Operating a Camera on Cranes and Dollies (With comments by Bill Bennett)

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.

Something to always remember when setting up, transporting or operating a crane: NEVER allow the arm to come anywhere near overhead power lines. You can find these on most utility poles in towns and cities, as well as on transmission towers out in the countryside. Remember, the arm doesn't have to actually touch the line for the deadly current to flow. Depending on the voltage in the lines, the power can jump many feet from the line to the crane arm. Never set up under power lines, even if you never intend to raise the arm that high. Incidents have occurred where the operating crews have lost control of the arm, it rapidly rose near the wires and very unfortunate things happened as a result.

The best situation for operating a camera on a crane or dolly is riding with the camera tripod head and moving 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 problem.

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, and closer to the subject. As the arm passes level with the top of the post and continues higher, 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 will be able to 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 must 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. 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.

Most crane moves can be accomplished with the crane base stationary. Once you start moving the base as well as the crane arm the situation becomes much more complicated, unless the floor is very smooth, you will need to lay dolly track. Even with track any small bumps will become amplified at the end of the arm. Assuming your crane base will be stationary during the shot, a lot of time gets wasted when the cameraperson and the director "fish" for the proper crane base placement to achieve the shot they desire. This becomes slow and dangerous if the ground where the crane base is to be placed is not level, requiring the base to be leveled with wooden "cribbing" each time it is moved. When fully loaded crane bases are on unlevel and/or soft ground, they are prone to topple over. Many people have been severely injured or killed by cranes that have toppled over.

Here is a great method to quickly find the position of the crane center post that works for the camera move you and the director have in mind: With the crane out of the way, off to the side of the set, take a piece of rope and tie two knots in it that are the same distance apart as the measurement from the center of the crane post to the camera lens when the camera is properly mounted on the crane. Then you have one person stand without moving with one knot in their hand at what is your first guess at the crane center post position. Then, with your viewfinder and lens of choice, or camera in hand if it is small enough, extend the rope full length to the knot which you hold in the same hand as the viewfinder and stand in your first camera position, looking through the viewfinder. If you cannot achieve your first camera position with the rope taught, you have to move the post position person. When you have found your first position of the move, with the rope taught, and the center post person not moving, move through your proposed arm move, while keeping the rope taught, to the ending camera position. Use a stepladder at the beginning or end of the move if required to achieve proper camera placement. You will probably find that you will need to "jockey" the post person's several times while making several attempts at the move until you achieve good starting and ending positions, as well as a suitable path for the camera during the move. After you have found the proper position for the center post using this technique, you then put a tape "X" on the ground where the center post person was standing. Then you place the crane base so that the post is directly over that spot, and you are done. With a couple of rehersals of the arm movement, you should be ready to shoot in short order.

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 experience.

An arm move of distant objects has little visual effect. Moving by foreground objects close to camera or over the ground makes a much more interesting move. Additionally, big crane moves of a foreground person in a large empty white cyc are ineffective, as the viewer can not perceive the relative movement as there is no information in the background.

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.