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Z-Cage

Review of the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly 2.0 Traveler Edition


Review by Ron Risman, September 2011


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Introduction

This is my review of the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly 2.0 Traveler Edition. Kessler Crane is known for building very high-quality, professional grade cinematography tools for the professional video market. While their products are not indie-priced, their high build quality, unique features, and exceptional performance has made them quite popular with both video professionals and enthusiasts.

Watch the Video Review & Overview

I got into event cinematography just after the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark II. I have been shooting video all of my life and am also an avid photographer, but it wasn't until I saw the video quality coming out of the 5DMKII that I jumped right in and learned everything I could about cinematography in as short amount of time as possible. One of the things I quickly learned was that in order to create a cinematic look you not only needed great composition and the ability to tell a story, but also a few tools to help the overall product look more polished. The first was a decent tripod with a very smooth / fluid head. Shooting video handheld with a DSLR is much worse than shooting handheld with a traditional camcorder due to the face that the CMOS Sensor adds extra 'wobble' to any handheld footage. This wobble, also known as the "jello" effect, is caused by the way the CMOS image sensor 'paints' the scene onto the chip from the upper left pixel to the bottom right pixel of the sensor. This 'jello' effect occurs when the movement within each frame happens quicker than the sensor can render the frame itself.

The need for stabilization isn't just for steady static shots, it is also important to stabilize motion shots. This can be down in two ways - by using a Steadicam™ or Glidecam™ to help stabilize walking or running shots or using a dolly or slider to stabilize rolling, tracking or reveal-style shots. While larger, wheeled dollies are most often used in Hollywood to film actors as they move from room to room or down a street - smaller dollies, like the Pocket Dolly, are often used to introduce something new to the scene. Often called a reveal shot, the camera slides to reveal something new that the viewer didn't get a chance to see prior to it being revealed. Other times a slider can be used just for the cinematic value of adding movement to an otherwise motionless scene.

The Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly series has become quite popular thanks to the co-branding efforts between Kessler Crane and celebrity videographer and filmmaker Philip Bloom. The Philip Bloom Signature Pocket Dolly is a feature packed & higher priced version of the Pocket Dolly Traveler that this review is based on, but the core dolly track itself is identical. Actually, a lot of the things I liked about the Pocket Dolly Traveler can be applied to all of the Pocket Dolly models, while some of the less than ideal issues I ran into me were mostly due to the "Traveler's" lack of included accessories.

The Pocket Dolly Traveler model is a shorter and lighter version (26.5", 5 lbs) of the Pocket Dolly V2.0 (38.5", 7.5 lbs). They both offer the same capabilities and retail price so your choice will ultimately be based on your need for portability. The shorter 26.5" length of the Traveler version makes it much more stable when mounted on top of a single tripod, and it's travel length of 23" is usually enough for its intended purpose - which is to provide short motion or reveal shots that usually last no more than 3-5 seconds. Both systems can be purchased with or without the belt drive system and crank. The Pocket Dolly systems can handle camera gear up to 15 lbs.

The belt drive system included with the Pocket Dolly Traveler isn't designed to make the unit smoother, instead it allows you the ability to grow into a fully automated, motorized solution down the road by adding Kessler's elektraDRIVE system. I won't go into detail about the elektraDRIVE system since I haven't had the opportunity to review it, but it's important to mention what it does. The elektraDRIVE system allows repeatable automated dolly moves as well as controlled movement for motion time-lapse photography. The motorized system also allows for perfectly smooth slides with the ability to ramp speed up / down at the beginning and end of the slides. You can read more about the elektraDRIVE System here.

Build Quality

The Pocket Dolly rail is a 100% custom CNC machined and the metal carriage slides very smoothly thanks to the ball bearing wheels which allow for frictionless movement. Our review unit also included the crank handle and belt drive, which can provide some inertia to your slides giving it a more controlled feel. On each end of the Pocket Dolly are two rubber feet that prevent slipping when placed on a smooth surface like a floor or table, and the underside of the rail features multiple 1/4-20" mounts that allow flexibility of placement when mounting to a tripod.

In the Field Testing

Compared to the Glidetrack Shooter HD that I reviewed a little over a year ago the Pocket Dolly is quite hefty. The extra weight requires a beefier tripod head (and tripod) along with some extra muscle if you plan to move around a lot, as I do during weddings. My testing of the Pocket Dolly Traveler included use during a 5-day BTS shoot in various locations around Utah. I also put it through its paces at three different weddings during August and the first week of September. This was a very busy shooting period for me and I must admit that taking the Pocket Dolly along with me to all of these shoots was a bit trying at times for reasons that I'll soon explain.

Out of Box

The Pocket Dolly Traveler was shipped in a long rectangular box and was pre-assembled with the exception of the crank, which needed to be placed onto the rotating nut that controls the belt system. Users can turn the crank in order to control the carriage or can just move the carriage by hand. I personally found that I could get more consistency using my hand to move the carriage. The crank also doesn't lock into place so if you forget this fact when moving around with the dolly, you'll soon learn the hard way when it falls to the floor. It happened to me twice before I realized that it would do more good back in the box.

There are couple of things that irritated me about the Pocket Dolly Traveler. First, it doesn't include a carriage brake. This is a BIG mistake on Kessler's behalf. Yes, I know you can purchase it separately for $60, but this is a $650 video production tool, not a $99 DIY (which usually include a brake). By not having a built-in brake you're basically being asked to do these steps each time you want to move around with the dolly: Mount the dolly to your tripod, mount the camera, perform the slide, remove the camera, remove the dolly from the tripod, then start over again from a different position. Even if you don't plan on mounting the dolly on a tripod you still have to be nuts to walk around with your camera mounted to a sliding carriage that doesn't have a brake system. The problem was so irritating that I almost left the dolly at home when I went to Utah. I couldn't imagine having to break down each time I wanted to lift my tripod and move it to another location. it was ONLY because Kessler was kind enough to send me a unit to review that I force myself to pack it for my Utah shoot - and use it.

Before packing it up for Utah I devised a make-shift brake using a bungee cord. The bungee cord allowed me to 'lock' the movement of the carriage to one end of the dolly while I was transporting it. While this worked as a temporary solution it still made it quite awkward to carry the rig around since all of the camera's weight was off to one side. Please, please, please make the brake a standard item with the purchase of any of your dollies. It's not an accessory, its a necessity. I actually sliced my finger open on the first day of the Utah shoot as moving my tripod quickly caused the camera/carriage to slide to one end, which in turn tipped the tripod enough to force one of its legs to close on my finger.

One other pet peeve for me is that the rotating nuts that control the movement of the belt sit below the dolly, almost to the same depth as the rubber legs. At an outdoor wedding I was using the Pocket Dolly to capture some prep shots. Shots of the bride, the setup of the chairs for the outdoor ceremony, and a lot of the detail shots of the ballroom before guests were invited in. Where I ran into problems was when I placed the Pocket Dolly down on the grass to get a slide of the florist setting the flowers up on the lawn. The carriage kept getting caught up in the grass, which was strange since the grass wasn't high enough to interfere with the carriage. After a quick glance I discovered that the grass was actually interfering with the rotating movement of the crank shaft that the belt rotates around. This shaft sticks down almost to the level of the ground, making shots on grass (or maybe even pile carpet) nearly impossible. This could be corrected by purchasing the optional Kessler Outrigger Feet ($149.95) that Kessler has available. Attaching these legs would not only enhance the usability of the product in this situation it also would allow you to shoot on uneven surfaces as the height of each leg can be adjusted individually - something that cannot be done with the standard rubber feet. Just be aware of this and consider getting the Outrigger Feet with your purchase.

Because the belt system creates very low ground clearance I would like to suggest that Kessler include the legs on any of their belt-driven dollies. It's not as important (in my opinion) as the brake, but without it the placement of the dolly is more limited.

Mounting to a Tripod

Because of the weight of the Pocket Dolly Traveler I recommend an aluminum or comparably weighted tripod. Even more important than the strength of the tripod legs is how solid the connection point is between the head to the tripod itself. I have owned and used too many tripods in the past where the connection point between the tripod head and the sticks, using a 1/4-20" thread, just wasn't strong enough to support anything other than center weight. After all, tripods are designed so that the camera sits above the head. I would suggest only using a Tripod and Head that connect using a 3/8" screw instead of the smaller and more fragile 1/4-20".

The tripod that I have been testing the Pocket Dolly Traveler on is the Manfrotto 546B 2-Stage Aluminum Tripod System with the 501HDV Head on a 75mm half ball. This combination worked very very well. 'm not sure how well this one tripod setup would work on the longer Pocket Dolly V2.0 (non-traveler size), but for the Traveler length it was ideal.

I mounted the Traveler using the center mounting hole. This kept the dolly centered, which made it easier to carry the tripod from point A to point B. It also helps to center the weight and puts less stress on the connection point when the camera is slid to either end of the dolly. I mounted the dolly using a Manfrotto 501PL quick release plate, which makes it easy to go from tripod to table mode. Just slide it out and go. I wanted to point out that the Manfrotto 501PL QR plate won't actually work on the far ends of the Pocket Dolly Traveler since the rubber feet get in the way of sliding the QR plate onto the tripod.

Smooth Slider

The Pocket Dolly Traveler is one smooth slider. It's not just the smoothness of the slide, it's also the fact that you can start a slide without worrying about getting a stutter or hiccup at the start of the slide. My Glidetrack, which I have enjoyed using for almost 2 years now, sometimes sticks when you first start a slide. Once you have momentum it slides smoothly (assuming the rails are clean and polished) but getting it going can sometimes cause a slight stutter.

The fact that I can rely on a smooth start, each and every time, allowed me to find more uses for the Pocket Dolly. For example, during wedding receptions when the dance floor is crowded, I found that I could use the Pocket Dolly / Tripod combination on the sidelines to keep the bride & groom in view, even though they were surrounded by family and friends. In the video I explain this a bit more intuitively than I can do in words, but quiet often when I film the dancing at a wedding reception, the subjects that I am trying to keep in the frame (grandparents, parents, bride/groom) get blocked by the heads and shoulders of other people dancing. With the Pocket Dolly / Tripod combination I was able to slide the camera left or right on the dolly as shoulders got in the way of the shot. This allowed me to keep the subject in the frame a lot more consistently than using a lock down shot or even when using a monopod. I also found that when filming interviews the slider allowed me to add subtle motion to an otherwise static shot without fear of compromising the shot. It can also be used to reveal something behind the subject as they're talking - maybe an award or trophy that they might be talking about on camera. The smoothness of the slide gave me the comfort in knowing that these shots could be pulled off - while recording - without jeopardizing the integrity of the shot itself.

Review Conclusion

I really don't know what else I can say about the Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly Traveler. It's built tough, is compact enough to fit into a suitcase when traveling, and provides glitch-free slides. If you don't mind giving up portability for a longer slide then pick up the Pocket Dolly v2.0 which is 38" in length. Just keep in mind that a 38" slider will most likely need to be supported on each end of the slider making it more cumbersome to set up. If you plan on eventually adding the elektraDRIVE or Oracle system for motion time-lapse photography then the extra carriage length is ideal - but for event cinematography you'll rarely, if ever, need the extra length.

The biggest negative really comes down to the lack of a carriage brake (as standard). The brake is available for $59.95, but it should be included even if it means raising the price of the kit itself to $699. The customer should not be allowed to purchase the dolly without the brake. It's foolish and dangerous. The optional height-adjustable feet I also find very important as they allow you to adjust each leg for stability on uneven surfaces and raise the dolly up off the ground, which in turn keeps the rotating belt system free of interference.

When all is said and done I plan to pick up a Pocket Dolly Traveler for myself sometime in the near future. It's the first portable dolly I have used that I can rely on shot after shot. That's not to say that you won't have any do-overs. You will. But they'll most likely be caused by an uneven surface or bad body position when moving the carriage.

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