The crane shot allows the audience to leave a normal point of view, creating a novel perspective that’s inherently cinematic. Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker or intermediate enthusiast, getting comfortable with how to shoot with cranes will only enhance your craft. It’s not complicated and you don’t know need super expensive equipment to do it. So what is a crane shot? And what can you use it for? Let’s jump in.
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Defining the Crane Shot
Crane shot definition and applications
How can you use the crane shot to take your filmmaking to the next level? The operation of the crane isn’t so complicated and it does a lot of the work for you. We're going to get into some practical applications of the crane shot, including examples from Django Unchained and La La Land, but first we need to lay out a quick definition.
CRANE SHOT DEFINITION
What is a crane shot?
A crane shot is taken by a camera mounted on a jib or crane that moves up and down. The terms ‘jib’ and ‘cranes’ are used interchangeably. The main function of a jib is to extend your camera out over a tripod, moving the camera up, down, left, right, or in any of those combinations. Certain jibs can keep the camera level and parallel to the ground no matter how you move them.
A jib sits on a tripod and it can also pan from left to right. The fulcrum or center point of gravity on the jib allows the up and down movement. Every jib has a counter-weight system where a weight is placed on the end of the jib in order to balance its movement. This allows for smoother motion, and less manual input by the camera’s operator. Some larger cranes operate by remote control.
WHY IS A CRANE SHOT USED?
- Sets the scene — establishes geography and the world of the story
- They can end films, shows, or videos with the classic "riding off into the sunset" moment
- They can be used to show large crowds or sets
The crane shot is just one of many types of camera movements in film. Here's a complete breakdown of each type along with their storytelling values and how they have contributed to some iconic moments in cinema history.
You’ll discover that there is affordable equipment on the market that doesn’t demand an exorbitant amount of cash. These inexpensive jibs can create some incredible angles to expand your filmmaking capabilities and add massive production value to your projects.
Watch the video below for some insight into operating a jib.
OK — we know what a jib is and some basic functionality of they work so it's time to get into some practical applications. Like any camera technique, there is a time and place for crane shots. Let's find out what those times and places actually are.
WHY IS A CRANE SHOT USED
What can crane shots do for you?
The crane shot gives you more reach as a filmmaker. Literally. You can try new things and go to new places by exploring your characters and their worlds from a bird’s eye view. Different angles bring innovation to your ideas. What are the various scenarios in which you might use them in your own projects?
Establish Your World with Crane Shots
One way to bring the audience into your world is to show them the geography. Drone shots usually show more massive landscapes just because they can cover more, but crane shots can also show literal geography — are we on a street in New York City, or a farm in Virginia?
These shots mainly show the geography of the characters and their environments. Where are they in relation to the physical worlds they inhabit? Are their surroundings dangerous, safe, uncomfortable? Cranes are often used they help execute your establishing shots.
End Scenes, Films, Shows
Because these shots typically give the audience a higher point of view, they’re useful when ending a film. This height does well during happy endings, showing the happily-ever-after shot, highlighting their new status quo/surroundings.
It can also do the opposite in a scene that has a sad or tragic ending. The crane’s movement and placement of the character in that world can highlight their loneliness or final fate, like in this iconic moment from High Noon when Marshal Kane realizes he'll have to face his enemies alone.
Show Set Size and Expanse of Storyworld
Cranes are a great way to show off your elaborate sets and their ornate set designs. Back in the silent film era, crane shots were used to enhance large sets and massive crowds.
WHAT IS A CRANE SHOT
Learn from crane shot examples
Now that you’re a bit more familiar with how crane shots are commonly used, let’s dive into some examples from cinema.
Musicals love crane shots. Large dance numbers, heavily choreographed and often staged like a play, are captured best by the movement and capabilities of a crane.La La Land director, Damien Chazelle, used a crane in a very classical sense during the opening sequence. It's a showstopper of an opening and the production value that a crane provides — able to capture the location and the Los Angeles vistas — is undeniable. Let’s watch it below to see how he was able to capture dynamic and fluid shots.
Quentin Tarantino uses the crane quite a bit. In Django Unchained, cranes are used in several scenes. In this case, Django has slaughtered many of his enemies but he is now surrounded.
The crane shot, then, serves a dual purpose — to survey the carnage he hath wrought and to communicate visually that he is trapped and outnumbered. In other words, shots like these should be motivated; when they're gratuitous, the audience will know.
Tarantino uses the crane in quite a few of his movies, most notably his recent, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) lives behind the Van Nuys drive-in theatre. If you’ve seen the film, maybe you remember the incredible crane shot sweeping over the entire scene.
Again, crane shots can establish some critical context for each scene, while looking incredibly cinematic. Give them a try in your next project.
Explore different camera movements
We've covered the crane shot but there are many other camera movements to discuss. As you amass your camera movement repertoire, you will be able to amplify your visual storytelling exponentially. You're already on your way but the only question is which camera movement will you dive into next?