When most people think of cranes they think of construction (and rightly so!). Cranes are used to lift and move loads which are beyond human ability to transport simply, so they are commonly employed in loading and unloading freight or in material movement during construction. But these traditional and well-known uses of cranes aren’t the whole story. Cranes in film production have a rich and widely varied history and are responsible for many iconic scenes in a countless number of blockbuster films.
Introducing: Crane Shots
The ground-breaking addition of cranes to the repertoire of tools used in film production can be traced back to 1916, with the film Intolerance. This D.W. Griffith silent film features what is widely accepted as the first “crane shot.” The inventor and engineer Allan Dwan, a fellow film director, dreamed up the yet-unheard-of shot for Griffith’s film. The result had an impact, making audience members gasp in wonder from the grandiosity and scale of the sight.
Not long thereafter, camera cranes created to elicit just such a reaction became popular at major movie studios. They were typically produced as massive monstrosities, specialty items created by large ironworks companies. They got bigger and heavier, carrying multiple people and the cumbersome camera equipment of the day. Each crane was built with a specific shot or purpose in mind, and as such their appearance and capabilities varied greatly, while their mobility was limited.
The Camera Crane Revolution
And so it was, for over 20 years in the film industry. Bulky film cranes with little flexibility stayed on studio lots, seldom transported to on-location shoots. That all changed in the late 1940’s, when Ralph Chapman, a special effects technician with a knack for engineering, developed a line of cranes. His gasoline-powered film crane could travel on location independently, revolutionizing the use of exterior crane shots in film. Before long, these mobile crane units were available for hire.
Television and sports soon joined the fray, and the high-angle boom shots became popular in filming dance numbers, creating emotive scenes, and covering sports, much to the delight of audiences. Since the early days of limited, one-off cranes made for particular shots, technology has exploded. Crane capability has vastly improved, alongside the safety-consciousness and expertise of operators. The use of crane shots in both television and film is ubiquitous in the modern era of entertainment.
Film and TV Cranes Today
Studios and production companies generally rent crane equipment from the manufacturers who own them. This cuts down on costs and allows for a variety of cranes to be used on a production. The usage of rented cranes in film and production has seen a decline in recent years, as the introduction of drones and light-weight digital cameras have revolutionized the industry. Despite this shift, there will no doubt always be room for the silent, sweeping shots which can only be obtained by the massive cranes originally designed decades ago. They are a part of the history and future of the crane industry, and will help tell stories in a way nothing else can for years to come.