If you've seen a Jerry Bruckheimer or JJ Abrams film—like, ever—you've witnessed the handiwork of the Russian Arm. You can thank this robotic, gyroscopicallly-stabilized camera crane for filming some of the most famous car chases in the last three decades.
The Russian Arm was developed by Filmotechnic—which was started in 1990 by Academy Awards Winner Anatoliy Kokush—as a robotic mobile camera crane. It's mounted on the roof of a vehicle to film tracking shots—those of moving vehicles from a moving vehicle—at virtually any angle. The Russian Arm keeps the camera steady while travelling at high speeds, across uneven pavement or off-road using a unique spring and strut design that eliminates camera shake and vibration.
Weighing 300kg in total—including 24kg camera and counterweights—the Russian Arm is comprised of an swing arm and a gyro-stabilized head as well as a mounting platform. The arm can swing freely around the perimeter of the vehicle, as low as a one foot from the ground and as high as 14 feet. The arm itself is about 12 feet long, though a 16-foot option is also available. The head can also pan 360 degrees (in six seconds), tilt along a 200 degree axis and roll along a 270 degree axis.
This entire system is most typically mounted onto a modified Mercedes ML55 AMG with setup and installation usually only requiring about two hours. These SUVs are known for their performance and handling, allowing for a top speed of 115 mph with this system strapped to the roof.
The camera crew—a precision driver, an operator to control the crane arm via joystick, and a technician—all ride in the chase car. The filming director communicates with the camera crew using an iCom system, a secure 50w walkie system that prevents other walkies in the area from listening in on the conversation.
On-board, images from the camera are displayed on one of eight monitors—5 for video assist and another 3 "witness" LCD monitors. The video is recorded and played back using the car's NDT 200 DVR and can be wirelessly transmitted over a range of 300 meters back to the base.
As you can see from the video below, the Russian Arm is a fantastically popular piece of equipment. It's been used in fils like Iron Man 2, Mission Impossible 3, The Fast and The Furious, Incredible Hulk, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and by virtually every major automaker. The Russian Arm has even won Academy Awards.
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