How to Build the Cheapest (15$) Camera Crane in the World – Tutorial

With a cost of about 15$, this is the cheapest camera crane ever made. Wood, shitty tripod, motel towels - and plenty of duct tape.

With a cost of about 15$, this is the cheapest camera crane ever made. Wood, shitty tripod, motel towels - and plenty of duct tape.

This DIY project was developed in 2010 by Tobias Deml and Hiroki Kamada in a small Motel room in Ludlow, on the border to the Mojave Desert while shooting a fake commercial for the Pontiac Firebird 1992 – you can watch the final Commercials here and here.
Tutorial written by Tobias Deml, Photos by Hiroki Kamada.

See the crane in Action in our fake Pontiac Firebird 1992 Commercial:


The cheapest camera cran in the world - right at the point of invention in a small motel room in Ludlow, Mojave Desert.

The cheapest camera cran in the world - right at the point of invention in a small motel room in Ludlow, Mojave Desert.

Considerations before you start

This self built, Do-it-yourself, worse-than-ultra-cheap-indie camera crane (German: Kamerakran) is relying on a wooden pole – so you have to use a relatively light-weight camera. We used the Canon 7D which weighs 1.5kg (3.3lbs) together with a lens – this weight bent the wooden pole considerably but could be carried without problems.

Materials needed:

  • Time: About 2 hours if you play around, 30 minutes if you know what you are doing. It took me actually longer to write this tutorial than it took us to build the crane…
  • A wooden pole (rectangular profile), approximately 3 meters (9 feet) long and measuring rougly 5cm x 2.5cm (2″ x 1″) in the profile. (All these numbers are just guidelines, buy whatever your hardware store has to offer) – will cost anywhere between 5$ and 10$.
  • A lightweight tripod (you know those things for 15$ on ebay, made in China and out of plastic? Exactly these. You as a filmmaker probably already have one, so it’s free)
  • Duct Tape (the handiest tool on a film set) – between 5$ and 10$
  • A piece of paper – get it from the recycle trash if you don’t posess it
  • Wire or strong string/fishing line, a little longer than the pole
  • A Towel – free if you steal it from the motel like we did
  • Something slightly longer than your lens, e.g. a knife, thick pen, fork etc.) – free, you have that already
  • A little weight (e.g. fist-sized rock, glass cup) – also no cost

Construction

  1. Attach the tripod to the wooden pole. Make sure it lies on the flat side of the pole, sticking out a bit over the pole’s end. Take Duct Tape and wrap it tightly around the pole and tripod, securing the tripod on the pole. Make three separate wraps so that the legs of the tripod are tightly attached to the pole.
  2. Fold the towel a few times until it creates a thick cushion. Wrap it around the bottom of the pole and secure it with duct tape. This will serve you as a soft contact point when you lateron maneuver the camera crane.
  3. Tilt Constraints: Now mount the camera on the tripod, with all rotationary constraints loosened. Lift the tripod together with the pole and observe the behavior of the camera. It will rotate too far down, and also fall too far back. The solution to this is – as usual – duct tape. Put a piece of tape between the extendable neck of the tripod and the handle that you use to swivel the camera around; this will keep the handle flexible but at the same time prevent the camera from tipping forward too far.
    Now tape something (practically anything) onto the top of the tripod legs so when the handle would fall backwards, it is stopped.

    Tilt constraints made out of duct tape prevent the camera from tilting too far forward or backwards

    Tilt constraints made out of duct tape prevent the camera from tilting too far forward or backwards

  4. Connection along the pole: Now that you camera is constrained in both falling forwards and backwards, you want to gain control over its tilt. Take a piece of wire or strong string, cut it a little longer than the crane itself and lay it on the pole.
  5. Holding the camera: For the end at the camera, construct a loop out of duct tape – make it non-sticky by folding it in half– and put it around the neck/ Lens of the camera itself. Attach the loop to the string/wire. The higher this point of attachment lies, the easier it will be later to tilt the camera up and down; the flatter the wire attaches to the camera, the harder it will be.

    A non-sticky Duct Tape Loop on top of the camera makes it possible to tilt the camera by pulling on the attached string/wire.

    A non-sticky Duct Tape Loop on top of the camera makes it possible to tilt the camera by pulling on the attached string/wire.

  6. Fishing Rod principle: Make a few loops in the middle of the pole so the string doesn’t fall off; simply fold a small piece of paper in half (creating a loop with it), put the wire inside the loop, and tape it to the pole. That way the smooth paper lets the tape glide back and forth, while the tape protects the paper from ripping. There should be two or three loops along the pole, leading the wire from the towel end to the camera like on a fishing rod.
  7. Final touch: On the end of the pole that you will be standing at (the towel end), create another non-sticky loop with tape and attach it to the wire. When you now pull on your loop, the camera will tilt up and down. Total Success!

    Left: Closeup of the towel cushion. Right: The duct tape loop that helps to control the camera.

    Left: Closeup of the towel cushion. Right: The duct tape loop that helps to control the camera.

Using the Cheapest Camera Crane of the World as a Drive-By camera on a Pontiac Firebird 1992 in the Mojave Desert.

Using the Cheapest Camera Crane of the World as a drive-by camera on a Pontiac Firebird 1992 in the Mojave Desert.

The final result: A Camera crane that allows remote tilting of the camera, constrains its tilting range and automatically tilts the camera down. And all that for 15$.

The final result: A Camera crane that allows remote tilting of the camera, constrains its tilting range and automatically tilts the camera down. And all that for 15$.

Using the Camera Crane

Now that you builta working crane, it’s time to practice. Get a feeling for how it behaves when you swing it aound, when you move with it, when you put it up high or when you tilt it down low. Before you utilize the crane your ultra-low-budget student film or independent project, a few tips:

  • Find something soft like a pillow or sweater that you can put the camera down on once your arms start feeling weak. You don’t want to trash your camera, so you need a soft pickup/dropoff base.
  • Get a feel for the stability of the pole. Remember, it’s wood, and wood can theoretically break – so be careful.
  • If you don’t have a cable that would connect the camera to a TV screen, try to set up the LCD screen of the camera in a way so you can see what the camera is seeing when it’s “up there”.
  • In cases where there needs to be no tilt change throughout the recording, just put the wire control out of business, fix all rotationary controls and render the camera immovable.

The Real Final Touch

After using the cameracrane for a little, you will notice that when it’s up high enough, the camera will simply lean backwards/downwards and there is no way to push it up. Solve this priblem with the last two items on the inventory list:

  1. Mount the long thing you got parallel to the lens. Probably not ON the lens itself, since you don;t want it to interfere with zoom, frame or focus. Mount it on the body of the camera so it sticks out parallel to the lens.
  2. At the end point of this long thing, mount the weight. The weight should not be in the camera frame but far enough in front of the body so the camera gets pulled downy. Now, when the camera is up high in the air, it will not fall backwards any more.
Finished camera head: The tealight is used as a weight, held by two pencils. Several duct tape parts secure the camera.

Finished camera head: The tea light glass is used as a weight, held by two pencils. Several duct tape parts secure the camera.

For any further questions, please make use of the comments section.

Tobias Deml & Hiroki Kamada, 2010

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.