For the past several years I’ve become obsessed with something that I’d never really given much thought.
What is it? The ‘long arm’!
I’ve been working in the film industry in the US since 1989, and here in London since 2006.
One of the first things I noticed when I started working on sets here, is that no one uses long arms when using a ‘C-stand’. When the gaffer gets on the walkie and says “Bring me in a tall C-stand”, 90% of the time the spark brings it in with just a knuckle. Then when the gaffer is setting the flag or net, and the DOP says ” Ok, lower that a little.” The gaffer gets back on his walkie-talkie and says “Bring me in a long arm.” Most DOP’s I work with would sit on the dolly opened mouth watching this event.
Now why do you think they don’t use long arms naturally here? I have a few theories.
They’ll say they don’t use long arms because it adds another joint, and makes it easier for the flag or net to droop. That may have been true all those years ago when grip heads (kunckles) were crappy. You couldn’t get a good hold on Small ‘t-handles’ , and the cork washers used to break apart and supply no grip. Grip heads are so much better now. My favorite is the Matthews Studio Equipmentgrip head. It’s got a big ‘T-handle’ only two holes, and locks so tight that ‘righty-tighty’ hardly matters anymore!
They sometimes say that if you use the arm, it’ll place the grip head to high to use. That’s a bit ridiculous considering the grip head is only 2.5 inches. Add another inch of exposed long arm, and at the most you’ve added 3.5 inches to your stand. If you need to be that much lower, or even lower than that, use the long arm! If you don’t “need” the long arm, DON’T USE IT! But that doesn’t mean you have to take it out and dramatically throw it on the floor muttering about how unsafe they are, while at the same time creating a trip hazard.
They’ll say that it’s dangerous to have the arm sticking out at 90°. It is. So set the flag properly and you won’t have that.
I think the main reason why long arms are not used here all the time is that most of the guys don’t know how to use them properly. The sparks here are amazing technicians. Hell, they’ve trained and been certified for YEARS before even stepping on a film set. But they don’t have the same skills setting flags.
Setting a flag is a bit of a juggling act sometimes. Having all the handles loose so you can set the flag fluidly can sometimes be a complicated thing. Knowing where to place the flag or net to make exactly the cut the DOP is looking for can sometimes be difficult.
I’ve seen a gaffer hold a net precisely where the DOP wanted it. The stud of the net was about 4 inches in and over the top of a piece of furniture that couldn’t be moved. When the C-stand was brought to him, it of course, had no arm. Instead of taking the time to get an arm and making the cut, they just moved the net to the stand. Now I realise that moving a net or flag a few inches wouldn’t make much of a difference in the cut. But I don’t believe that. I believe that EVERY compromise you make in setting a flag or net adds up to dilute the quality of the image.
When people here tell me how great American t.v. shows look, like The Sopranos , I tell them “It’s because they use long arms!”