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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why the 40’ Movie Bird?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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