorts Awards’ Diamond Award for Best Romance for the film “Saptapadi,” Zac Chia’s talent as a camera operator have been key to the success of series like “Kore Conversations” starring Ross Butler from the Golden Globe nominated series “13 Reasons Why,” Sean Mears over the top comedy film “The Butcher” with Nikki SooHoo from the Oscar nominated film “The Lovely Bones” and more.

Chia explains,“I generally do two types of operating, the traditional type where I’m operating on sticks, dollies, Dana dollies and handheld work; and niche camera operating work, whereby I’m operating non-traditional equipment, or in non-traditional settings, in my case — the gimbal. I usually operate the gimbal handheld, or use it as a remote head on dollies, jibs, car mounts, cable cams…”

Originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Chia, began working in the film industry a little over five years ago. A pro when it comes to gimbal operation, he’s used this skill on a multitude of productions, such as Francisco Coutinho’s “Celeste” starring Action on Film Award winner Navah Raphael (“Sugar Wheels”), “Bear With Me,” “Chasing the White Rabbit,” “Sideline,” as well as the Asean 50th Anniversary Summit with comedian Harith Iskandar, the YBG Productions “Butterfly Confirmation” promo released earlier this year, and many more.

“I first got exposed to [the gimbal] about 4 years ago, but the first wave of gimbals from all parties had certain issues with them so I didn’t use them much on projects that didn’t have time for problem-solving and experimentation,” explains Chia. “I started owning gimbals only last year, when the new wave of gimbals came out, and have been using them so much that now I don’t feel comfortable without one.”

One projects where Chia’s seasoned skill on the gimbal proved to be a key contribution was the first episode of the new supernatural romance series “Cupid’s Match,” which premiered in February. From Tongal, The CW network and Wattpad, “Cupid’s Match” follows Lila Black a high school student who’s thrown into a mythical conflict when a secret matchmaking organization matches her with cupid himself, a match that could lead to chaos on earth.

Starring Michel Janse (“The Idiotsitter,” “My All-American”), Lauren Elyse Buckley (“Foursome”) and Robert Palmer Watkins (“General Hospital,” “Last Life”), the first episode of “Cupid’s Match” quickly became the second most watched show on CWseed.com

“Kate Rhamey, the director, and Shan Liljestrand, the cinematographer, wanted a lot of movement for the beginning sequence to hook the audience, and a lot of movement for the ‘Cupid’s Entrance’ sequence to introduce Cupid with a lot of flair, and that’s where I came in,” explains Chia.

“Shan and I had an initial discussion about what he and Kate wanted in terms of movement for the shots for those sequences, and I prepped my package for those shots. I also had to figure out how to modify the build of the camera for the gimbal with the camera assistants, as it was a fairly big setup, and we didn’t want to compromise on their vision for the look of the project.”

Click to watch the series premiere of “Cupid’s Match”

As a camera operator Chia’s extensive knowledge of all things technical when it comes to tools of the trade are integral to his ability to do the best job — and that goes for the gimbal as well.

“Cupid’s Match” cinematographer Shan Liljestrand (“Back to Awesome,” “Fear Inc.,”) says, “Zac’s technical skill of operating the gimbal is invaluable to have on set as he is able to quickly diagnose whatever error may be occurring and he is able to make changes to the gear based on certain situations we find ourselves in. It is a very specialized field of work, and definitely one that Zac is on the forefront.”

To properly capture the scenes for “Cupid’s Match” it was vital for Chia to utilize his knowledge and ingenuity to come up with his own rig that would better fit the needs of the production. All of the footage before the opening credits in the first part of the episode above was captured by Chia using the DJI Ronin 2 with a few modifications he made himself.

“Switching between gimbals and handheld/tripod traditionally takes up a lot of time, but I wanted to change that and save the production some time so that they could focus on other aspects… I got some accessories from various manufacturers, and came up with a solution to make it a lot easier to hop the camera on and off the gimbal,” explains Chia.

Adding, “I do have to give a shoutout to my gimbal of choice for this job — the DJI Ronin 2, as it wasn’t really possible to fly a full fledge setup that weighed that much on a gimbal prior to the DJI Ronin 2. With all the nitty gritty stuff out of the way, I could focus on framing and capturing the shots and bring Kate’s and Shan’s visions to life. It was a lot of fun to shoot these sequences!”

Clearly Chia’s professional skill operating a gimbal has also allowed him to increase the production value on the projects he works on. The gimbal has also been key in his ability to deliver quality work on productions where quick turnaround times or lower budgets make dolly shots too time consuming and arduous.

In addition to using his skill as a camera and gimbal operator to create the visual language for projects led by other cinematographers, Chia works regularly as a cinematographer himself, often weaving in his gimbal skills there as well. As the cinematographer for the “Bodytraffic” promo for the U.S. dance tour, which debuts at LA’s Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 31, he needed to devise a way to fluidly capture the movement of the dancers and he did just that with his gimbal.

He says, “Tina Berkett and Lillian Barbeito, the artistic directors of the group, wanted to promote the contemporary dance scene in LA, and so, together with director and editor Ran Ro, they came together to do this promo video. Ran wanted to add more dynamic energy and present dance as a cinematic experience with the camera movements and the crafts of filmmaking, and so I was hired for the job.”

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