John Toll: Akela Crane...Uhhh 'Dolly'?

From American Cinematographer, The War Within by Stephen Pizzello (February 1999)

"The Akela was a great asset. One of our biggest challenges was a daytime battle sequence in these grassy hills. The Japanese were in the hills, and the Americans had to go up there, find them, and kill them. To deal with those scenes, we brought in the Akela, which came with two American technicians. The terrain was very uneven; the grass was about waist-high, and underneath it there were a lot of rocks and holes. We spent weeks climbing up and falling down these hills. At times we could use the Steadicam really well out there, but at other times it became impossible because we wanted to see the soldiers actually going up the hills. One of the tougher challenges we faced was preserving the look of this waist-high grass. You couldn't walk through the grass more than a couple of times without leaving these huge paths. It was like working in snow, where you've got to cover your tracks. There's only so much you can do before you destroy the look of the location.

I was contemplating this problem long before we got to the location, because I knew what we were up against with the grass and the steep hills. I began thinking about using the Akela crane, which has an extremely long, 72' arm that would allow us to get the camera into places where we couldn't walk or lay dolly track. The only problem was that I wanted to install the crane on the sides of hills, which involved building some fairly substantial platforms, because the Akela weighs about 6,000 pounds. It worked out fabulously, though. The Akela's arm does have a slight arc, but it's a much more minimal arc than any conventional crane arm. Because of that, we could make shots that had the appearance of a dolly shot. That was the whole reason for bringing in the Akela, and we constantly had it at very low angles; I don't think we used it more than once or twice for a high-angled shot. Our expert technicians, Michael Gough and Mark Willard, kept wanting to show off how high it would go, but I kept hammering them with my mantra: 'It's a dolly, not a crane.' We basically turned our crane technicians into dolly grips, but they did a fantastic job.

There are some great Akela crane shots in the film where we follow the soldiers over really long distances. We did have to train the actors to stay with the crane arm, because it doesn't move in a perfectly straight line. If we were ahead of them, they could just follow the lens, but if we were shooting from behind, we would trace out the arc so the actors could follow it. But using the Akela really allowed us to get down in the grass and get shots that just wouldn't have been possible with a dolly or even a Steadicam because of the uneven terrain."

- John Toll, ASC

1 comment:

  1. why dont you upload few snapshots of the location and outputs? (tutorbala@gmail.com)


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