Years ago I was doing a crane shot on a big studio movie (one of my first). It involved a couple of stunt drivers screaming around a corner as the camera swung in over the roofs of the cars. It was a fast move, with a big time director and I was a little nervous. The director and DP asked me to get as low to the roof of the car as I safely could. We did a take and I was probably four of five feet over the car. The DP asked me if I could get lower. I looked at my Key Grip. He gave me a half-smile and said, "Scrape the paint." I've been scraping it ever since.
Now first, let's talk about safety. You should never, NEVER do something you think you can't do safely, it doesn't matter who asks you to do it. Remember Twilight Zone-The Movie? Yeah, that's what can happen. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Know what stands to be lost. Is it just a camera and a head, or a life? If my Key Grip hadn't had faith in me, he would have vetoed it immediately (and he has vetoed a few shots since then that I thought I could do). If I thought I couldn't do it with an acceptable amount of risk, I wouldn't have done it. Now before everyone gets all bent out of shape, most of what we do on a film set involves a certain amount of risk. We blow up cars, flip cars toward camera, work with helicopters, mount cranes on camera cars and go careening down the interstate. Most of these things involve a tremendous amount of risk. Here is where knowing your capabilities come in. I knew I could get that camera within a few inches of the roof of that car. As it turned out, I literally scraped the paint. Just grazed it and my key grip, who was backing me up on the arm laughed his ass off. But, I knew I could safely do it. You have to be careful in these situations, though, to have someone up the chain to keep you in check,
Here is where your technique in crane operation comes in. To operate a crane successfully, you have to have a great grasp of spacial relationships. Keep your eyes glued to the lowest point on the head. Know what will happen if something goes wrong or the head actually comes in contact with the object, and know what your first reaction will be, Which way will the arm go? Is anyone else in danger if it gets away from you? What's the worst case scenario? Have a plan in your head.
If you're doing a shot where the only casualty will be the camera and head, and they keep asking you to get closer, then it's on them if it gets damaged. I did a lot of Technocrane work at the end of last year that involved getting the camera in on a car mounted on an autobase. An auto base is a large hydraulically charged pedestal that a car is mounted on. It can turn the car in any direction vertically or horizontally. I had a great time getting within inches of the windshield doing pushes and whips from the driver's side window to the passenger's side. I also knew no one would get hurt and that I had a certain amount of leeway because the DP wanted me to get as close as I could. Afterward, he said I was "crazy." But I knew my limitations and aside from one scrape of the head on the bumper, it all came out fine. You also have to have a great relationship with your pickle operator. It's a circle of trust. I count on him a lot to know where I'm going next and to yank me out of any hairy situations I get into. I've had the same guys from Cinemoves on every movie for years now, and we fall right into it. We've pulled off some freaky shots over the years and I'll always give them credit first for keeping me honest.
I should say here that none of this should be attempted until you have gained a LOT of experience with crane arms, both fixed and extendable, and of course I'm only speaking of remotely operated cameras here. Each arm length and size has it's own mass and weight issues to consider and you have to know what you can and can't do. But, it's one on my favorite jobs to have on a crane arm. It's where we earn our money.
PS- Here is a great short film about the Grip Department by Mark Vargo, ASC. Share it with your friends.