A Mexican Adventure, Part 2 – The Grua

September 14th, 2016

MexicoThey Said

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If you haven’t read “A Mexican Adventure Part 1,” all you need to know is that back in the 1980s, I had an association with a Mexican production company, run by an American friend that specialized in TV commercials. So did my company here in Hollywood.

Ours was awarded a job by a mid-western ad agency to shoot a series of commercials for KOOL Cigarettes, slated to run in Mexico and Latin America. As a result, I hired my Gringo friend to direct them. But much more on that in the next chapter.

The production would take us to two major locations in Mexico: the waterfalls of Agua Azul, near the Guatemalan boarder. And a dry lakebed near the city of Puebla.

Our Panavision camera under a protective serape while setting up for a shot.
Our Panavision camera under a protective serape while setting up for a shot.

Our plan was to shoot at the dry lake first, then return to Mexico City to regroup and ultimately fly down to Palenque and the waterfalls.

We were going to work with my Gringo friend’s well-seasoned crew from Mexico City, but our cameraman was a talented American with whom we’d both worked before.

The plan was to shoot two commercials at the dry lake. One was to be a group of riders on horseback, galloping across the floor of the lakebed. The second involved similar action, only this time with riders in Jeeps.

To get sufficient coverage, one piece of equipment was an absolute “must have”: a camera crane to film the action as it moved across the dry lake

Here in the U.S. camera cranes are easy to find. Most cities, that support the film industry, have them available, allowing us the luxury to find what we need at a reasonable distance from wherever our location may be.

It could be a large studio crane that never leaves a stage floor, a big mobile crane with large tires for shoots outside like ours, or a camera car mounted crane that can move with or around automobiles, horses, cattle or whatever else the script calls for.

But 200 miles outside of Mexico City, motion picture equipment is not so easy to find, especially something as specialized as a crane.

At this point I have to say a few words in praise of the Mexican film crews that I’ve worked with. It’s always been an awe inspiring experience because what they lack in expensive movie making gear, they more than make up for by their ingenious ability to quickly fabricate the necessary equipment, often on the spot.

We arrived at the dry lake after driving through a rainstorm. Exiting the paved highway, we drove onto a muddy dirt road to reach the lakebed. That’s where we were to rendezvous with the rest of the crew.

Until then, I’d never hear the word, “GRUA”. And at first I didn’t understand what they were referring to. But then I quickly realized that’s what they called their camera crane.

But I still hadn’t seen it. All that was visible was a pickup truck lying on its side in a muddy ditch. But as the crew guys muscled it upright, I began to see a spindly conveyance that was supposed to be our crane.

But this thing looked way too small and flimsy to safely carry a 35m Panavision camera and our full size cameraman. While it was a novel replacement for the large scale, industrial strength camera cranes that we were used to, I was not impressed.

The "Grua". A homemade crane w/a plastic kitchen seat. It arrived in a Chevie pickup.
The “Grua”. A homemade crane w/a plastic kitchen seat. It arrived in a Chevie pickup.

However, as the crew guys got it off the pickup truck and had it sitting upright, on its own, I began to change my mind

Obviously built in someone’s back yard, it was ingeniously done at minimum cost. Made up of welded pieces of small diameter steel tubing, it looked much like the space frame for a racecar under construction. The difference was the addition of a plastic kitchen type seat attached to one end and an open-ended box at the other.

Supporting the frame was a platform mounted on four dual rubber wheels that looked like they may have been salvaged from some other kind of industrial conveyance. On top of the platform was a pedestal on which the tubular frame was mounted. All very simple.

Whoever built the Grua obviously had little money, but made up for it by being incredibly resourceful. The result was an extremely strong but lightweight camera crane that could easily be carried in the bed of a normal pickup truck.

But the next “show me” test came when the crew had to counter balance the Grua – a ritual whereby the cameraman and the camera are mounted on the business end, while a series of graduated, industrial grade, lead weights are placed in the “counter balance bucket” at the other, until the whole thing is in perfect equilibrium.

Mike Murphy, our American DP on the "Grua".
Mike Murphy, our American DP on the “Grua”.

I happened to be standing with the ad agency’s producer at the time, as we both became aware of a real potential problem. There were NO lead weights in site, either on or near the crane, or in the pickup truck. He asked me what I thought they were going to do to solve it. But I hadn’t a clue.

All I could muster was a flippant reply. Only half joking, I said, “Maybe they’ll use graduated Mexicans!” Ha ha!

For additional weight, add a kid.
For additional weight, add a kid.

Then much to our surprise, the grips picked up a local youth, placed him in the bucket and began adding pieces broken billet concrete until the Grua was perfectly balanced.

That quickly shut me up. I should have known better!

Next, look for Part 3 – The Whole Back Story…and more!

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