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Production Equipment Reviews: Kessler Camera Crane (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
Like everything else in the creative world, overuse or inappropriate use of a particular effect or gadget will do little if anything to bring production value to a video film project. However, few will disagree that well thought-out camera crane moves definitely add a whole new dimension. When it comes to many commercial video shoots where time is of the essence, budgetary constraints rule out elaborate camera rigs. If transportation is an issue, particularly international travel, then the Kessler crane is worth a look.
The Kessler Camera Crane:
Being modular in design, the Kessler Crane system is well thought-out so you can purchase all kinds of extensions and bits and pieces. It's not in the league of, say the EZ FX Jib system which I personally prefer, but then it's no where near as expensive. It does have a lot to offer those who need a fairly sturdy professional crane system within a reasonable budget.
Kessler have a good range of photographs and web movies on their site and they are usually developing at least one new product, so their site is well worth a look at. This review takes a practical look at this popular American built camera crane in use, with both small lightweight cameras and larger heavier broadcast cameras. Since we purchased our Kessler crane back in 2007 it has literally been dragged through the mud backwards.
The Kessler crane has been well put together with a mix of steel, alloy box section and angled bar with thumb screws machined in both steel and alloy. It is a rigid ladder design which definitely helps to keep the heavier broadcast cameras from twisting the frame. While the black powder coating is pretty tuff, we often find ourselves on building sites and other locations that have resulted in chipped and worn coating at the edges. Thanks to the aircraft grade materials the crane is not particularly heavy and, so, is not too much of a burden to carry around. It breaks down into 4 foot sections and can be carried in a shoulder bag.
Using The Crane:
We purchased the 8 foot model for general commercial work and, while 8 feet is not very tall in crane terms, it can be used effectively as long as you give consideration to foreground composition. We use a heavy duty tripod with a telescopic column which also increases height – although care must be taken when using heavy cameras, particularly outdoors as the strain on the column is considerable.
As you will see from the photographs, the 8' crane is mounted onto a suitable tripod head and legs, where the fluid head can be "set" to alter the camera angle plate at the end of the crane. Suitable weights are slipped onto the adjustable tubular bar and there is also a brake that can be helpful when the need arises.
As illustrated in many of the photographs, you will see a JVC HD101E camera fitted with Endura 7 battery and Chroizel matte box which the Kessler handled with complete ease. We used a portable monitor via a long composite lead and a Fujinon zoom controller which also required an extension cable attachment. We find that there is little use for zooming on a crane of this type, as trying to keep the image free from movement is not easy, particularly when shot in hi definition displayed on a large monitor.
For one particular job we had to be in various places very quickly and, for that, we either had a person at either end of the crane lift the whole unit inches from the ground and walk to the next position, or we would quickly remove camera and weights, remove the ladder crane from the tripod and place it into the back of our pick up truck and off to the next location.
“Bounce” is something that small cranes suffer from. What is that? At the point where you come to the end of your camera move the rig settles itself and, in so doing, waivers at the end – “Bounce”; course this can distract the viewers eye so it's something you need to try and avoid. Proper balance, no wind and lots of practice are one method, while the other is to simply plan to edit the move in your project before it reaches that settling point.
Travelling with The Kessler Crane:
Transporting the crane overseas is a simple case of packing it in bubble wrap and a hard cardboard box and taken to outsize luggage; to date we have had no damage done to the crane. Although lightweight, it's made of tough stuff. Taking a strong canvas bag abroad that can be later filled with rocks, stones, sand etc saves on having to take actual weights. Of course, depending on the budget it can be much less hassle to rent a crane on location.
Cranes and Tripods:
What tripod / head or support system to use is a topic for conversation for cranes such as these. While some folks have worked out various calculations and formulae (Kessler themselves have recommendations on their website) I think you will find a little common sense goes a long way. What must be considered, and not quite so apparent with initial crane ownership, is that you can expect a great deal of wear a tear on the bearings and joints of a fluid head. So, if you plan to do much crane work, think about getting a dedicated support system for it. However, if used just for the occasional scene then treat your fluid head with respect and there should be no problems.
Important User Points:
We found that while it's quite possible for one person to set up the crane with due care, it really is better with two. While the crane handles the smaller DV/HDV cameras with ease, removing extraneous attachments can be beneficial. The use of lighter batteries, removal of French flags on a matte box, etc. can help reduce wind drag even in the slightest breeze. If the crane is to be used outdoors then consider setting up next to something that can act as a wind break if the weather is an issue.
Never, never ever leave the crane with camera mounted high unattended, even with the brake locked. Do spend the time to get the camera / weight balance centred as it really will allow smoother operation. Once the camera is loaded and you have checked that no monitor cables etc. are going to get snagged, make sure that the route you have planned for the move is not hindered by any obstacles. If there is a chance of obstruction and you can't move it, or the rig, then post someone to keep an eye on things. Beware of even the lightest of breezes; depending what camera you are using, it is surprising how easy it is for the wind to grab hold of the crane and cause the unit to swing wildly.
As with all things, practice makes perfect and everyone develops their own way of doing things. Generally speaking, any rigged shot, whether crane or dolly, looks more effective if you have an object in the foreground or the angle is offset to your main point of interest so as to emphasise the camera movement.
In regard to the mechanical control arm, I have never found it smooth enough to get a useable shot on the move and only use it to pre-position the angle of the camera. If you are looking for a professional smooth jib control unit I would recommend you look at the EZ FX Jib system. Kessler has developed a range of motion products to help get smooth tracking and tilting shots however most of these units come at a price and such an outlay would need to be weighed up against practicable usage and or rental. If you are considering the purchase of a remote unit for your crane please bear in mind the tremendous stress’s involved that can quickly destroy bearings and joints particularly when using a heavy camera.
There are many crane systems on the market, at one end of the spectrum there are those that are strictly lightweight for amateur use and at the other, heavy duty professional units that few individuals would actually own.
The Kessler crane is simple in its steel/alloy construction, but solidly made. It can be configured with the appropriate parts to be a short jib, 5', 8' or 12' in length. It is light and can be carried easily or broken down to fit in a shoulder bag. With practice and care it can be used very successfully with both small and large cameras. Repair or parts replacements would be a simple affair. If you are in the market for a good quality crane suitable for general commercial work that will last for years and is part of a modular system that can handle a variety of camera types, then the Kessler should definitely be on your shortlist.
Stewart Menelaws (Director of Photography)
You can read some more in-depth reviews on XDCAM products by choosing from the review links below.
"You can also read interviews Stewart has done for "The Producer magazine".