Many of the vital elements of filmmaking at Pinewood Studios would not be possible without the support of Lee Lifting’s Grove all-terrain cranes. Looking Up goes behind the scenes with one of the UK movie industry’s longest-serving suppliers of lifting services.
Who’s to say mobile cranes have no place in modern film-making? In fact, it was the opportunities presented by the nearby Pinewood Studios that inspired Lee Whitmore to buy his first crane, become a solo operator, and set up Middlesex, UK-based Lee Lifting back in 1981.
The Superman blockbuster became one of his very first contracts, and over 40 years later the film and TV industry is still the major source of revenue for the company and its 37 employees, in addition to the more usual tasks undertaken by most lifting services providers.
“We must have provided support for thousands of productions since then, ranging from the large film franchises like Harry Potter to TV commercials and suspending David Blaine in a glass box above Tower Bridge,” stated Jody Whitmore, director at Lee Lifting. “Think of any film that’s been shot in the UK and there’s a good chance we’ve been involved somehow!”
Two Grove all-terrain cranes — a GMK5150L and GMK3060 — are the current stars of Lee Lifting’s fleet, ensuring productions remain on schedule in a variety of important ways. This begins with the relatively standard lifting tasks involved in set building and support, such as moving shipping containers, set pieces and equipment — all carried out in line with the same regulations used on construction projects.
Once filming begins, the cranes are often used for aerial lighting purposes, including the positioning of sunshades. They are also frequently tasked with performing in-shot prop movements, aerial stunts such as controlled falling and flying, and for high/traveling camera rigging.
The hugely expensive shooting process, particularly on location around city streets and landmarks that have been closed off for a short period, means that delays are rarely tolerated, giving GMK models a huge advantage due to their high reliability and quick and easy setup. Couple them with Lee’s in-house-developed attachments for mounting an assortment of lights, cameras and pulley systems onto its cranes to meet the differing requirements of the various departments with which it collaborates, and the cumulative years of expertise combine to produce a well-oiled operation.
“When Lee first started, the ‘whatever it takes to get the job done’ attitude prevailed — and being a solo operator, he was willing to push the boundaries,” Whitmore added. “The industry connections he made saw him through for many years while expanding both his fleet and number of operators. He gained a lot of unique industry experience that was passed on through the generations to where we are today, doing increasingly complex jobs for bigger and better movie sequences.”
It’s usually the well-known franchise films — with their larger budgets enabling directors to stage ever-more ambitious stunts — that provide the biggest challenges, as well as some of the more memorable moments.
“With Casino Royale, we had to ship our Grove GMK5100 all the way from the UK to the Bahamas, via Jacksonville and Miami before it was put on another boat to Nassau,” Whitmore continued. “One of its first jobs was erecting a tower crane that would play a major role in the opening scene. That meant we had to co-operate closely with the camera and stunts departments, among others, to get those incredible high-level chase scenes that you ultimately see for just a minute or two.”
For the most part, though, Lee Lifting’s cranes are most likely to appear on screen as extras, rather than stars of the show — if they are seen at all. “Aside from being filmed dropping things for adverts, our cranes are mostly used either for setup or are out of shot during filming,” Whitmore concluded. “However, occasionally our bright green cranes can be seen fleetingly as the camera is filming the action — just hopefully not when it’s a period drama! Our name is usually blanked out — but if you recognize our colour, then you’ll know it’s Lee Lifting.”