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Using a Crane: Educating your Audience on Geography & the Art of Discovery

This week we go into another motion tool of storytelling, THE CRANE. This device has been around for decades. Allan Dwan has been credited with the first dolly shot and the first crane shot. He devised a system for D.W. Griffith on Intolerance (1916).
 

Allan Dwan

Allan Dwan

 
I have used cranes that I ride, like the Apollo and the Zeus from Chapman, as well as ones that are operated remotely. Bob Richardson, ASC actually prefers to ride his crane and has done so for many years. He loves being one with the camera, as well as the feel of the fixed arm.
 

Bob Richardson, ASC on Inglourious Basterds

Bob Richardson, ASC on Inglourious Basterds

Apollo

Apollo

Zeus

Zeus


 

“Fixed arm vs. Telescopic arm”

The arsenal of cranes can be overwhelming at times. Every month in American Cinematographer, there is a new crane that goes 50’, no 80’, no now 100’ and it is motion controlled, repeatable. So many options! Another one can go underwater. It’s the HydroCrane, daunting to navigate.

FIXED: I remember when the Louma crane first came out.
 

Louma

Louma

 
It was basically a 20’ aluminum tube that had a remote head at the end that could take the full weight of a film camera and a zoom lens. WOW! This was the go to device on music videos in the late 80’s and early nineties. I was flinging it all around. Then one day a 21’ Technocrane showed up on a music video I was Key Gripping and I knew this would change the way we used the crane.
 

Techno 21'

Techno 21′

 
If the DSLR was a game changer, then the Technocrane was a crane changer. What made it so unique? Up to this point, the crane arm was fixed, meaning it did not move in and out. To accomplish this, you had to put your crane base on track, then have your dolly grip move the base as you boom up or down to get compound moves. What is a compound move? It is a move that requires the camera to boom up or down, swing left or right and dolly in and out. Let’s say you start directly overhead and you want to boom down to a close up of an actor and keep him or her in the center of the frame. You will need to have your fixed arm on track like I described and push to the end of its track. When you boom down, you will have to track back to take the arc out of the straight arm, then push in again to land on the close up.

There are many fixed arm cranes. Kessler makes the V3 with a Revolution head that I used recently on Need for Speed for our splinter unit. Benefits of this crane were the price and that you could carry it up stairs and narrow hallways because it is so light and compact.
 

Kessler Revolution Head

Kessler Revolution Head

V3 Crane

V3 Crane

Kessler on Need For Speed

Kessler on Need For Speed

 
The Jimmy Jib is another one that I use when we cannot afford a Techno or Giraffe.
 

Jimmy Jib

Jimmy Jib

 
I always like the Giraffe. It looks archaic, but it got the job done on The Rat Pack, The Skulls and Drumline.
 

Giraffe

Giraffe

Giraffe with remote head

Giraffe with remote head

Lenny Arm II Plus and Lenny Arm III

Lenny Arm II Plus and Lenny Arm III

Fischer 23

Fischer 23

Fischer 23 build out chart

Fischer 23 build out chart

Pegasus

Pegasus

Pegasus

Pegasus



 Fixed arm movement

 
These are all fixed crane moves on crane track.

TELESCOPIC: A telescopic arm gives you ultimate freedom to dream. You set the base in one location and you use the telescopic feature of the crane to remove the arc that I talked about above as well as the freedom to try many more moves that would be limited on a fixed arm crane.

I love the 50’ Technocrane the most. Why? Well, it seems to be the perfect length to get your moves to tell the story without having to lay track, which takes time. I have only laid track with the 50’ Techno four times in my career.
 

Techno 15'

Techno 15′

Techno 22'

Techno 22′

Techno 30'

Techno 30′

Techno 50'

Techno 50′

Techno 100'

Techno 100′

 
Why the 40’ Movie Bird?
 

MovieBird 45'

MovieBird 45′

 
The reason for this beauty is that it is half the weight of a 50’ and one third of the width. This is incredibly important on boats, locations that have weight and space restrictions, etc. You get the same telescopic arm abilities as the Techno, just in a smaller package.

Why the Scorpio Crane?
 

Scorpio Crane 30/37

Scorpio Crane 30/37

Scorpio Diagram

Scorpio Diagram

 
This crane is the mother of all cranes. The creators really took the best assets of both the Movie Bird and the 50’ Technocrane and added some key features to take the guess work out of creating complex compound moves. It has the ability to program soft stops as well as taking the arc out of a move without relying on your operator to do it.

A crane can be an amazing tool, but WHY do you use a crane is probably a better question to ask. RIGHT??
 
Terminator Salvation
 

“Geography, Geography, Geography”

I go to so many movies and I find that I have no idea where characters are in a scene. The coverage is so tight that you lose the sense of space. A good cinematographer educates an audience on the space in which the characters live, their possible peril, their sanctuary, their happiness, their sadness, and the emotions that they are feeling. Using a crane can do just that. The fundamentals of moviemaking. Wide shot, medium shot, close up. Simple, right? It is important not to lose sight of these core building blocks.

Let’s take this shot from Terminator Salvation. We wanted to educate the audience on the setting, the tone, the peril, the horror of what these innocent people are about to witness, experience. What kind of shot would help deliver these emotions? How about one that views the peril of people on the ground who are being pushed by this wall with spikes and bright lights, and then we push past their faces in fear and boom up? Not only to see their transporter but another one landing in the distance. How does this make you feel? Small and insignificant. What else does this simple move achieve? It shows scope, that these machines are ruthless, controlling and winning this war. What else does it tell you? It shows the space that the poor humans are now in, and this is one scary place. It shows that this group is just one of a 100 ships that are entering this huge processing facility.

This is all done with one simple push and boom up. See how powerful the WHY is? I know that many of you want to go out, get your hands on a camera and all this cool stuff, and create. But it is so important to understand the theory about storytelling. THE WHY. I know that people throw this word around like it is hot dogs and peanuts at a baseball game, but understand why you are doing it first. How it can take your actors and your story that much higher is the power and the art of cinematography. Knowing that you are not just doing a crane move because it looks cool, but that it is specifically there to help the audience feel the emotions of your characters, is paramount.
 

 

“The Art of Discovery”

Let’s take two more crane shots from Terminator. We talked about geography and educating the audience on where our characters are, but you can also use a crane to discover and build a feeling. How do you educate an audience that the world has just been blown up by a nuclear holocaust? Slowly and methodically. In the first crane shot, we see the expanse of a destroyed Los Angeles in the distance while our hero-in-the-making works on a Jeep to get out of Dodge. Soon after we use a boom down and sweep across a 7 Eleven sign which has a DNA double helix spray painted on it. What could that mean? Is it the sign of the Resistance? But the sign is destroyed. We continue to discover that the gas island is caved in, demolished, abandoned, desolate. What are the emotions of the characters? They are on the run, chased by machines, on edge. I employ handheld camera as well as crane to make you all in the audience nervous, just like they are. We need to see that no matter how far they drive, the same destruction they left in LA is worldwide; it is everywhere. This simple move shows destruction; it cements that they are alone. Where is everybody? How could we (humans) have let the machines take over?
 


 

“Keep the Emotions Coming”

On We Are Marshall, I wanted to use a crane boom up to evoke the emotions of absolute horror and loss. We follow our teammates who were on the injured, reserve list and were not able to fly with their football team. They hear about the crash, hop in a truck, travel to the site, run to the hillside, slip, fall in the mud on a rainy, foggy night to discover that their teammates, coaches and supporters have all perished in a tragic plane crash. We start with the emotions on their faces after this journey from town to the countryside. They look in horror, fire reflecting on their faces. We fly with the crane up and over their backs to reveal the devastation. We wanted to make sure that the tail section was still evident and that the fire was everywhere. I feel this gave the scene so much more emotional punch because you see that it is a plane, you see windows, and fire. You quickly put two and two together that no one survived. They are all dead!! Sons, daughters, fathers and mothers.
 

 
These crane moves I have described are not able to do all of this emotional heavy lifting by themselves, but with the help of great actors, a good story and additional coverage that puts you there, they can give you scope, geography and the sense of discovery.

How do you like to use different cranes on your shoots?
 







Author: Shane

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19 Comments

  1. Hey Shane!

    I’ve been on a shoot where talent will sprint from a dead stop and the techno will telescope out faster than a grip could accelerate a dolly.

    My absolute favorite though is operating the remote head crane off the Pursuit Systems Cayenne. It’s like a live-action video game.

    Post a Reply
    • Marcus Ubungen, ha ha, yes it is. I love the Pursuit team. Great bunch. Thanks for the comments

      Post a Reply
  2. There’s a great pair of crane shots in Back to the Future, right at the moment that lightning hits the DeLorean and sends it back to 1985. The camera cranes down as the car approaches us and the electricity zaps down the conductor pole, then they cut to a reverse shot craning up as the fire trails shoot down the street. It draws you right into that moment and then pulls you out again to see the aftermath and show that the DeLorean is nowhere to be seen.

    Post a Reply
    • Neil Oseman, yes, I loved that sequence of crane shots. Love everything Zemeckis touches. A master. Thanks for the comment

      Post a Reply
  3. Keep up the good work i will return often.

    Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne, you are very welcome and thank you for your continued support

      Post a Reply
  4. ..discover that their teammates, coaches and supporters have all perished in a tragic crane crash…

    Sometimes art imitates life. Great article and love your work!

    Post a Reply
    • See there, people don’t hurt people on sets … crane’s do. Something to think about if you truly want to use a crane on your production.
      My fave part of this (second only to your excellent insight Shane) is that one sentence – classic!

      Post a Reply
  5. Great post!!
    Many people use them for eye candy!!
    I think every shot is about point of view,
    the camera is the viewers eye’s..
    I use multi rotors to have a small portable 1000ft crane!!
    The Future.

    Post a Reply
    • Jonathan Brousseau, thank you very much for your kind words. I love those multi rotors. Absolutely

      Post a Reply
  6. I missed this post! Great one Shane, especially because I haven’t been able to use the big/expensives ones.

    Post a Reply
    • Paul Antico, glad you got a chance to see it. I think this new site style re-energizes a ton of content that people might have missed.

      Post a Reply
  7. I love the strobby handheld shot on the last clip there from We Are Marshalls at 0:39 sec. How did you achieve such quick yet exacting movement? Looks like the operator is running really fast or was he on a dolly?

    Thanks,
    Misha

    Post a Reply
    • Misha Mazor, that was all shot with a 45 degree shutter on the film camera. The operator was one of my best friends and best operators in the world Roberto DeAngelo. He did that move all handheld running with the players.

      Post a Reply

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