There was a time when cameras didn’t move at all. In those early days, in the novelty of the first moving pictures, pictures of people gesturing and waving on the screen was enough. Then very quickly the camera learned to travel, first on cars and trains and then on primitive dollies and cranes and then for quite some time they were…content. The technology of the time made large and fanciful camera movements difficult. When filmmakers wanted to rise above a scene or reach out over an obstacle they mounted the camera on a giant crane and they went along for the ride. It was a wonderful feeling to rise majestically through the air on tons of metal and I was lucky enough to be there for that. I was also there stuck high in the air while an actor discussed his lines with the director…and that was not as majestic.
The nineteen seventies brought lighter cameras, better electronics and small video cameras you could mount on the film camera to see exactly what it was framing and around 1974 a couple of ambitious young filmmakers began to imagine what might be possible if they married all these tools together. The filmmakers were Jean-Marie Lavalou and Alan Masseron and their imaginings (with some help from David Samuelson) gave us the Louma Crane.
The Louma was the first crane that left the operators and assistants back on the ground, framing and focusing the camera remotely. By doing so it shed thousands of pounds and became a slim and supple device. You could transport it in pieces and build it where ever you wanted. Suddenly the camera could move quickly and in surprising ways and the language of filmmaking gained some lovely new phrases. I was lucky enough to get involved shortly after the Louma came to life and it was an adventure every day.
Remote heads are now so much a part of the fabric of films that it’s hard to imagine how much work and time it took to make it so. On 1941, the first big film the Louma worked on, when the crane arm was positioned for a high shot the grips would place a ladder underneath it and the camera operator would climb up and look through the viewfinder. No one trusted the video tap. On 1941, Steven Spielberg was so uncomfortable with anyone seeing what he was seeing that he had the grips build a large enclosure around the controls to block the view of all but the invited…
We were a pain to work with. The equipment was fragile and balky and strange. But we were giving filmmakers something important in return for the pain we caused — we were freeing the camera. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to watch those first users discover how they could follow an actor or switch viewpoints in mid-scene, how fluid the point of view could be. The equipment quickly got better and we found we were not alone. Together, the Louma and the Steadicam made the camera into a dancer, one that could partner with the actors…and films got a whole new look.
Today we take this all for granted. Cameras leap and fly and swim to be with the action wherever it goes. But not so very long ago (at least to me) it wasn’t that way. A small handful of people who wanted more from the camera invented ways to make it dance and filmmaking was changed forever. What an adventure that was!
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