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Camera Cranes

It wasn’t long after I first got interested in movie making that I got fascinated with building a camera crane.  A good crane shot can create an absolutely stunning shot, and having always been a DIYer I couldn’t resist the urge to build one. Even using my stone-age camcorder from the early ’90s, I was still astonished with the shots I could get with the crane. But actually building a functional and strong crane was not easy. I’ve built two so far, and I am still discovering way that I could make improvements for a third. The whole process of building a good crane has been a challenging, but extremely satisfying process.  Here’s a short post on the build of my two camera cranes.

FIRST UP: THE PROTOTYPE

This crane was built in three intense days of hard work. We had no plans to work from so there was a lot of experimentation and improvisation. The build and design was even more of a challenge since I wanted the head to have both 360 degree pan and tilt. I stole the idea of using bowden cables to articulate the head from other builders’ posts on youtube.

In hindsight I see that this boom was comically under-built. I wanted to create at least eight feet long, but the materials we had immediately available to us at the time were not robust enough for a boom that size. Unbelievably, my courageous cinematographer mounted his Sony EX1 on the end of this glass-jawed wimp and popped off a few shots, ( a production assistant stood underneath the boom ready to catch the camera if the crane snapped).  In hindsight, this boom is really a “prototype”. But at that time I really was trying to make a functional boom for production. As woefully weak as it is, I am very proud of that crane. A fully articulated head with pan and tilt was a pretty ambitious feature to build in just three days. But build it we did, and used it on a production shoot the following weekend. Here’s  a clip of the footage we got with the new boom.

Happy as I was with the results, the rigors of the shoot day revealed some problems with the boom. The bowden cable articulation system was overly complex, difficult to assemble and broke easily.  Many of the components were bolted together without shake proof nuts, and required retightened after the bouncy car ride to the location. The controls and handles were made without bearing, so they were stiff and grabby once the weight of the camera had been loaded on the boom. As a result pans or tilts appeared jerky. But building the crane and using it in the field gave us good practical experience which we could feedback into the design of the second boom.

Although the shoot was a fiasco, the experience gave us great insight in the design of practical film tools. Any equipment intended for use in indie film making must be hyper-practical and useable. No matter what the sophistication of the tool, if it takes more than ten minutes to set up and prepare it becomes a liability to the production and will mostly likely inhibit good filming. Every minute you spend fighting with fussy equipment is a minute stolen away from what you should be doing during a shoot, like getting coverage, refining composition, preparing actors, etc.   I therefore came up with some design criteria for the second generation boom.

Generation 2 must have the same features as the prototype but also:

  • require minimal assembly, without aid of any tools.
  • be easily transportable
  • be unloaded assembled and ready to shoot in the same time as a standard dolly shot.
  • Use ball bearings in every joint, every point of articulation.
  • The controls must be smooth and require a minimum of force from the operator. It’s gotta feel right.
  • Sturdy, rock solid, robust, strong and absolutely not shake.

Here’s what we came up with-

GENERATION 2

Notice it takes two people to operate the boom?  One of the major problems I had to solve with the first generation boom was operator discomfort. The first generation boom placed the controls at the end of the boom arm causing the camera operator to chase the boom around as the crane moved. This arrangement often forced the camera operator to crouch or bend over uncomfortably. I spent hours thinking about where to put the controls minimize when inspiration struck. It dawned on me that dolly shots require a minimum of two people: dolly grip and camera operator. It was therefore not outrageous to require two people to operate a boom of this size. One person, a boom operator, concentrates on the boom position freeing the camera operator concentrate on what is in frame. By taking the controls off the boom itself, the camera operator can do what they are supposed to be doing; operating the camera. I don’t mind telling you that this was an inspired idea

Check out Generation Two’s test footage:

The last detail in the development of the boom is a remote monitor. A boom of this size is functionally useless without a monitor since you have no idea what hte camera is seeing. The test footage is so jerky because I am constantly having to guess where the camera is pointing. Ideally I’d like to hack together a wireless monitor system for the boom, but that’s a blog for a different day.