This article is a reprint from June 2015 FDTimes issue 70.
It began with an interview I did with Wick Hempleman at the AFC Micro Salon in Paris. Wick is General Manager for J.L. Fisher’s European office. He graduated from Adelphi University on Long Island and has been working in the business since 1980. He worked as a rigger and an electrician in theaters in addition to PA’ing around New York for the early 1980s. He joined NABET as a Grip in 1986 and has remained in IATSE Local 52 since their merger. In 1988 Wick moved to Germany and opened AFT, a Grip equipment rental house in 1990 specializing in camera cranes and remote heads. Several years later, he added J. L. Fisher dollies. One thing led to another, and in 2006 AFT was dissolved and J. L. Fisher GmbH was started.
by Wick Hempleman
Track is a long story. When you go back far enough in history there’s a classic division between European and American track dimensions. Most of the European track was 1¼ inch diameter, most of the American manufactured track was 1½ inch diameter. This worked out fine up until some time after the Second World War because there just wasn’t a lot of transfer of grip equipment from one side of the ocean to the other. Then we really started running into the differences, because if you’re running camera dollies that are manufactured with a wheel to fit on 1¼ inch track that fits snuggly, it can’t fit on the 1½ inch track.
If you have a 1½ inch wheel on 1¼ inch track, it’s sloppy. At some point during the mid ’70s and early ’80s, there was a realization that this really had to be standardized. We’ve all kind of moved to the 1½ inch diameter for the rails. Along with this, we started having all sorts of problems with rails bending, which plainly and simply was a function of moving from simply using dollies to using small manned cranes, to using larger manned cranes, to using very large manned cranes and enormous unmanned cranes. This was the a big change in the industry and I watched it happen in my own rental house. Track is something that for the rental house typically tends to barely pay for itself. Historically, about the time that it’s paid for, it’s generally ruined. In the late ’80s and early ’90s rental houses became very aware of the costs of track. We were throwing away huge amounts of damaged track annually and losing huge amounts of money on this because track was just never amortized in the course of its life.
With steel track, the main problem is bending. A lot of the track manufacturers were making steel rails at that time. When you buy steel, the deciding factor in the price is not the hardness of the steel. Their intention was to buy one set of steel that they could also use to bend to make curves. Obviously if you can bend it on one axis, you can certainly bend it in the other axis. So if you’re bending track to put a 500 kg or 1000 lb dolly and two camera operators or camera operator and a camera assistant and a camera on it, there’s a maximum load the rails can repeatedly handle. That’s quite a different thing from putting a 2000 lb, 1000 kg crane on top of the same rails and then trying to do dynamic moves, which add huge amounts of dynamic force. Unfortunately it’s also difficult to differentiate your “bendable” steel for curves from your “rigid” steel for straight rails, and some manufacturers were destroying the lasts they used to bend curves.
That was followed by a transition to using different materials for making track. There were a couple of different ways to go at this. Basically the classic one was just a tube. The tube doesn’t have much rigidity in and of itself. If we make it more of an oval form or more of a high rectangle with a half round on the top, it suddenly becomes a very rigid piece of material. And the easiest way to do this was with extrusions.
There were attempts made with essentially bolting a C-channel onto a steel tube. There were various welding attempts that just plain didn’t work because they were trying to weld two different materials together and getting all sorts of distortions. A lot of people finally settled on using an aluminum extrusion because this was a simple and easy way to do it. Custom steel extrusion was extraordinarily expensive. And it comes back into the how many yards or how many miles of track you expect to sell in a year versus what it costs a year to do an extrusion. After some fiddling around, extrusions are now made that reflect that same 1 ½” rail diameter I mentioned before.
So this is where aluminum track really started entering into the process. A lot of grips were very happy with this because if you’re carrying eight foot pieces of track, or two and a half meters in Europe, it’s easier to carry eight foot aluminum pieces than eight foot steel pieces.
The main difference now between steel and aluminum is, at the end of the day, weight. And it’s not just at the end of the day. There was also the consideration of what you could load into trucks, because truck weights are very much more closely controlled in Europe. If I could take an additional 10 pieces of track that was aluminum, and carry that for the duration of the shoot, without worrying about having difficulties of an overloaded truck or having to make some other sacrifice somewhere else—that was a big consideration.
A secondary problem depending on the style of the manufacturer is the connectors from one section to the next. Sometimes these can be switched out and replaced with other ones. Sometimes they can be re-milled.
There’s a whole series of issues of whether it’s a built-in connector or whether it’s a pressed-in connector or a screwed-in connector or whether the connections are worked into the design of the track in the first place. But when you get back to steel and aluminum, let’s say from the grips point of view, there are two things. The first plain and simple is the weight of the track: in the truck and on your shoulder carrying it.
The second thing is the softness of the track. This doesn’t have to do with how soft wheels feel and how the lenses are seeing the movement on the track. It has much more to do with how much damage the track can take because obviously track gets carried around, thrown on the ground, picked up, dropped on trucks, stacked on top of more track. All sorts of things happen to it. And with the steel being steel, basically it just doesn’t get damaged as much.
There’s very little bending that happens nowadays. There’s very little scratching and that sort of thing. With aluminum, it’s a very sensitive surface. It doesn’t matter how you coat it. It doesn’t matter how you treat it. It doesn’t matter what you do on top of it. If a guy drops a piece of track with the facing edge on a top piece, on a piece of metal, it’s going to be dinged. It’s difficult or impossible to fix. You can file a little bit, but you still have the divot. You can’t really fill it. Whatever you put in is going to flake out. The cost of doing it probably exceeds the replacement cost of the rail. But ultimately if it gets damaged Tuesday morning on the way to setting up the big shot, you’re going to have that damaged piece of track and it’s just not going to be switched out in the course of that day or that week. Maybe at the end of the week. Maybe at the end of the shoot.
Steel just doesn’t get damaged as easily as other materials. It can take a lot of abuse. Also, steel bends when aluminum breaks. The fundamental difference in the two materials is that steel, when it’s put under an overload, will bend. Aluminum will hold until it breaks. When you do bend aluminum, at first it’s going to bend in a hard V and then it’ll just plain snap.
It’s sort of like carbon fiber in that way. When it fails, it fails catastrophically. That’s the term the engineers use, which doesn’t let you sleep better at night. So even with a damaged piece of steel, I can still work. Worse comes to worst, I can take a file and clean up the ding or the burring on it. I can use a file and clean a burring on the connections at the ends. If there’s a horrible ding in the middle, which again rarely happens from the nature of the material, I can hit that with a file and it still works okay. With aluminum, I just can’t do as much.
But the upside with the high profile aluminum extrusion is that the high wall profiles are very stable. They can carry a much higher load of weight for a much lighter piece of material.
So if you’re carrying 300 feet or 100 meters of track into a location for a long move, aluminum’s going to be a much easier way to go with it. The grips just have to know to take care of it. In Europe, most of the rental houses are providing plastic covers for their aluminum track. Like a slit-open piece of P.V.C. tubing to protect the top of the running surface. It’s wrap-around because it’s not just the top, but really all the way around 180 degrees or more that’s used as a running surface.
When I started working in Germany, all the track was fixed. It wasn’t folding track. It didn’t scissor at all to fold. It was all bolted shut and this was from the original Elemack design, which had screw-together ties. That’s pretty much over now. Some track manufacturers, especially in the European market, will offer you the option of scissoring or fixed track. There are extraordinary long and convoluted philosophical arguments in favor of fixed frame track. I don’t happen to agree with them. Scissor track is just fine. Based on the laws of gravity as we understand them, it’s giving you a good, solid connection on everything.
My personal experience with track was at my own rental house, AFT in Cologne and Munich. That was before I started working for Fisher. I was literally having nightmares about track. Which indicated to me, first, that I really needed to get away from the office more. But it also indicated that I was having enormous problems with the cost of track. Most of this was because we were having a problem with close to 30 percent of our track having to be replaced annually because it was bent or damaged. These were the steel rails. I looked into aluminum rails, I looked into different extrusions and this was while the transition was going on within the European industry about different types of track.
This was also going on in America. Ultimately the company that I was mainly dealing with for track let me know that they had changed to a much harder steel. This caused my track expenditures to drop back to nearly nothing in terms of replacement. Track support equipment is very much a razors or razor blades kind of thing. As a rental house, you’re probably going to make a lot of money on the wedges and maybe on the tracks.
About packing, when you get an owner/operator/grip rental house, he may add things, like some carpet or something to put in between the rails of track. These become time factors. If you’re getting into a larger operation where the grips are coming in as freelancers, they’re not going to worry about taking care of the rental house company’s equipment as much as one might think if they owned it. The classic tagline is “Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental.” You’ve heard that before.
Fisher manufactures our own track. It’s only available as rental or lease. It’s steel. We build our track to support the weight of the dollies and cranes we build, with the understanding that heavier gear will occasionally be placed on the rails than what we build. Our clips provide a sure and consistent connection on two points at every joint.
Our biggest change in track in the last 30 years has been going from our square track to round track, which we only started doing within the last 10 years. We also offer a very wide range of curved radius track, from a 10’ diameter circle to a 70’ circle. We’ll have some of these wider curves on display at the Open House. We’re especially proud of the high quality and consistency in the radius of our curves. Like everything we make, there’s an attention to detail and to quality control that makes it a pleasure to represent J. L. Fisher.