Eric Kessler started Kessler Crane 7 years ago after a friend asked him to build a crane. He already had a machine shop, the result of a previous business manufacturing paintball accessories, and his one-off venture turned into a full-time business selling cranes online through eBay, craigslist, and eventually through the website www.kesslercrane.com. You may have heard about Kessler cranes from online forums-that's how I did-as it's the darling of several forums, which Eric still monitors as he's constantly improving his products. While still a relatively small company, Kessler Crane has been steadily improving on its original 8' crane with constant upgrades in materials, design, and especially add-on accessories, all manufactured by Kessler, which (unlike the add-ons offered by some competitors) means they're built to be used on a crane.
Cranes have always been a favorite tool of mine to raise the production value of my work and to differentiate myself from the competition. They're used all the time in the movie industry, and the multiaxis and floating motion that a crane allows can create some really dramatic and beautiful shots. I should know; I attribute much of my 2008 WEVA Creative Excellence Award to the beautiful crane shots I was able to incorporate in a traditional dance recital performance to take it to a completely new level. (See the CEA winner below.)
Essence of Dance - "The Moment I Said It" from Shawn Lam on Vimeo.
The Lighter Side
For this review I decided to compare the new KC-Lite model and the flagship KC-8 model. I took possession of the KC-Lite model first, as I thought it was more fair to test it on its own merits before comparing it to the full version. Table 1 shows a breakdown of the differences between the KC-8 and KC-Lite models.
Tripod & Dolly
|KC-Lite 8.0||Single||17 lbs.||1.5 cubic feet||$349.95||$499.95||10 lbs.|
|KC-8 Basic||Double||23 lbs.||3.76 cubic feet||$499.95||$1,199.95||25 lbs|
Cranes are big. Both models extend 8' when assembled and split into two equal 4' sections. The KC-8 weighs 23 lbs., while the KC-Lite is 25% lighter at 17 lbs. and, in its case, takes up 60% less volume. Instead of having the KC-Lite (below) shipped to my office in Vancouver, British Columbia, I had it shipped directly to Valencia, Calif., the first location in a multilocation shoot. The plan was that I would fetch it at my hotel hours before my shoot, giving me ample time to practice with it. From there I would fly with it the next morning to my second location in Denver before shipping it by courier to Orlando, Fla., to use 2 days later on the EventDV-TV series, The WEVA Show with Shawn Lam.
Unfortunately, my flight out of Vancouver was delayed, and I missed my connecting flight in San Francisco to Burbank, Calif. So my client and I flew to LAX instead, waited a few hours for our luggage (which was still tagged for Burbank) to be found, and drove the rest of the way to Valencia. Instead of having a few hours to test the KC-Lite before the shoot, I only had 10 minutes in my hotel room before we rushed to Wal-mart to pick up the 20 lbs. of counterweight that were required to balance my Sony HVR-Z7U.
Despite having limited testing time, I was able to slide into my shoot with the KC-Lite and perform like I was a seasoned crane operator (see my first KC-Lite-assisted project, a promo spot for NICK-N-WILLYS Pizza, below). This is a testament to how easy the KC-Lite is to assemble and to operate.
NICK-N-WILLYS Pizza - Franchise Recruitment Video HD version from Shawn Lam on Vimeo.
I've used several crane models over the years in a variety of shoots, and what all of them had in common was that they all used cables to control the tilt of the camera on the end of the crane. This setup always took additional time and a helper, as there were more parts involved and the assembly was more finicky. The KC-Lite departs from this traditional design. The tilt is controlled using the panhandle on your tripod, a motion that requires no learning curve since it is the same as what any camera operator normally does with his or her camera on a tripod.
What makes the KC-Lite so easy to assemble is that there aren't a ton of parts, and the assembly is toolless. Two single-rail crane sections get connected with two connecting couplers that are screwed on with threaded knobs. The crane mounts straight onto a tripod head using a tripod plate-I used a supplied Davis & Sanford 7518B tripod and FM18 head-and the counterweights then slide on the weight bar and are secured with a toolless quick-collar.
The really nice thing about the KC-Lite design is that you don't need to maintain a bag of parts, as the knobs go back on the two couplers, and everything else (other than the weights) is still attached to the two crane sections. I truly appreciate the simplicity of having to inventory only four parts, as earlier this year I rented a crane only to discover on-location that there were missing parts. This would not have happened with the KC-Lite.
Operating the KC-Lite crane came very naturally to me. You can crane up, down, left, and right, articulating around the tripod head by moving the crane with your left hand. The tilt on the camera is controlled by your right hand on the tripod pan handle, and this motion is independent from the crane action, which is significant—more on that later.
The camera's tilt can also be locked to a fixed angle or set to autolevel mode by locking or releasing the linked tilt on the tripod head. Being a single-rail design, the crane is more prone to side-to-side sway, but I found it most prevalent when I was holding or preparing for a shot rather than when the crane was actually in motion. As a result, it was not as big of an issue as I thought it would be. I was also fortunate that there was no wind when I was taking my outdoor shots, as wind has potential to add additional sway.
Even with the 17 lb. KC-Lite model, equipped with counterweights, crane, and camera, the tripod was supporting 45 lbs., and I found that I needed dolly wheels in order to move the crane anywhere on my own, even for minor adjustments. Although my review model didn't include a dolly, at the time of this writing, Kessler was running a promotion that included a Davis & Sanford W3 Dolly with its KC-Lite 8.0 Complete system. Check www.kesslercrane.com for current pricing and promotion details.
My only knock against the KC-Lite kit is that in my tests the D&S tripod didn't perform well under weight. The FM18 was up to the task, but the quick-release clamps on the dual-stage tripod legs (below) did slip when the crane was rolled on uneven ground, such as the slightly raised threshold between the trade-show floor and the carpeted hall at a convention center. I tried tightening the clamps. This helped, but past experience with similar quick-release tripod clamps tells me that they'll just work themselves loose, and I much prefer tripods that use more secure flip levers or rotary clamps.
Fortunately, one of the best features of the KC-Lite is that it can be used with most prosumer-grade fluid-head tripods, so event videographers may not even need to purchase dedicated tripods for their cranes. I still prefer to dedicate a tripod for my crane and plan on matching the FM18 head with a new set of tripod legs that are better suited for the weight of a crane.
So the only thing that is missing from the KC-Lite is an LCD monitor mount and a pan control for the head. I plan on solving this by attaching my Sony 8" portable DVD player with video input that I use as a monitor with a combination of a superclamp and some Velcro, and by installing the Bescor MP-101 Motorized Pan Head that I picked up at WEVA Expo 2008, which has been sitting in a box waiting for an application.
How Does the KC-8 Compare?
The KC-8 Ultra Plus kit is a heavier dual-rail design that is overbuilt for an 8' crane so as to be upgradeable to 18' with add-on extensions and to support an operator seat and push/pull handle for use on a track dolly. To operate it as a simple 8' crane requires a different stance.
Whereas on the KC-Lite (below, left) you can stand to the right of the single rail and still control the pan handle, on the KC-8 (below, right) the pan handle is surrounded by the dual-rail frame, and the camera tilt control is replaced by a tilt control lever with a handle.
Unfortunately, the tilt lever is mounted on the crane itself, so tilting while craning up or down is much more difficult than on the KC-Lite, where the pan handle motion is independent from the motion of the crane. What happens with a linked tilt control rod is that as the crane moves, so does the handle and the corresponding angle at which you need to push or pull. This makes getting smooth tilts when craning much more difficult, much like shooting clay targets is much more difficult than shooting a target at the end of a firing range. Although my heaviest camera is only 7 lbs., I'm told that with heavier shouldermount broadcast cameras, crane operators don't usually manually control the tilt anyway, and they equip their cranes with motorized pan-and-tilt controls. So this issue is really one that affects only event videographers with lighter, camcorder-style video cameras and their video-enabled DSLR cousins.
Camera weight is not the only weight measure to factor in. On my recent travels I was able to pack both the KC-Lite and a tripod in a single box and check them as a single piece of luggage. Although I packed the weights in my suitcase, I actually could have put them in with the crane and still been under the 50 lb. limit for checked baggage. This would not have been possible with the KC-8. Although the crane weighs only 6 lbs. more than its KC-Lite cousin, the big difference is the K-Pod system tripod and the Hercules 2.0 head, which are sturdy enough to handle 500 lbs. and 150 lbs., respectively.
Unfortunately this extra capacity comes at a cost-extra weight. With the supplied caster wheels that screw into the bottom of the K-Pod, the cases, and the 20 lbs. of counterweight, my KC-8 Ultra Plus review unit weighs in at slightly more than 90 lbs. So the KC-8 is great for studio applications, for use with heavier cameras, and to accessorize with dolly track wheels and an operator seat, but it is not my first pick for on-location event shooting.
Make Mine a Lite
In the end, I have to conclude that there's nothing lite about the performance of the KC-Lite. As a simple 8' crane, it even outperforms the more expensive and heavier KC-8 in terms of portability and tilt-control ease of use. With a complete kit costing less than $550, it will pay for itself on your first shoot and is destined to have a positive impact on both the production value you are able to offer and-most importantly-your video business profits.
Shawn Lam (firstname.lastname@example.org) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–9 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award at WEVA Expo 2008 and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award at Video 08.