One of the best motivators for building your own moviemaking gear is frustration. You can see the perfect shot in your mind’s eye, but you can’t make it happen because the tools you need are too expensive. Here’s an alternative you may not have considered: Build what you need!
Before you start, decide if making a particular piece of gear is a good use of your time. To do that, determine the actual number of times in a year you will use it. If you need a crane for one day, rent it. If you need a dolly for two days of a three-week shoot, rent it. But if you need to use something for more than three or four days, homemade equipment starts to look pretty attractive.
I’ll focus on three pieces of gear that have served me especially well on all of my projects: a multi-outlet dimmer box, a tracking dolly and a crane. Each one can be built in an afternoon (provided you have a few power tools).
Approximate Cost: $200
I built this tracking dolly about five years ago and it has seen some hard use. I’ve dragged it into the woods, used it in the snow and even used it in reverse to move actors so they look like they’re floating through a scene.
I can’t take credit for the original design of this dolly, which I modified from some simple drawings I found on the Internet. I couldn’t find the exact listing, but you can find a set of similar plans here.
The dolly is built around a very heavy platform made from a double layer of half-inch plywood, glued and screwed together. Don’t cheat on the thickness of this base. You’ll regret it when your 260-pound camera operator jumps on and the platform freezes. The base should measure about four-and-a-half by three feet. It has to hold a tripod, a cameraperson and (often) a monitor. Bigger is better—but keep in mind the weight of the unit. Mine is a beast to carry. (You might try adding some well-placed handles to help when lifting the platform into your vehicle.)
The wheel assembly is the most complex part of the design. It consists of a piece of angle iron with pre-drilled holes that’s available at any hardware store. You can cut the steel with a hacksaw (this takes a while) or a chop saw with an abrasive blade (this is quick, but loud and messy).
Next, attach two inline skate wheels to each side of the iron using a stainless steel bolt and locking nut. In order to keep the wheels from bumping the platform, you need spacers of some sort. I used some brass compression washers I found at my hardware store. Each wheel also needs its own bearing. You can find both the wheels and the bearings at most sporting goods stores that sell skates. I actually found mine on eBay. I paid about $20 for the 12 wheels and $15 or so for the bearings.
Next, attach the four wheel assemblies to the platform with a single heavy-duty carriage bolt and lock washer. Don’t tighten these down all the way. They need to be able to rotate so you can do curved tracking shots. The possible radius of curve will be determined by how close (lengthwise) you place the wheel assemblies. The closer they are placed, the tighter the curve, but this makes for a less stable platform.
Finally, you need to attach a handle in order to push the rig and a platform to hold your monitor. Steel plumbing pipe works perfectly for this. I used 1-1/2 inch threaded pipe. The pipe can be purchased pre-threaded in various lengths. Best of all, it screws into flanges that can be bolted directly to the platform.
When it’s all put together, the dolly will roll on standard 1-1/2 inch PVC pipe. You will note that I painted both the dolly platform and the pipe blue, as it’s much easier to delete them from footage later on if I need to key them out.
Approximate Cost: $100
Professionals rig lighting by running powerful instruments into power packs controlled by a low-voltage dimmer board somewhere off set. But these boards—along with the individual power units—typically start at about $700, which might be more than the entire budget of your film!
Here’s my crude solution: A homemade dimmer box that uses three 600-watt and one 2,000-watt household dimmers. The biggest cost by far is the large dimmer, which runs about $50. Home Depot sells the other dimmers for about $11 each. The four grounded outlets can be bought in a package for about $1 each.
You might notice the tag on the dimmer box that says, “Caution: Transtemporal Warp Core Control Nexus.” I added that scary warning in case somebody decides to use it as a power strip. (It happens on almost every shoot.) When you plug a smoke machine—or worse, a camera—into a dimmer, you run the risk of damaging the camera or burning out the dimmer. Six hundred watts is not a lot of juice in theatrical lighting terms. If you put two 300-watt Fresnel lenses on one of these circuits, they get too hot. I’ve seen them burn out within a few hours.
That’s why the 2,000-watt circuit is critical. On a small shoot, it can run three or four key lights or light your whole bluescreen background. It can also dim a 1,000-watt scoop, which would fry your other circuits.
The wiring scheme I use for the dimmers is straightforward. If you’re nervous about wiring it yourself, just grab any home handyman guide from your library. (Step-by-step wiring instructions for a similar dimmer can be found here.)
I didn’t build a bottom for the box, as it just slows me down when I need to replace a dimmer. You can choose whether to tie all of the dimmers into one heavy-duty plug or split them up based on how many lights you expect to run at once, like I did.
Approximate Cost: $75
When I built this five years ago, some of the inexpensive new rigs hadn’t yet come along. Nowadays, you can easily find a crane for under $1,000 that will outperform my homemade one. Still, you can’t beat the price on this workshop model.
There is one caveat. This crane doesn’t include tilt controls. That means the camera stays level through the entire range of motion. If you want to build a fancier jib arm with tilt control, you can buy plans for $9.99 here .
My friend Richard Chase helped on this project by welding some of the parts together. We assembled it from inexpensive pieces of hollow electrical conduit, along with some scrap metal from a junkyard. The whole arm assembly is about eight feet long and it sits—believe it or not—on an old-fashioned lazy Susan. I bought the lazy Susan online for about $10 and bolted it to a table I found at the dump. To gain mobility, I added four caster wheels to the legs of the table.
I bolted a quick-release camera mount to the metal plate that holds the camera. The counterbalance system consists of a set of plastic barbell weights. I picked those up for $.10 at a yard sale. Try the Salvation Army or Goodwill for a set, and make sure you get two of the pipe clamps that go with them. We had to add a section of solid steel pipe to the back end of the crane to support the weights.
The trick to making the crane deliver smooth, sexy shots is perfect balance. You may have to play with the ideal pivot point for bolting the arms to the triangular center. Once you get it set for a certain camera, mark the clamp locations for easy set up next time. Happy building! MM