The challenges and costs of a Russian Arm System that gets attached to vehicles during a shoot are well known and documented. The amount of options filmmakers at all levels have when it comes to capturing these kind of shots are fairly limited, which is why MotoCrane LLC has created a product that is both stable at 80mph and engineered to handle worst-case conditions.
Zachary Nelson is the CEO of MotoCrane, a company that’s working to change the game when it comes to safely and cost effectively capturing the speed and energy of a shot from a moving vehicle. Their product that was created from Nelson’s own experience and needs as a filmmaker, and he’s working with DP’s, grips and operators to make it a reality. The team has spent a lot of time making this system much more affordable than a $400,000 Russian Arm. Pre-order details were just released, and the MotoCrane Launch Package will be available for pre-order on February 8th.
It’s one thing to talk about durability and reliability for this kind of product, which is why we wanted to explore the critical details around issues like vehicle guidelines, latency, insurance and plenty more that are of critical importance to production professionals. Nelson answered all of the questions we threw out to him in the interview below.
ProVideo Coalition: What can you tell us about the genesis of your product and company? You mentioned you were drawn to the speed and energy from footage grabbed via a car, but ultimately, is this product meant to create or enable opportunities for filmmakers?
Zachary Nelson: From the beginning, MotoCrane has been about removing limitations for filmmakers. It started with my experience in film school, where I had big ideas and almost no money to realize them. One of my very first projects was a short documentary about a local car club and I wanted to do all of these unbelievable choreographed moves with the cars in motion. After storyboarding a bunch of sequences, I started to research what gear was available for shooting from a car. There was nothing. I talked with rental houses here in Minneapolis, my professors and experienced DP’s. They all said the same thing- “You’re either hanging out a trunk, a minivan door, or sitting in the bed of a pickup truck.” I was really disappointed, and continued to struggle with that limitation after I graduated and started my production company in 2010. Scott and I have been best friends since we were 16, and when he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering we started talking about doing a project together. I had told him about my issues in film school with shooting from a car, and that’s when the napkin sketches of MotoCrane started.
As filmmakers and visual artists, we tell stories of all different shapes and sizes. Sometimes we have big budgets. Other times we don’t. It’s our job to succeed as storytellers in a variety conditions, and we need to have tools that are as versatile as we are. I couldn’t stand by knowing that there was this enormous group of talented people who had no solution for shooting from a vehicle safely, affordably, and without sacrificing their artistic intention.
Was ease-of-use the top concern in terms of the design of the MotoCrane? What other specific considerations went into the design of the product?
We started MotoCrane with a blank sheet of paper, and very high expectations. Our first few months, we just interviewed a ton of DP’s, Grips, and Ops to try and understand what people expect from gear they love. It gave us a lot of insights into how we needed to manage the design, and ease-of-use was something we talked about repeatedly. Our three main considerations have always been safety, versatility, and affordability. When I say versatile, I mean the ability to perform exceptionally in a variety of situations. If MotoCrane was to be successful, it would need to satisfy all three. Russian Arms are safe and versatile, but they are not affordable. Hanging out of a car is affordable and somewhat versatile, but it’s not at all safe. Since 2013, we have completely re-designed MotoCrane 5 times. Each time, our team focused on a specific challenge, like system weight. Between designs 3 and 4 MotoCrane went from weighing 375 lbs to just 95 lbs. We’ve approached every design decision with brutal attention to detail, and you feel it each time you interact with MotoCrane.
A typical arm rig sees one person operating the camera and another operating the arm, as the camera operator can’t focus on where the arm is in relation to everything else while operating. Does your system function this way as well?
Yes, MotoCrane supports single and dual operator modes. As the system becomes more sophisticated, it’s likely that there will be many more methods for controlling the system based on user preference.
How fast will the arm move? A Russian arm has so much torque that if you lock down the arm the vehicle will spin under it. Presumably your arm moves much more slowly.
Nearly every piece of MotoCrane is over-engineered, but one component that stands out in particular is our swing motor. This is the bit that swings the ARMA Boom around the car. With an integrated brake and gearbox, it is a beast. In fact, it will swing the arm around the car faster than the Russian Arm 5 (There’s takes 4.5 sec, and ours takes less than 4). Of course, you have to remember that our system is vastly less massive than a Russian Arm, and requires much less power to achieve the same rotational speeds.
Are there any plans to offer driving tips or driving instruction for the operator of the vehicle the Motocrane is attached to?
Right now we are working to establish our global network of dealers, and around the time of shipping we hope to be launching a MotoCrane Academy program where users can learn about how to best use MotoCrane. Our iOS app also features a host of tutorial content like setup and pro tips for driving. However, it’s important to highlight that MotoCrane is designed to be minimally invasive to all aspects of driving. If someone is an attentive and safe driver, I would feel completely comfortable putting them behind the wheel of a MotoCrane-equipped car without giving them hours of detailed instruction, and I have. There are rooftop cargo boxes that carry more weight, and fasten with less rigidity than MotoCrane. The role of the driver is to be safe, observe the law, and to coordinate with the operator to achieve the shot.
Will there be guidelines for the types of vehicles the Motocrane should attach to? Or will it be physically impossible to attach it to some?
The two main guidelines are no glass roofs, and no soft tops. The roof must be glossy and cannot have any ridges that would prohibit the 6″ suction cup from being firmly secured. The ATLIS Base has a minimum mounting dimension of 2.5′ square and a maximum of 4′ square, and conforms to different roof shapes (bulbous and flat). At each of the 4 suction cups, a strap runs from the roof down to the fender of the vehicle, while another runs through the cabin of the vehicle and attaches to the adjacent cup. This system gives you a total of 12 points of contact with the vehicle for maximum redundancy safely and evenly distributed load. (?)
How does the Motocrane affect the balance of the vehicle it is attached to? You’ve got much less of a rollover chance with something like this attached to an Audi S4 vs a top heavy vehicle like a Toyota RAV4 but I could see customers attaching it to both.
Because the system weight is so low (95-170lbs), MotoCrane does not notably affect the performance characteristics or balance of the vehicles we’ve mounted to. To use your Toyota RAV4 example, a Thule Roof Rack for that vehicle is rated to 165lbs. Despite the higher center of gravity of SUVs or trucks, these vehicles are built to withstand this kind of load. Also, because MotoCrane is counterbalanced for wind and weight, the load of the system is distributed evenly in all positions so it doesn’t pull or lean to any side. Although it is minor, MotoCrane does affect the weight distribution of the vehicle and it is the operating crew’s responsibility to drive safely at all times. The driver shouldn’t push the car, the rig, or film set beyond what they are comfortable with.
Are you going to include instructions on how to operate both the arm and the vehicle safely? This rig seems like a great idea until you consider that the weakest link is the driver’s skill and ability to focus attention in multiple places simultaneously. How will you address that?
As with any new piece of gear, there is a learning curve. Because it is so compact, MotoCrane is a very manageable system to learn for operators and drivers. It’s actually pretty tough to get into unsafe positions with our standard boom length. We’ve had new users getting world-class footage on the road in as little as 10 minutes of training and practice. Our iOS app has a section called “Pro Tips,” which acts as a virtual guide for learning about the system and safe operation. In addition, the Limits section of the app let’s users define the safe range of operation that they’d like to work within. These limits can be applied to every single axis of MotoCrane so there is no accidental swinging into the host car or the target car. Again, the role of the driver is to be safe, observe the law, and to coordinate with the operator to achieve the shot. The operator needs to be aware of where the vehicle is, where the arm is, and define safe limits for operation based on the conditions. We have made the experience intuitive enough that a team of professionals can get started very easily. With limits in place, the operator can’t feasibly damage anything. This provides a lot of peace of mind for first-time users.
How is the monitoring zero latency? Is it a hard wired monitor?
Our wireless video transmission latency is less than 1ms, and is essentially zero.
Does the controller work through the IOS app, or is the IOS app an alternate means of control?
The Gamevice controller communicates through the iPad to control the system via Bluetooth. The iPad is also used to configure the entire system including stabilization tuning for the ACRO Head.
Any plans to add more lens controls? Two is typically the minimum.
The ACRO Head has two built-in lens control drivers. A single motor is included, and an additional motor is available as an upgrade.
Has it been tested off road, and how does it perform when jouncing around on dirt roads or open fields?
We’ve optimized MotoCrane for street use. The built-in vibration isolator on the ARMA Boom and stabilization of the ACRO Head both do a stellar job on a lot of roads. Because MotoCrane is modular, we anticipate addressing off-road applications with separate modules that are better suited for the large bumps and bounces of trails and uneven terrain.
Has it been tested in a crash or emergency stop? What does the crane assembly do when the car hits something solid? Does the arm mount have any “weak points” that will allow it to detach from the car more easily without damaging the car in the event of an accident?
MotoCrane is rated to 1g of lateral and longitudinal acceleration, which is roughly consistent with the deceleration force experienced in most panic stops. As a part of our continued R&D, we will be doing crash tests to better understand how MotoCrane handles worst-case scenarios.
If the car is in an accident, then it is already damaged! MotoCrane is designed to never disconnect from a car unintentionally. Our designed is over-engineered everywhere and doesn’t have any pre-planned weak points.
What dollar amount of liability insurance will operators and renters need to carry, and what is the legality of driving around with the product on public roads? Anything you can tell us about your approach to a lawsuit that stem from someone getting injured or causing serious property damage as a result of attempting to get a dangerous shot with the Motocrane?
An insurance broker would be able to provide a more insightful answer, depending on the users’ location and specific case. There are many variables that factor into a required insurance policy like the size of the crew, union vs. non-union, the equipment, number of cars involved, etc. Owner/operators and production companies should contact their insurance representative about equipment coverage as well as liability insurance for their use.
With MotoCrane positioned over the front or rear of the car, it is street legal in the US. Depending on your local laws, it can be legal while swung out various distances to the left and right side as well. In the many months of road testing and many hours driving on streets, highways, and freeways we have never been stopped by law enforcement. We are looking forward to our first traffic stop.
What type of production do you feel will be able to take best advantage of the product’s capabilities?
There are so many great applications for MotoCrane. The easy answer is car commercials. But when you think more creatively, and you look at the messages we’ve received from DP’s around the world, the possibilities are inspiring. Bicycles, Motorcycles, Documentary, Skateboard flicks, Extreme Sports, Indie films, Tourism promotions, Automotive TV shows, Dealership ads, Music videos, Web series etc. The idea is that if your project needs to use a vehicle as the source of movement to get your ideal shot, you no longer need to spend $20,000/day. We’re most excited to get it into the hands of filmmakers worldwide and see what they make.
What would you tell a producer who has the creative need for this type of product, but isn’t sure whether or not they should make the commitment to utilizing the MotoCrane for it?
I would tell them that once they use it, they’ll probably never want to use a Russian Arm or hang people out a van door again. Producers that we’ve spoken to hate the idea of spending that amount of money for Russian arms, and being at the mercy of their terms and availability. MotoCrane is so easy to plan for and wildly more efficient than stationary mounts. You can shoot a lot more, for a lot less. With MotoCrane, you don’t have to choose between safety, versatility, and affordability- you get it all. The landscape of filmmaking has changed drastically in the last 10 years, and it’s time for automotive cinematography to change with it. As Red has done with digital cinema, GoPro with Action cameras, and DJI with drones, MotoCrane is the pioneer of this final frontier.