Operating a Camera on Cranes and Dollies
Getting practice on a studio crane is often not easy. Learning where to place
the "post" of a crane and make good moves can be learned with a cheap
or even homemade arm. With lots of practice, the camera will compose what you
want it to without you consciously thinking about it. Like backing up a trailer
while looking through the rear view mirror. Good camera operators whether riding
on the crane or operating a remote head make moves by reflex learned with practice.
Like using "the force" ™ and not thinking about it. Like driving
a car or hitting a ball.
The best situation for operating a camera on a crane or dolly is riding with
the camera tripod head and move as the camera moves. This happens on large studio
cranes where the camera operator, assistant and sometimes the director ride.
On smaller hydraulic stage dollies the operator is raised and lowered only partially
as much as the camera. He has to make body adjustments to keep his eye up to
the eyepiece. Modern cameras have pivoting eyepieces that help make up for this
On a crane the operator must compensate for the natural movements of the arm.
When the arm moves up from the ground the camera moves away from the post position.
As the arm passes level the camera starts to move closer to the post position.
If the arm is moving in a circle, the motions are similar. The arm gets closer
to an object when the camera is pointing straight off the end of the arm. As
the arm swings away from the object it gets farther away and panning is necessary
to keep it in frame. If there is both an arm move up and to the side the corrections
by the operator are complex. These are skills learned only with experience.
They can be learned on a simple arm with a camcorder.
An operator standing on the ground needs a video monitor as he guides the camera
either by remote control or mechanical means. Operators used to gear heads have
the reflexes to correct for unwanted moves generated by a crane arm panning
and moving vertically. Operators used to using joysticks on even video games
have some advantage using a similar remote control device. A few remote controls
use a tripod handle control that helps an operator used to such heads and not
trained on gear heads or joysticks.
For any crane, practice is very wise so the operator can keep good composition
of the shot while watching for unwanted equipment in the shot AND be able to
judge the action within the shot. Directors are usually watching for the performance
and do not notice when the camera is off the set or a mic is in the shot.
On dollies, if at all possible the operator should ride behind the camera.
He should be comfortable and seated if possible. If his body is resting against
part of the dolly it helps. He should not stand unsupported in some way. Then
he can judge the smoothness of the shot and his body not contribute unwanted
motions to the dolly caused by his body moving around as the dolly moves. If
no support is possible and the operator has to stand he can spread his legs
to help stabilize his body.
If there is an arm attached to the dolly, the operator should use a remote
finder if the move is very large requiring as moving his body can effect the
stability of the shot.
Placing the "post" (the tripod head or pivot point) in the best position
of an arm/crane/jib for camera is an art learned with practice. Because the
arm changes position of the camera as the arm moves up and around in a circle,
finding a good starting and ending position for camera is a challenge. If the
subject being photographed is stationary, the "post" must be carefully
positioned to get a good start and end compositions. It is helpful to start
with the camera at right angles to the subject or straight in line with the
arm is helpful to avoid more difficult camera corrections during a move.
If a crane arm moves straight up or down the horizon does not change position.
But unless the camera is pointed straight off the end of the arm, objects close
by need a correction to be kept them centered in the frame. As the arm moves
up to a level position objects move one direction in relationship to the camera
position. Once the camera moves past level the object moves the other way in
relation to the camera. The operator has to compensate for these moves. This
is called "crossing the arm". Practice will make this correction automatic
in the operator's reflexes.
Keeping the horizon level is not a problem if the arm has a leveling arm and
the post is vertical, but keeping distant object in the same relative position
in frame is a challenge when the arm swings about the post. Keeping an object
close to camera in frame and the distant objects in relatively the same positions
is very difficult. Dolly moves can correct for some of these problems and should
be considered but, arms on dollies need the coordination of several people with
An arm move of distant objects has little visual effect. Moving by objects
close to camera or over the ground makes a much more interesting move.
If you don't have a remote viewfinder and have to start a shot on the ground,
you can frame up the shot on your knees, then stand up, start camera, then raise
the camera and viewfinder up where you can see and continue to operate comfortably.
Trying to stand up while shooting is difficult and will make a bad move. And
as with tripod operation, start from uncomfortable body positions to more comfortable
positions at the end of a shot.
I have to laugh at the pictures of a crane on a 3 wheel caster dolly and someone
walking along with it. If the dolly is on track there is some possibility to
getting accurate moves, but it is best if the operator can ride on the dolly.
© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.