Richard Hookings – Polecam diary

I had been working as a freelance cameraman since 1997, it was now the beginning of a new year, 2004, and I was looking at expanding my skills and wanting more creative projects to get my teeth in to. I didn’t really know what exactly I wanted to do until I got a job as second camera operator on a Men and Motors programme in February of that year. The programme was called ‘Top Dog Car’, and ‘Top Dog Bike’; it was a 3 camera shoot, 2 digi betas and a polecam. The digi’s were getting shots of the panel of experts/owners and the presenter and the polecam was getting the cutaway shots and intros.

I had heard of polecam and seen it in its infancy a few years ago but never had the chance to really see it work its magic.

This looked like great fun to use and it achieved so much in so little time that you simply couldn’t get with any other kit – sweeping shots over the car, above the car, inside the car, right in with the engine. I think I had found what I had been searching for. John Gillan was the owner/operator on the first day and he had to face my bombardment of questions about the kit, the operation, the work etc – so thanks John.

Within a week after finishing this job I had arranged a meeting with Mr Polecam, Steffan Hewit, and I had ordered one. I bought all the additional extras with the kit as I thought that any cut backs would be a false economy and I would surely come unstuck at a later point. The extras included SDI output, Zebra, hard flight cases, anamorphic lens etc. I also bought a DSR50 DVCAM recorder which sits at the end of the polecam; even though the polecam can record to any format I thought I would go down the DVCAM route as this is what I was already shooting on with my DSR500.

When you buy the polecam kit you get basic training thrown in which includes setting it up, balancing the rig and flying it. Within two weeks from the order I was ready to collect my kit and have some training.
The most important principle to learn was the balancing and set-up of the rig; if it isn’t balanced and set up correctly the rig can prove difficult to use (just like a Steadicam). After setting it up and breaking it down and balancing the rig a few times in the workshop I was then ready to move onto practicing the basic operational skills. These skills included – keeping the subject in the middle of the frame while flying from left to right, moving towards a subject, up above it, and then down the other side, dropping the camera into a glass etc. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fly the polecam competently straightaway, but if I were to practice these basic skills over and over again everything was sure to fall into place.
The training was now over and the polecam was mine. I walked away from Polecam’s workshop with my new kit packed neatly away in 2 new bags in portabrace blue – this will confirm my wife’s suspicions for sure that I have a bag fetish.

I had one job lined up for my new toy in four weeks so I had that time to practice in the back garden, in the lounge, filming the kids running around etc – it wasn’t ideal but it enabled me to follow some live action. The job I had lined up was a promo for a guy who was starting a corporate entertainment venture and running Scalextric events on a 20’ x 9’ track. I was going to be shooting with the polecam and my DSR500 kit. I had sold him the idea saying that I can do 360 degree spins onto the cars, onto the start line, fly across the cars, fly across the track etc. All these shots sounded great, the only problem was at the time I didn’t even have the polecam, let alone know how to use it.

The garden was my training ground, I measured out the track on the patio and used my kids’ cars as props – Brum, Thomas Tank, Scoop, Muck and Dizzy. The polecam can be used at a minimum of 1.5metres and a maximum length of 6 metres and on the day of the shoot I decided to use 3 of the 5 sections of the pole.

With the tripod mounted on a dolly, this length gave me enough reach to sweep across the entire length of the track with finer adjustments being made with a quick movement of the dolly. The shoot was a success and the client was happy.

Existing clients soon became interested in my pole and over the few weeks that followed I used the polecam on a conference job for Energis, along with my DSR500. They had several circus skills workshops involving stilts, balance beams, juggling, unicycles, and the polecam was ideally suited to get some fantastic overhead shots as well as low angle wide tracking shots. Other jobs included a promo for South Bank University as part of a three camera set-up and an induction video for Cunard onboard the QM2, QE2 and Seabourne Pride; this was in conjunction with my DSR500 again.

These jobs didn’t really give me the opportunity to experiment with the polecam and by the time I’d got comfortable using it again the job was over.

A new job was in the pipeline and I had been given provisional dates for the Athens 2004 Olympics where there would be 6 polecam operators working on various events. Whilst waiting for this job to be confirmed another job then emerged which I was quite excited about and which would really put my polecam skills to the test. In July I was polecam operator on the Dido European Summer tour. Unfortunately this was a job as operator without my kit but was an opportunity not to be missed. The kit I was using was much older than mine and well used. I was using the Toshiba TU48 camera and an older design pole. The libec tripod had a smaller bowl which at times made it feel less stable, and not as fluid as my Vision 100. The pan and tilt on the camera cradle didn’t feel as smooth, the Velcro was peeling off as it only resisted heat up to 40 degrees ( the new Velcro is resistant up to 90 degrees); Velcro by the way is heavily featured on the polecam rig – In-fact if Steffan hadn’t called it polecam it would have been Velcro Cam.

I was familiar with Dido’s music so I knew that most of the moves I would be doing would be slow drifts and that I wouldn’t be doing rapid spinning shots or anything too complicated. This made me feel a bit more at ease as I was still finding my feet with the polecam and this was my first big production.
This tour would be new to me in many ways, not just because I was using the polecam but because I had
never toured before so it was a completely new experience.

This was a great first tour to be on because other than the Montreux Jazz festival all the venues were outside; a town square in Locarno, a town square in Barcelona, a Roman amphitheatre in Nimes, palace gardens in Vienna – it was certainly more appealing than doing an arena tour for 3 _ weeks. We had 16 venues across Europe and once I had flown to the first destination I would be travelling on a tour bus with 15 other guys driving from country to country. There were 2 tour buses for the crew and 2 for the band as well as a tour bus for the support band. Life on board the bus was very cosy, you had a downstairs lounge area and a kitchen and very small toilet and upstairs you had 4 seats at the front of the bus several bunk beds and a rear lounge. There were plenty of dvds to watch, games to play, books to read, beer to drink and enough chocolate to make yourself sick but no-one really enjoyed travelling on the bus for hours and the key was to go to bed as late as you could and sleep your way through the journey for as long as possible. It was a difficult lifestyle for your mind and body to get used to and a lifestyle that I was pleased to have experienced but one which I wouldn’t want to experience too often.

The polecam was one of four cameras that were being fed to two screens either side of the stage and the stage was a different size at each venue. I was using a fixed focus prime wide-angle lens so the varying stage size affected how the shots looked from one show to the next. I was unable to make use of the dolly to change my position due to all the cabling on stage, and besides I was told I had to stay as far back as possible off stage. I was operating at full length (6metres) at every venue; when the stage was slightly smaller this meant that I was able to get the camera right over Dido’s head, centre stage, this was my favoured position, I could then swing out to the audience, and swing back in to get an overhead shot of percussion. If the stage was bigger and the audience was further back, my audience shots were a lot wider and not as effective, as was the shot of Dido. I was always positioned downstage right and percussion was always upstage right so these shots overhead always looked great. As well as swinging the pole and spinning the camera the polecam was also great for low angle still shots of lead guitar and extreme close-ups of percussion. It was effectively doing a multi-camera shoot all by itself, one minute it was the crane doing a sweeping arc, then it was the minicam looking down the end of the guitar, then spinning overhead of percussion, then sat on the keyboard etc. The lens is virtually in focus from 1cm to infinity which helps make these shots simpler and quicker to achieve.

Dido’s routine was more or less the same every night so I would move the pole out of the way in the right places to avoid injuries. When the stage was nearer to the audience or was a lot wider, the movement of Dido and the band became a little more unpredictable as they would be crossing in front of me operating to get closer to the crowd. This meant that I was temporarily stuck in one position because any movement would either knock the artists’ legs with the back end of the pole or their head with the other end. Only once on the tour did I skim the top of Dido’s head, she was very understanding, but it did make me wonder whether my public liability insurance would withstand the consequences of knocking Dido clean off the stage.
There were some big choruses on some of Dido’s tracks and it was a real buzz flying the polecam to the live music. The Dido tour really advanced my confidence and ability with the polecam, and I was now looking forward to using my own new kit in Athens for the Olympics.

After the Dido job I had a two week break and then flew out to Athens a week before the Olympics was due to start. The first stop was the field shop where all the specialist camera equipment was checked in, set-up, repaired, modified etc. I set up my polecam alongside three other polecam guys with their poles; it was like we were preparing for a ‘duel of the poles’, each pole with its own specialist weapon – the standard 4mm prime lens, the submersible camera, the splash bag – it was quite a sight.

The next few days was the set up for my first event which was the cycling road race which I was working on with Steve Pennington, another polecam op. I was working on one of the corners and had to get the cyclists coming up the hill and round the corner. The advantage with the polecam is that I could get some nice high angle shots right above the riders, follow them round, and then move down to a low angle as they came out of the corner and carried on up the hill.

I was operating the camera at its maximum 5 lengths of pole (6 metres) and outputting the signal using a copperhead fibre optics box. As well as this box I also had a CCU remote unit box and a coms box, all of which had to be interfaced with and powered using the polecam rig. The polecam interface unit is very well thought out in this respect and other than having to make up a couple of additional cables, there was no problem in accommodating all these extras. Although all these extras made the rig very power hungry, another feature of the rig is a hot swap switch to enable you to switch from one battery to another without powering down – very handy in a situation like this.

The next outside event was the Cycling time trials and this gave me the opportunity to experiment a bit more with what the polecam could do. I was positioned on the starting ramp of the time trials for both the men and women and was using three lengths of pole. The advantage here was that the 3-chip minicam on the end of the pole with a 4mm prime lens, was small enough to get some real intimate and interesting angles; you could get right down close to the pedal looking up at the cyclist, high angle looking down, over-shoulder pov, profile, big close-ups of hands etc. All this was achieved as either several separate quick shots or in single movements, and you could reposition from one extreme angle to another in seconds.
I was the only British operator on this event, the director was Spanish and spoke very broken unclear English. On top of this I was supplied with a radio that broke up every time the helicopter camera crew flew over and also I had been given no clear brief. I would hear three Spanish voices on the radio and in between that and the intermittent break up I would hear some vague instructions, the worst being “Polecam, play with yourself”. I basically had to wing it and because I also had no tally light, so didn’t know when I was live, I decided to hold the shot if I hadn’t heard my instructions clearly – a flawed system but one which worked.

My final event in Athens was the Triathlon and I would be covering the swimmers from the back of a rib with an RF link back to the OB truck. Communication issues went one step further and didn’t work on the water at all so I just had to assume I was live at all times.

There was a real conflict of interests on this event which were never fully resolved. My brief from the director was to stay with the race leader and get some close overhead shots and because I was using a wide-angle lens this meant that I had to be 6 metres away from the swimmers. The race officials didn’t want the boat closer than 15 metres due to fumes from the boat that could result in a post race dispute. The life guards had their own agenda and were forcing the boat away from the swimmers by cutting in front of us and pushing alongside the boat with their swim boards. The result was that some of the time the shots were nice high angle overhead shots of the race leader and at other times I would be getting wider pack shots.

The cycling time trials and the triathlon were fun events to film, the crowds were a lot bigger and you had a real sense of being part of the Olympics.

With my work now over, a visit to the Athletics stadium was a must and I managed to get a front row seat near the finish line on the night that Kelly Holmes won gold in the 1500m race. With 60,000 spectators in the stadium the atmosphere was electrifying; this was an incredible way to bring my work in Athens to a close and a moment that I will never forget.

My polecam kit was now broken in, my blue bags were dusty and marked and my pole had lost its shine. It had only been six months ago that I bought my polecam, it was a bold and daring decision and at the time I had no guarantees of any work. I had faith in what this product was capable of and I can now say that my extendable pole has most definitely changed my life.

Richard Hookings


Polecam Limited is active globally from its Headquarters base near Bedford, England and is recognised across many different markets to include Broadcast, Extreme Sports, Medical, Military & Security, Industrial & Commercial, Corporate, Natural History and emerging markets for specialist Property, Wedding and Music environments; as the market leader for super lightweight, highly portable camera jib, minicams, lenses and remote control systems.