Today, in cinematography, we have a spoil of riches in terms of camera tools...
Drones can fly a camera in positions (safely or not) that we have never seen in cinema before, the art of “stitching” shots together using CGI with relatively seamless results can make the long, impossible shot now very doable. Gimbals and the like have made certain unthinkable shots now a possibility, and the brilliant Steadicam, largely similar in basic function since its creation in the 70’s, remains an unmissable staple on most movie shoots. Helicopters still provide breathtaking vistas, their mounts and stabilization gyros only getting better and better.
But there was a time when if you saw an angle, move or perspective on film, a large, rather bulky camera had to actually physically be there to accomplish the perspective.
The world of photochemical film shooting (even most film shoots today on celluloid go through a digital color grading process after being scanned and are shown largely digitally) was vastly different on certain fundamentals than current filmmaking techniques.
Any optical process would result in the film losing a generation, meaning a positive of the shot would have to be re-photographed on an optical camera, whatever effect applied, and a new negative would be created. This would result in increased grain, any dirt or scratches that were on the element you passed through the optical camera now a permanent fixture in the movie.
Many great artists of course mastered these optical techniques and came up with ways to reduce the increased grain and generational loss with formats such as Vista Vision and shooting effects shots on 65mm film as opposed to 35mm, but that is very much an art of the past.
So any long, complex shot that would be “stitched” together had to be done in camera, using clever devices as seen in such films as Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), like edits done on the backs of characters that fill frame and the like.
The camera crane is of course one of the most important tools used in cinema, even today, to give an impression of grandiosity or scope. Anytime you see a crane shot, you know someone’s spent money. And even today, every time a crane shot plays across the screen, a small breath of amazement can be subliminally felt, much like the audience must have felt when they first saw DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1919), considered to be the first crane shot in movies.
Initially, the camera crane, first designed by Allan Dwan on Griffith’s picture, always required an operator and others such as assistants or the director riding physically on top of the crane. This technique, still used today (albeit less and less) can provide great, intuitive results, albeit much attention needs to be placed on safety, ground stability and counterbalance due to the fact that actual humans are being hoisted on the air on what is essentially a particularly enthusiastic long see-saw.
Using this old school technique and the subsequent variants that followed, provided may of the great crane shots of early cinema, such as the Buzby Berkely musicals and of course the brilliant opening shot of Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil (1958), still stunning today. The advantage of such tools as the Chapman Titan Crane made these crane shots even more versatile, but it was always a bulky, massive, time consuming expenditure to get the camera “up there”.
That was, until 1970, when a couple of enterprising Frenchmen named Jean-Marie Lavalou and Alain Masseron had a problem. While carrying out their national Army service in the cinematography department, they wanted to do a shot that traveled through the entirety of a submarine, moving through crew and gear. A standard riding crane would have been impossible, so they had to find a way to remotely control the camera (in this case an Éclair Cameflex, not the easiest camera to work with if you’ve had the chance to do so). And so they came up with a remote gyroscopic system to pan and tilt (today commonly known as a remote head) and placed it on the end of a long boom and an Elemack Dolly. Further research and R+D was done in collaboration with Samcine (Samuelson’s of the UK), including adding a primitive video assist (in order to view the exact framing of the camera on an external monitor) and further control of the remote head was refined, to end up with the revolutionary Louma Crane (the name a combination of Lavalou and Masseron).
Unlike the later Technocrane (and current Louma 2), the arm couldn’t telescope in or out, but it was unlike anything ever seen before. A crane that could fit into a sprinter van, to be carefully assembled on set through modular pieces that fit together like a complex, heavy jigsaw puzzle, ending up with the world’s first remote head and control from a workstation with its 70’s-era electronics, monitor, and pan and tilt wheels.
Usually on a set of track to make the moves even more elaborate, it suddenly opened up doors to shots previously unthinkable. Certainly the penultimate shot of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), shot by Luciano Tovoli aic asc, proves just how stunning a tool this crane could be, even on shots that aren’t necessarily rising high in the sky.
Amazing feats such as the opening credits shot of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), photographed by the great Sven Nykvist asc, was yet another example of just how stunning such a shot could be. Starting on a simple upper courtyard window where a man appears suddenly from the dark through a soft beam of light, the camera tilts down and looks away, then looks back up to find a woman in his place, then proceeds to snake through-out the upper levels of the building, moving from one window to another (including a cheat dissolve in one where the woman is yet again replaced by the man), flying freely through intricately rusted metallic trims and weather-beaten masonry until it finds a passage to squeeze through below, to a front hall entrance way, where Polanski (playing the lead as well), enters and begins to converse with Shelly Winters, the concierge.
The tail end of the shot also includes the beginning of the dialogue scene, amazingly enough. A stunning accomplishment that must have been quite the feat to synchronize between all departments, it is executed with perfect technical prowess, no doubt helped by the fact that the courtyard, is in fact a massive set at Éclair Studios in France, something that undoubtedly gave ideal conditions for the Louma crane. No rain, uneven terrain for the track, and of course… No wind.
Wind and uneven terrain, are the wolfsbane to the beast that was the Louma Crane. Even today, cranes don’t like such elements, though stabilized remote heads can sometimes help with wind, the fact is that if it’s really, really windy, your crane, whatever it is, probably won’t be flying that day.
While the Louma could do acrobatics previously impossible in studio and during camera rental house demonstrations, as Billy Williams bsc, co-DP of Gandhi (1982) discovered, it fared less well on location in India. After a convincing display of the Louma’s abilities at Samuelson’s rental house, Williams and Director Richard Attenbourough had planned to do multiple shots using the innovative tool. However once on location, they were getting rushes back that were extremely unstable, especially when the crane was tracking on unlevel ground and encountered, you guessed it, wind. After many scrapped shots and a visit from a Louma technician, they still hadn’t solved their problems and the Louma was shipped back to Europe with its nimble yet fragile tail between its legs and they completed the film using a massive, old school riding crane from the Bombay studios.
But it wasn’t all fancy finnicky action for the Louma Crane, done only under ideal conditions…
In a film released the same year as Gandhi, the Louma had a chance to really soar its metallic wings, in one of the most famous shots to use the device, on Dario Argento’s amazing Tenebrae (1982).
Shot by the brilliant Luciano Tovoli aic asc (of The Passenger), with a tremendous, pulse-pounding, often sampled soundtrack by Goblin, Tenebrae (roughly translated to Shadows), is Argento at his best. Innovative and subversive, this Giallo is about a horror author named Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), a thinly veiled Argento surrogate who’s assistant is even played by Argento’s then partner Daria Nicolodi, is plummeted into a gore-soaked mystery as brutal murders mimicking those in his latest novel plague Rome while Neal is in town on a publicity tour. A psycho-sexual fury of imagery and obsession ensues.
Tovoli’s photography is ironically very bright, cold and metallic, a direct contrast to the implications of the movie’s title, something Argento wanted to do intentionally, to more show “interior shadows” than external ones.
The murders are mostly elaborate set-pieces set to Goblin’s throbbing beats, each one trying to up the other in terms of creativity and bloodshed.
To add an additional level of flavor to a double murder sequence of female couple who are killed on different floors of their architecturally brutalist, modern building, a pesky yet novel tool was called upon.
You guessed it, the Louma Crane… Marking the first time it was used in Italy.
Shot in Rome’s EUR district, known for its almost fascistic, cold and imposing architecture, this sequence is one that truly must be seen.
While The Tenant used opening credits to justify its long, complex Louma shot as it snaked over a languid, architecturally fetishistic set, Tenebrae has no such excuse to explain the length of its photographic gymnastics. While clearly taking a cue from The Tenant, Tenebrae ups the ante with cocaine-fueled gusto, a perverse, obsessive and brutal voyeurism brought to its Louma moment, as opposed to melancholic lyricism.
No caring about logic or audience’s expectations, the shot starts on Victim #1 opening curtains, her peering through a window as Goblin’s Tenebrae theme (with its electronically distorted vocals declaring the word “paura” repeatedly, which means fear in Italian) throttles away, the camera booming up over the outer concrete surface of the building, gritty texture the only thing filling our lines of sight, the shot so close it challenges the minimum focus of the lens. The camera then continues to rise to the upper floor, discovering Victim #2 upstairs through a window, listening to an album and drinking while wrapped in a bedsheet (it would appear that the Goblin tune is what she’s listening to), the camera then pushing forward and entering the room. It hovers there for a moment, even after the woman exits frame, then decides to pull back, exit the window, rise higher, then look down onto the roof of the building in and overhead shot, dizzyingly passing over shingles that glimmer in the frosty blue light of Tenebrae’s world. Continuing this top shot ascent, we finally pass over the rooftop and arrive at the other side of the building, where the camera then descends and tilts up, revealing empty staircases and finally descending to a lower window, where the killer’s black gloved hands enter frame with a bolt cutter, snapping open some exterior blinds and tearing them apart to gain access to the structure.
Lasting over two and a half minutes without a cut, this shot was a point of controversy upon its release. Its US distributor, Bedford Entertainment, even went as far as to cut out the middle of the shot with a blatant jump cut, without any consideration to the drastic sound edit to the music, only because it obviously annoyed and confused their unadventurous brains. Also it would make their release prints cheaper. This version of the film, re-titled Unsane, was primarily geared towards the Grindhouse circuit. It does however feature one strange additional attribute, it replaces Goblin’s catchy Tenebrae theme over the end credits, repeated multiple times previously in the movie, with an also nifty tune by Kim Wilde called Take Me Tonight for absolutely no reason. Go figure. It was the early 80’s and decision making was a different art than it is today, I suppose… Or was it?
As evidenced in Michele Soavi’s wonderful documentary Dario Argento’s World Of Horror (1985), it was no mean feat to accomplish this shot in 1982. Something that might be attempted with a drone today, this was photographed with a heavy Arriflex BL 2 that would pummel any drone into scrapyard plastic mulch today, with the Louma on an absolute maze of scaffolding and track, all rigged high up due to the extension limitations of the Louma arm at that time. The crane had to dolly in and dolly out frequently on its wooden platform of sky track to accomplish the move. All of the rickety aspects of the Louma, so detested by Billy Williams, are on evidence here occasionally, as well as some imperfect work on the wheels from the operator, certainly evidenced by the framing on the final bit of the shot, where the killer’s bolt cutter and hands are so to the left of frame that they were mostly cropped out on many of the initial home video releases, and probably even theatrically, depending on the cinema’s masking, they must have been pretty borderline on-screen.
Still, the shot is rumored to have taken three days to do, and was accomplished in ten takes (though Argento said he had two good ones early in the process).
These imperfections make things feel real. As if you were on a ride with Argento’s uneven subconscious obsessions, unlike all the ultra clean, image-stabilized camera moves seen today. Most films are usually cleaned up digitally of any of such “problems” in modern times, which can give a kind of antiseptic smoothness to camera movement. One that is missing the human element.
But the glorious, drug-charged cinema of the 80’s, with its technical innovations, however limited they were, forced us to wallow in the imperfections of their images, while at the same time marvel at their journeyman feats.
If you saw it on the screen, a camera was there…
And the Louma was the start of propelling this ability.
Of course, today, the extendable arms of telescopic cranes have changed things ten fold and have opened up even more creative possibilities. But still, some of the technically very elaborate Technocrane shots of today sometimes don’t have the same impact of these initial, rudimentary Louma Crane experiments.
Could it be that the most technically advanced aspect of a crane shot is a dream?
Could it be that a lot of shots today on cranes are just about showing off mindlessly as opposed to having an honest, obsessive and narrative reason behind them?
But it goes to show, even though with CGI and all of today’s tricks, you can simulate a camera going pretty much anywhere you want (and your budget will allow), I’ll always go back and take a trip to the shots that were done at the start of the remote crane, using our French friend the Louma. Where things were new, and narrative was the driving force.
As the most valuable piece of gear on a camera truck is an idea.
And the technology should be just the support format for a vision, a thought, a phantasm… Yet another stitch in the body of our collective motion picture dream, a perspective trapped in the lie of the light…
That soars high.
On the Louma Crane.