Hands Held High

An Update on EXOSKELETONS

by Bryan Cahill

In my dual roles as a height-challenged Boom Operator and Chair of the Injury Prevention Committee at IATSE Local 695, I have spent the last two years testing exoskeletons to determine if they are a viable support system for boom operators in avoiding repetitive injuries due to excessive takes. In my previous articles, I’ve articulated which exoskeletons best fit our needs.

After extensive on-set trials by myself and many other boom operators, I have concluded that exoskeletons are without a doubt, useful when holding a fishpole boom at shoulder level or higher. During testing, I auditioned equipment from three manufacturers: the EksoVest by Ekso Bionics, the ShoulderX by SuitX, and the Airframe by Levitate Technologies. While each unit has unique qualities, the Airframe by Levitate Technologies stands out due to its ease of use, lightweight, and freedom of movement.

Levitate Technologies has also been very responsive to my suggestions and continues to show great interest in entering our market. Based on my feedback, Levitate has been making prototype components exclusively for our industry and continually improving performance of the Airframe.

The Airframe in the last year has been on the set of Schooled with Chris Walmer and Rachel Schroeder, The Goldbergs with Howard Eriksson, American Housewife with Dave Hadder, American Horror Story with Raam Brousard, as well as several other sets. The reviews have all been very positive.

My belief is that within five years, Airframes and/or other exoskeletons are going to be on almost all sets, similar to an Easyrig for the Camera Department. The question is how do we get from where we are now to the Easyrig scenario?

Through the articles I have written for Production Sound & Video, along with my posts on social media, I am getting texts, emails, and phone calls from sound people all over the world asking how they can get their hands on one.


 
So far, I have been unable to help anyone outside of the Los Angeles area.

My goal is to reach a point where exoskeletons are available whenever and wherever boom operators feel they will be beneficial. However, the cost of around five thousand dollars per unit makes buying one a difficult decision, especially for someone who hasn’t experienced the benefits firsthand. If users were able to rent one or even better, get production to rent one, the financial burden would be removed.

Unfortunately, rental units have been unavailable. None of the manufacturers are in the business of renting out their equipment. On top of that, these devices are so new to our industry that none of the local rental houses are carrying them yet. Therefore, I have purchased an Airframe, available for rent, to help bridge this gap and get an exoskeleton into the hands of boom operators.

The next step is convincing line producers to lease a piece of equipment they have never leased before. I’m sure a few years ago, people scoffed at being able to get a production to rent an Easyrig. Now, they are on almost all the sets I visit because it is a SAFETY ISSUE! This is how to pitch exoskeletons to producers.

Extended takes are causing injuries to boom operators and the AMPTP is well aware of this SAFETY ISSUE. Scott Bernard, our Business Rep, is very supportive of the effort to make exoskeletons available on set. Scott has told me that he would be extremely interested to learn if production declines a request for rental of an exoskeleton when presented as a safety device.

When the line producer asks, “Is it really necessary?” present them with a copy of the Safety and Health Awareness sheet available on the Contract Services website at: https://www.csatf.org/extendedsuccessivetakes/ and reply, “absolutely!”

A friend and excellent boom operator recently went on permanent disability at age forty-five. I was out six months last year due to rotator cuff surgery. Most of us know of many similar stories. If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to work due to injury, Local 695 is able to grant disability dues waivers and I encourage you to contact the Local. My concern is and has always been for the individuals who can’t work due to injury, but this SAFETY ISSUE has effects extending beyond just the Sound Department reducing production efficiency en masse.

An experienced boom operator can actually improve production efficiency by anticipating problems and quickly devising solutions before production is even aware of the situation. As a boom operator gains experience, they pay an ever-increasing toll due to the repeated effects of excessive takes leading to a greater chance of injury. Loss of experienced boom operators due to disability is a loss of institutional knowledge.

I might not be as strong now at fifty-seven as I was at twenty-seven, but I am a smarter boom operator with thirty years of experience and still quite capable of filling the needs of any production.

I do not see a future where take length is being limited due to the possibility of injury. That seems to be an intractable position. I can however, foresee a time quite soon when we all have support equipment available to us that will help keep us safe. From a personal standpoint, I cannot wait and when I am booming, I will have an exoskeleton.

If you or your production decide you would like to have an exoskeleton available to you, I will bring it to your set, properly fit you and give you access to a number of online tutorials, a manual, and other information produced by Levitate Technologies. The rental rate for the Airframe is the same as an Easyrig for camera: $125/day, $375/week, or $1125/month. It is a modest but exciting step forward.

Currently, I am testing another exoskeleton, the CDYS, made by Crimson Dynamics in China. It may offer a more affordable alternative. I am also still bringing the loaner given to me by Levitate out to sets for a week at a time. If you want to try one, it is a great way to get a test drive at no cost. So, let me know if you are interested in renting or a free trial or purchasing your own. You can contact me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or through the Local. I’m confident I can put you in contact with the right people.